Hot Spot: Craters of the Moon (on earth)

Where

This lesser-known National Monument and Preserve is located in south central Idaho, right on Highway 20. There’s just about nothing on either side of the park for miles in between Jackson, Wyoming and Boise, Idaho, but it’s well worth the drive if you are in the area. If you are going through Yellowstone, this is a must-see second stop because of the fascinating connection between the two places.

Why

This aptly named place is more than a wonder — it’s quite like stepping onto another planet. Created over a period of about 15,000 years, Craters of the Moon is the remnants of what is called a caldera — a literal “hot spot” of volcanic activity that produced small volcanoes of varying sizes and huge lava flows that covers about 750,000 acres. These volcanoes (called spatter cones and cinder cones) occurred out of deep fissures in the earth’s crust which are known collectively as the Great Rift, located in the Snake River Valley. Over millions of years, these fissures erupted, forming this vast landscape. According to archaeological evidence and oral traditions, the Shoshone people actually witnessed some volcanic activity here over 2,000 years ago. Geologists suggest that it is highly likely that the place will become active again in the future.

Frozen lava flows.  Photo by Kam Abbott courtesy FLICKR CC License

Frozen lava flows. Photo by Kam Abbott courtesy FLICKR CC License


Most of what was to become the state of Idaho in 1890 was located on Shoshone-Bannock territory. It is probable that the first humans to have experience Craters of the Moon are people from this tribe. Archaeologists have found well-worn trails and some stone circles in the area, suggesting that the Shoshone people traveled extensively across this area for migrations, and spent time here, possibly for ceremony.

The next explorers came when the European immigrants were traveling along the Oregon Trail. What was called Gooddale’s Cuttoff, a part of the Oregon Trail, passed right by Craters. It wasn’t until 1920 that a taxidermist in Idaho by the name of Robert Limbert, hiked the entire length of the Great Rift and became an advocate for protecting this extraordinary place. Soon after, most of the area was designated a national monument. About 50 years later, Congress designated it as “wilderness,” one of the first areas to obtain this designation in the National Park system. It wasn’t until 2000 that the rest of the lava flows were contained within the protected area, and in 2002 it officially became a Preserve.

Aerial view of the lava flows at Craters of the Moon Monument. Photo courtesy BCL via FLICKR CC License

Aerial view of the lava flows at Craters of the Moon Monument. Photo courtesy BCL via FLICKR CC License


Within the monument are a variety of spectacles to see. Miles upon miles of lava flows cover the ground in an amazing array of formations. There are “tree molds”, which are the footprints of tree trunks that were incinerated during a lava flow. Cinder cones and spatter cones are found throughout the area. There are also a network of “lava tubes,” lava flows that hardened on the outside while molten lava still flowed within them. This phenomenon leaves long caves which can be explored by headlamp.

The Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is truly unlike almost any place on Earth. It is said to be the nation’s most recent fissure eruption after Hawaii, and so much resembles our moon’s terrain that Apollo astronauts traveled here to learn about volcanic geography. Whether you’re fascinated by earth’s geologic history, or want to explore one of our Earth’s wonders, there is truly something here for everyone to enjoy. With miles upon miles of trails that take you to all of the fascinating formations, a beautiful campground on site, and BLM surrounding you on every side, this place is a wonder to be explored.

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