Craters of the Moon Guide: Central Idaho Volcanoes and Space Research
March 28, 2021
Originally published August 2020; Migrated and revised March 2021
Travel date July 2020
Traveling between Twin Falls and Yellowstone, we decided to take a half-day detour to a lesser known national park site. Craters of the Moon is a great introduction to volcanos and seismic activity. It is unlike any other place we have visited. In this article, we will guide you through a visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.
Why is it named Craters of the Moon?
Craters of the Moon was given the name after many people compared the landscape to the surface of the moon. We were expecting giant craters but didn’t find any during our stop. Instead, we found an abundance of black ripply rocks from ancient lava flow.
Does it have anything to do with Space Research?
The NPS literature tries to make a connection between the park and space exploration. I had trouble making the leap of logic to connect the two in any meaningful way. The closest connection is several NASA astronauts including Alan Shepherd, Edgar Mitchell, Eugene Cernan, and Joe Eagle visited the park while training to visit the moon.
What caused Craters of the Moon?
Over 60 lava flows erupted in central Idaho between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago creating the Craters of the Moon. During this 13,000 years, eight major eruptive periods are known to have contributed to the park’s unique landscape. The lava fields at Craters of the Moon are over 618 square miles.
How often do the eruptions happen?
The average time between eruptions has been 2,000 years. It has been over 2,000 years since the last eruption.
How much time do you need at Craters of the Moon?
We spent the morning exploring the park. Half a day was sufficient time for an overview of Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.
How much does it cost to go to Craters of the Moon?
Craters of the Moon National Monument is a part of the National Park Service. The admission is $20 per vehicle for a seven-day pass. If you plan to visit other National Parks, the America the Beautiful pass is a bargain of $80 per year for unlimited admission to all NPS sites and many other federal recreation sites.
When to visit Craters of the Moon?
Spring, summer, and fall are all good times to visit Craters of the Moon. Due to heavy snowfall, the park roads are not accessible by vehicle in winter months. However, visitors are welcome to snowshoe along the park road during this time.
When we visited in early July, the desert flowers were in bloom. There were many species unique to this area and they made the visit a lot more interesting. I was impressed with their ability to thrive in such an unwelcoming landscape. If flexible, I would recommend letting the desert bloom timing guide your visit to Craters of the Moon. In July, daytime temperatures were warm for long hikes but morning and evening were very comfortable.
Craters of the Moon National Park is relatively small so everything in the park is worth seeing. We didn’t spend a full day but we were able to see the park highlights. Make sure you don’t miss these sights:
The Robert Limbert Visitor Center is located near the entrance to the park and should be your first stop. If feasible, I recommend always going to the Visitor Center upon arrival at any National Park. Rangers are usually available to provide maps and insider information about the park. Oftentimes, they also have educational and informational displays about the geography, wildlife, and history of the park. A stop at the visitor center will help guide your visit to Craters of the Moon.
The Visitor Center also has about a dozen RV sized parking spaces. We disconnected our car and left Pippi in the Visitor Center RV parking lot.
Scenic Loop Drive
The seven-mile Scenic Loop Drive starts at the Visitor Center and has six other stops. If you are in a big rush, you can drive through the park and see the lava flow and desert flowers all from your car window. However to get a better feel for the land, I recommend stopping at all of the stops for a walk. Some stops have hiking trails and some just have short paved paths.
North Crater Flow Trail
The North Crater Flow Trail is being converted to a paved accessible trail and has been closed for construction for more than a year. Check current park conditions to see if the North Crater Flow Trail will be open for your visit.
Guide to the Volcanic Areas in Craters of the Moon
We visited several volcanic areas including Inferno Cone, Spatter and Snow Cone.
Inferno Cone was a steep 0.4-mile walk uphill in black volcanic sand and gravel.
The top of the cone was covered in tiny black volcanic rock that looked like sparkling black pea gravel.
The wind was strong on the top but this vantage point offered great views over the park.
Spatter & Snow Cone
The walk to Spatter Cone and Snow Cone was short and paved. There were a few short steep sections to reach the top of the cones but much easier than Inferno.
Snow Cone was oriented in a direction that actually allowed snow to remain shaded and frozen inside the cone year-round. Spatter Cones looks like a traditional volcano and you can look into the cinder tube from the paved path at the top.
Broken Loop Trail
Broken Top Loop Trail is a 1.8-mile loop that winds around cinder cones and through lava fields.
It gave us a close-up view of the volcanic landscape. I found the lava tubes particularly interesting.
The temperatures were a little warm mid-day so we opted to only walk half of the Broken Loop trail to the Buffalo Caves and then cut the hike short. Check current park conditions to determine if the trail is open.
Devils Orchard Nature Trail
Devils Orchard Nature Trail is a 0.5-mile paved path that meanders through cinder beds. Pieces from the North Craters are scattered around the trail. There are educational interpretative signs along the walk.
Caving is a very popular attraction to Craters of the Moon. The caves were all closed to visitors due to recent seismic activity during our visit. But we were happy to view them from above ground.
Free permits are required to enter any caves and are available at the visitor center. The caves often close after seismic activity to protect visitors from safety hazards. Check current park conditions before your visit to determine if the caves are open.
Summary of Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon was not the most memorable stop of our Texas to Montana road-trip but it was a nice detour to stretch our legs in Central Idaho. Hopefully, this article will guide your visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument.