Exploring Craters of the Moon

Posted at 7:29 PM, May 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-23 13:31:56-04

2016 marks the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service. Idaho does not have an officially designated National Park, but does have several National Park Service sites, including Craters of the Moon National Monument.

The monument in remote south central Idaho is a volcanic wonderland scarred with vast, ancient lava flows that have been protected for future generations for nearly a century.

In the spring of 1924, then President Calvin Coolidge used the Antiquities Act to create Craters of the Moon National Monument to “preserve the unusual and weird volcanic formations.”

92 years later, Craters of the Moon is as wild and beautiful as it was back in the 1920s.  Today visitors to Craters are first greeted with a variety of education exhibits, films and eager park rangers at the visitor center.

Each year roughly a quarter of a million people visit Craters of the Moon. 

“You're just as likely to run into a school group from Arco as you are a retired couple from Canada or a family from France,” said Superintendent Wade Vagias.

250,000 visitors may seem like a lot of people but it’s a small fraction of what larger, better known national parks receive. For example, Yellowstone gets more than 16 times the amount of visitors as Craters of the Moon.  Vagias calls Craters of the Moon “the best kept secret in the National Park Service.”

Craters of the Moon is a special place to current National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, who served as its superintendent in the early 1990s. It was Jarvis' first superintendency. In an interview with On Your Side, Jarvis spoke fondly of Craters, Arco and the surrounding area.

“We lived in the park and had two young children who went to school in Arco,” said Director Jarvis.  He went on to describe the incredible scenery Craters offers and encourage the people of Idaho to find their park and visit Craters of the Moon.

For those who visit Craters they are surprised by its wonderful geological features, diverse wildlife, spectacular scenery and amazing outdoor recreation opportunities.

Auto-Touring the Park Road
For most visitors to Craters of the Moon, especially those just passing through, driving the seven mile park road is their first activity.  The road circles the north area of the park and provides access to most of the parks hiking trails.  The first stop is just a quarter-mile away from the visitor center where visitors can stretch their legs along the North Crater Flow Trail. This paved quarter mile loop is lined with interpretive signs and is a wonderful place to watch the sunset. Continue driving along the park road to access other hiking trails.

Hiking Craters of the Moon
There are nearly 15 miles of hiking trails in Craters of the Moon National Monument. Most of the shorter trails are paved, but are not considered fully ADA accessible. The Devil’s Orchard Nature Trail is a half-mile loop that is completely ADA accessible. The trail weaves through an area of cinder beds. Hikers can read interpretive signs along the way.  For those looking for a longer hike the Wilderness Trail to Echo Crater may be for you. The eight mile out and back hike explores a remote area of the monument that few visitors ever see.

A highlight for many Craters visitors is exploring the monument’s massive caves.  A free permit is required to hike in any of the front country caves.  The National Park Service requires the permit to help combat the spread of White-nose Syndrome, a deadly bat disease.  You can get the permit at the visitor center information desk.

Backcountry Camping
The best way to get off the beaten path into Crater’s wilderness is to go backcountry camping.  The NPS requires a free permit for all overnight trips into the backcountry.  The permit can be obtained at the monument visitor center.  There are few things to keep in mind about Crater’s backcountry.  There are no trails.  Hiking is tough and can be hazardous for the unprepared. No fires are permitted in the backcountry, however, backpacking stoves are allowed. All wilderness caves are closed to the public.

Front Country Camping 
A short drive from Craters' Visitor Center is the 51 site, first-come first-serve Lave Flow Campground. Camping costs $15 per night during peak season and facilities include water, restrooms, charcoal grills and picnic tables.  There are no RV hookups, showers or dump stations at the campground, but large RV’s and trailers can be accommodated at a few of the campsites.  Wood fires are not permitted in the campground.  During the winter, the campground road is not plowed, but the National Park Service welcomes snowshoers and cross-country skiers.  There are not any hotels or motels located in monument. The nearest lodging, restaurants and other services are located 18 miles east in Arco.

Wildlife Viewing
Despite Craters of the Moon’s harsh landscape many different species of wildlife call the monument home.  Craters has nearly as many mammal species as Yellowstone.  A few often observed by visitors include golden-mantled ground squirrels, chipmunks, yellow-bellied marmots and mule deer.  Crater’s caves provide a year-round home to eleven different species of bats. During the summer months visitors will often see little brown and long-eared bats flying near the campground feeding on gnats and other small insects

Bird Watching
Craters is a wonderful place for bird watching. More than 200 different species of birds have been observed in the monument.  Some year-round residents include ravens, Clark’s nutcrackers and chickadees.  The lava flows provide shelter for not only Idaho’s State Bird, the mountain bluebird but also violet-green swallows and rock wrens.  The monument’s shrub lands are bursting with brewer’s sparrows, sage thrashers and sage grouse.  The woodlands are home to woodpeckers, flycatchers, nuthatches, warblers, finches and more.