I spent a long weekend with my husband Max in Craters of the Moon National Monument in March. The snow had just melted, and the campground and trails were mostly empty. We had this vast, otherworldly high desert landscape mostly to ourselves. Picking a campsite in a recessed area with plenty of windbreak saved our tent from getting overly brutalized from the high winds that picked up on our second day, although it didn’t stop the inside of our tent from filling up with sand. Note to self: always place a heavy rock on top of each tent stake in the desert, even if it doesn’t seem necessary.
This mysterious land of lava fields and cinder cones was designated as a National Monument in 1924. Just 100 years ago, it was still largely unknown and unexplored by anyone except the Northern Shoshone. The sunsets and sunrises were particularly spectacular. Warm sunlight and cold air. I expected to have company at these beautiful spots, but we were the only ones there each time.
Our hikes took us through volcanic moonscapes, and past enormous craters. When you get off the short road that travels through a small corner of the park, and out onto the trails or into the backcountry, it becomes readily apparent how this wonderland got its name.
I was fascinated by the geology of the area. Lava erupted from this crater thousands of years ago, and the cinders piled up around it as they erupted explosively. There were never any steep mountain style volcanoes here—the eruptions at Craters of the Moon were fissure eruptions, where lava came out of cracks in the ground. Craters of the Moon is located on a weak spot in the earth’s crust called the Great Rift, where there have been eight eruptions in the past 15,000 years. The cinder rocks were formed when gases that were dissolved in the magma came out of solution during an eruption, creating bubbles in the molten rock which were frozen in place when the rock cooled and solidified. Some of the small cinders are light enough to float on water!
Craters of the Moon also includes 43, 243 acres of wilderness. In 1970 Congress recognized the exceptional qualities of the now-protected area by designating it as the first wilderness area in any national park. We hiked some of The Wilderness Trail before being blown about so much by gale-force gusts that we decided to come back and explore the wilderness some more on another, less windy, day. At over 1,100 square miles (more than 750,000 acres), this huge park has plenty of space to explore. It is almost as large as the state of Rhode Island!