CRATERS OF THE MOON, IDAHO — In the summer Craters of the Moon National Monument looks similar to the lunar surface, but Ranger Ted Stout says, "It's a whole different experience here in the winter time"
It is the site of very recent volcanic activity in geological terms. Around two thousand years ago molten lava came to the surface when a crack known as the Great Rift opened up.
When snow covers the landscape here, you are no longer confined to the paved paths that meander through the landscape.
"We've got dozens and dozens of volcanoes out here for people to explore," said Stout. "And to learn about those volcanic processes that are occurring even as we speak in Hawaii, very similar types of processes were occurring here only two thousand years ago."
Winter is also a great time to see evidence of the more than 300 animal species that live here. "It's a pretty harsh landscape even in the summer," said Stout. "There's no water, you know, so the stories about how the animals survive out here through those conditions are pretty amazing."
On our tour in mid-December we saw tracks of some of the animals that spend time on top of the snow, but we also learned about the many species that hibernate here.. and we saw the most visible winter residents; Clark's nutcrackers, which are largely responsible for spreading some of the more than four hundred plant species that grow here.
"So they leave these caches behind, and they forget about a few from time to time to time and they sprout and a new cluster of trees will grow," said Stout. "So they help to distribute the trees, and the trees of course feed the birds, so it's a nice little cycle they have."
Since our tour, snow has piled up, making this a perfect time to strap on some snowshoes and explore.
"You can climb volcanoes if you wish, you can follow the loop road to your heart's content, and there's no charge at all this time of year. It's absolutely free. We'll even loan you snowshoes if you want."
But snowshoes aren't the only way to get around at Craters, a trail will be groomed for cross country skiers.
Skiers can use the trail, or make turns on the dozens of volcanic cones found here. Group tours are available every Saturday, and the rangers here take great pleasure in teaching people about the history, geology and wildlife that make this unique place a true Idaho gem.
"It's as much fun for the rangers as it is for the kids," said Stout. "Cause we just love to get out there and show them the park. It's really a beautiful place and you can really appreciate that beauty in the winter time. It's just spectacular."
Operations at the national monument may be interrupted during the federal government shutdown.