Nearly 100 years ago, Robert “Two-gun Bob” Limbert followed the trails of the Shoshone Indians into the heart of Idaho’s Great Rift, a huge volcanic plain that most explorers had avoided. Limbert found a natural geologic and scenic treasure now called Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.
The naturalist, photographer, guide, explorer, performer and Idaho promoter described “a vast expanse, silent, dead, except for an occasional bird, a country with cold volcanic mountains, a riot of color and fantastic shape so unearthly as to make one believe himself on another planet.” After a trip sponsored by the Idaho Statesman in 1921, Limbert published his account and photos in National Geographic magazine.
“I offer this as a plea not only to the people of Idaho, but to the entire nation, that they may have a new national park or monument in many respects the equal and in some easily the peer of many of the 45 now within our boundaries,” Limbert wrote in the Statesman.
In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge designated it a national monument, calling it “Idaho’s National Park.” President Bill Clinton expanded the monument in 2001 after several visits by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
It’s not a national park, though local officials in nearby Arco are pushing for that designation. Eight major eruptive periods between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago created the lava flows that make up Craters of the Moon. The lava rose from the Great Rift, a series of deep cracks stretching 52 miles south from the monument headquarters.
GO TO THE FLOWS
The flows cover 618 square miles, including the smaller Wapi and Kings Bowl lava fields formed 2,000 years ago. In 1969, Apollo astronauts Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Joe Engle and Eugene Cernan visited Craters of the Moon in preparation for their moon voyages.
The enlarged 1,117-square-mile area includes many kipukas (a piece of land that lava flows surround completely) and the remaining portions of the lava flows that had been left out of the initial monument. It includes a large expanse of the sagebrush steppe high desert landscape important for wildlife ranging from sage grouse to pronghorns. The primitive road system in this area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. There are still places where even Limbert never walked that visitors can explore on foot, by car, four-wheel-drive high-clearance vehicle, and mountain bike.
The best time to visit is in May and June when wildflowers such as lupine, syringa, blazingstar and hoary aster are blooming, painting the black lava like natural Picassos. But the main entrance and visitor center, 18 miles west of Arco, are managed by the National Park Service and open all year.
Its 7-mile loop road is the centerpiece each visitor should explore. Start at the visitor center, where a ranger can help you focus your visit, and you can get maps, information and books. Make sure you stop and get fuel and snacks in Arco or Carey because there are no services in the national monument.
The next stop is North Crater Flow with its distinctive monoliths rising from the young lava. Several trails from a quarter-mile to nearly 4 miles offer visitors more chances to explore.
At the Devil’s Orchard, lava towers rise from the cinders with patches of sagebrush at the next stop. Then it’s on to Inferno Cone, a great example of a cinder cone formed by the volcanic eruptions 2,000 years ago. Climb to the top and get a great view of the area, including the next stop, Spatter Cones — miniature volcanoes formed when blobs of lava were hurled into the air during eruptions.
Take the spur road just past Inferno Cone to the Tree Molds Trailhead. This 2-mile trail takes you to one of the weirdest features of the monument: Here, lava flowed through a grove of trees that burned and released steam, prompting a cooling that left impressions of the charred wood on the surface.
The 1.8-mile Broken Top Trail circles a cinder cone, and the Wilderness Trail leads to a grove of upright lava molds of standing trees.
EXPLORE TUBES, KIPUKA
The next stop is the trail to the caves, which are lava tubes that formed during the cooling process, and include Dewdrop, Boy Scout, Beauty and Indian Tunnels. The half-mile hike is a favorite of kids of all ages, who enjoy exploring the dark caverns of weirdness with flashlights.
Note that Indian Tunnel requires a cave permit.
The loop road’s attractions can be seen in a day or a few days, depending on your curiosity. For the day tripper, there is more than enough to keep you busy.
If you are making this a weekend trip, there is a National Park Service Campground in the monument.
I recommend you don’t limit your trip to the loop road. What’s next? One word: Kipuka.
These islands of sagebrush offer a look at the landscape, some that’s still untouched or even visited by humans.
There are 550 known kipukas in Craters, ranging from a tenth of an acre to the largest, the scenic 90,000-acre Laidlaw Park. These were among the features that convinced Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and President Clinton to expand the area in 2001.
In Laidlaw Park, Babbitt laid a map on a rock and worked with several of the area’s ranchers to determine the boundaries that allow grazing to continue in the monument.
Today, this area offers an adventure experience few visitors have discovered.
Get a travel plan map from the visitor center, the BLM in Shoshone, or from visitor centers in Twin Falls or Idaho Falls.
BY MOUNTAIN BIKE
OR 4-WHEEL DRIVE
From the Craters Visitor Center, it’s about 25 miles to the Carey-Kimama-Laidlaw Park Road, where you turn left. At about 2 miles, you come to a kiosk where you turn right. It’s a gravel road so most cars can make it fine into Laidlaw Park across Paddelford and Little Kipukas, about 12 miles from the kiosk.
This is a good place to unload the mountain bikes, with roads that take you to Big Blowout Butte, Snowdrift Crater, or to the trail of Carey Kipuka. This 180-acre kipuka is loaded with 6-foot-high bunchgrasses that scientists say have been unaffected by livestock grazing or its few human visitors.
You need a four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle or mountain bike to reach this wilderness study area via its dirt road. The hike from the road-closed sign is about 1.5 miles.
Visitors can drive the Carey-Kimama Road south to Minidoka and the southern end of the monument or the Arco-Minidoka Road. You should have a four-wheel high-clearance vehicle for both of these roads, though portions are maintained and gravel.
Features include Bear Trap Cave, a large lava tube that’s 150-feet long and perhaps the most interesting, and Kings Bowl, a breathtaking amphitheater-size cave that requires a permit to explore. You need to take the Pleasant Valley Road from the south to reach this area the National Park Service hopes someday to develop for easier access and interpretation.