By Debbie Stone

I’m in an otherworldly place that looks like somewhere the lunar lander would have been roaming around on a research mission. Pitch-black lava fragments are scattered amid a sea of cinders, mini volcanoes rise up from the barren terrain, and dark and forbidding craters combine to create an eerie and starkly beautiful environment. Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is a unique landscape that was shaped during a series of major eruptive periods thousands of years ago. It encompasses over 1,100 square miles, about the size of Rhode Island. There are three lava fields within the monument, offering an impressive array of basaltic lava, tree molds, lava tubes, spatter cones and other features. At the visitor center, you’ll find displays along with a film detailing the geology of the area. It’s a good place to start before heading out on the 7-mile, self-guided Loop Drive. From this road, you’ll have access to trails that offer close up views of the formations. At North Crater Flow, take the short path across one of the most recent lava flows, which occurred about 2,200 years ago. Tiny pieces of obsidian give the lava a purplish tint and some of it looks like gnarly roots. This is called “pahoehoe” lava, which means “ropey” in Hawaiian. There are also large crater wall fragments that were violently torn away when the volcano’s crater ruptured. Devils Orchard is an apt name for the group of cinder cone fragments that stands in a field of cinders like grim reapers. Walk the paved loop trail through the formations and among the trees of the “orchard.” The Inferno Cone Viewpoint sits atop the infamous 6181-foot-tall Inferno Cone. It’s a massive heap of cinders with a distinct flat top. Scramble up the short, but steep trail for a rewarding 360-degree panorama.

Immerse Yourself in a Mystical Lunar Landscape at Craters of the Moon

At Big Craters, descend into the ginormous North Crater bowl and be surrounded by an ocean of textured lava. Just know that what goes down must come back up! Note the Spatter Cones – globules of liquid hot magma that were ejected from the volcano, then cooled and adhered to nearby pieces to form the walls of what is akin to a mini volcano. For a taste of the wilderness area of the park, hike the trail to the Tree Molds. These molds are created when lava quickly moves through a forest, cooling the outside of the trees, while burning them from the inside. A shell in the shape of the tree is all that remains after incineration. While some of the molds can reach several feet high, many are simply stumps or depressions in the ground. The final stop on the Loop Drive is the Cave Area, an impressive collection of lava tubes that became empty once the volcanos ceased eruption. You can explore four of the caves located at this site, as long as you have a permit, which is easily obtained at the visitor center. Dewdrop Cave is the smallest and serves as a warm-up to the others. Indian Cave is the largest and has several massive skylights caused by collapses in the ceiling. As the cave is well-lit, you can fully examine the shapes and colors in the lava walls. A lot of the rocks are covered in gold-colored lichen, making you believe you’ve discovered a long-lost treasure trove. Marvel at the giant basalt boulders littering the floor and realize they once hung on the ceiling of the tube. If you want to exit the cave at the other end of the tunnel, you’ll need to do a bit of scrambling, but this only enhances the Indiana Jones-like experience!

Immerse Yourself in a Mystical Lunar Landscape at Craters of the Moon

For more spelunking, check out Boy Scout Cave, where the entrance is so small you have to crawl inside. But, once you enter, it opens up into a decent size room. This cave is dark and cold, though, because it retains ice year-round. Water drips from the ceiling and forms ice crystals, while clusters of ice sparkle on the ground and walls like rhinestones. Beauty Cave has a wide, yet rocky opening, and is spacious inside. It, too, is cold and icy and the walls are covered with moss and lichen, in primordial fashion. Though the park may seem barren, its lava fields and sagebrush areas surprisingly teem with a diversity of flora and fauna. Vegetation peeks out of little pockets, surviving as a result of physiological adaptations. As for the human angle of Craters of the Moon, the Northern Shoshone are known to have traveled through the area, leaving behind rock structures and strange stone circles. Then came the pioneers and those with gold on the brain, who tried to avoid the lava when possible. Federal geologists were sent out to officially explore the landscape in the early 1900s, leading to President Calvin Coolidge granting the place National Monument status in 1924. Much later, several Apollo astronauts did part of their training here, as they prepared for their moon missions. They spent time on the lava fields and collected rock specimens in this harsh and unforgiving environment.

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