West of Arco, dozens of miles of highway pass through an area with a population just slightly greater than the moon. There are mountains to your right, but the road itself is relatively flat and unexciting. During my trip, there was road construction, which gave me the chance to stop in the middle of Hwy. 20/26 for about 15 minutes and further enjoy my surroundings. Even worse, I was just a mile or two from the entrance to Craters of the Moon National Monument. “If that flagger would only turn the sign from ‘stop’ to ‘slow'”, I thought, “I could be walking on the face of the moon right now!” I stared in my rear-view, wondering if the next approaching car would notice that the vehicle in front of him was going zero instead of 70 miles per hour, and respond appropriately. Then, I pulled out the official Craters of the Moon map which I received at a gas station back in Arco, and began to plot my strategy.
The plan didn’t matter. I knew I’d do what I always do, when entering places like this. I’d drive directly to the parking area for the highest, steepest trail in the park, and climb it. About halfway up I’d start thinking about how I should exercise more when I’m at home, so that I’d be better prepared physically for situations like this. Then I’d reach the top, so out of breath that I didn’t really care what the view looked like, and almost immediately head back down. After that, I’d drive by other attractions and decide they weren’t worth the effort, even though they’d require one-tenth the exertion of my first stop.
At any rate, the flagger finally rotated the sign to “slow” and I rolled along. A funny thing about road construction in the west: when they re-pave a road, they remove the old road first, leaving you with miles of dirt to drive across. Here I was on a dirt-surfaced Federal Highway–and not just for a hundred feet, but for several miles the pavement appeared and then disappeared. At the entrance to Craters of the Moon, construction crews had removed the sign, and I almost missed the turn.
After stopping at the visitor’s center, I headed into the loop drive, which circles through a small portion of the very large black lava flow, which covers this part of the Idaho desert. I promptly found the first pull-out that offered a very tall hill to climb, and parked the car.
Inferno Cone stands in the middle of the loop drive. It’s only 2/10 of a mile to the top, which doesn’t sound bad, until you realize you must also gain 164 feet, making it about a 15% grade. Even that doesn’t sound terribly difficult, until you’ve started up the trail, and you realize you’re walking on pea- to grape- sized gravel, which at times gives way under your feet. Oh, and you should also know that as you start up the trail, the ridge you see directly above you is not the top, it’s only about halfway. Once you crest the first ridge you discover there’s still a good distance to go.
At the top, I must admit, the view was quite rewarding. I believe these are the Pioneer Mountains in the distance, and I’m told on a clear day you can also see the Tetons, further to the east.
Surprisingly, there was some (but not a lot) of plant growth at the top of Inferno Cone, including a couple of trees (one alive, the other dead) which I’m sure appear in just about everyone’s photos. Beyond the trees is the immense lava flow zone to the east and south.
Glance to the west, and you can see the next stop on the loop road–the Spatter Cones.
The Spatter Cones are rather cool for several reasons. For one, they don’t require a long walk (very important, after a climb up to the top of Inferno Cone). Another: they will likely have snow inside, no matter what time of year it is.
Granted, it’s not a lot of snow, but my visit was in September, so that little clump of ice only needed to survive a few more weeks, before nature would start adding to it again.
Impressed with the volcanic cones, I decided to check out another feature at Craters of the Moon–the caves and tunnels formed by lava flows. There are several named caves in the same area…
…and many more, smaller ones just off the path, but the one you’ll want to head towards is Indian Tunnel.
Indian Tunnel is the only cave you can safely walk into, and through. After a 1/2 mile walk from the parking lot, you’ll find a staircase leading down into the tunnel. It’s not particularly deep, and there are several cave-ins and windows that allow light in (you’re never completely in the dark, but a few places may be quite dim).
You can walk all the way through the tunnel, and out the other end. But, you should realize that the path is not smooth, and you will be required to climb up and over over a few rocks. This part is not good for young children or older folks — both of which I saw struggling as I passed through.
After passing under several cave-ins, you finally come to the exit. That’s not it in the picture above–the actual exit is very narrow, and requires you bump your head at least once before leaving. Once you’re back on the surface, you have to back-track to the tunnel entrance. The park service describes this trail as “unimproved”, but in reality there’s no trail at all, just jagged rocks and a marker every few hundred feet to prevent you from wandering into the desert. Also, you have to watch for those cave-in areas, to make sure you don’t end up in the tunnel again, accidentally.
There are several more trails at Craters of the Moon, some take you away from the loop road, into the wilderness area. All of it looks pretty much the same to me, so I wouldn’t suggest investing much more time. There’s much more to see on the road ahead — including mountains and trees and maybe even snow — all of which is more pleasing than crumbled lava rock.
Oh, and one more note: I do not think that Craters of the Moon looks anything like the actual moon. To me, it looks like lava. This must not be where they faked the moon landing–if it was, I think we’d be able to tell.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006. Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.