Craters of the Moon – Exploring the Dark Places

I am an equal opportunity hiker. It’s easy to love a trail that winds through a tranquil forest, along a shimmering creek, with picturesque views of mountains every step of the way. And yet, beauty comes in many forms. Trails through strange, stark, dark places call me, too. Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in south central Idaho is just such a place. The preserve includes three lava fields that were formed by volcanic eruptions from the Great Rift of Idaho 15,000 years ago. The aftermath has left a weirdly beautiful landscape with tons of volcanic features to explore.

Why I Love Craters of the Moon

Craters of the Moon
View from North Crater Trail

With every step I took in Craters of the Moon, I was reminded that this place was formed by the violent flow of lava. My imagination took me back to the volcanic activity that formed this region.  I watched liquid fire spreading across the vast expanse of the Snake River Plain. There is no surviving such a destructive force. Standing on the edge of the cold lava field, I felt small, happily so, awed by the force that created such weird beauty.

Plus, the trails were super fun to hike. And I got to go caving in lava tubes!

Craters of the Moon reminded me of another unusual park I’ve explored, Pawnee Buttes National Grassland, with wide open plains punctuated by rugged formations jutting out of the land.

Craters of the Moon Preserve Details

Craters of the Moon Map (from the National Park Service)
Craters of the Moon Map (from the National Park Service)

This 750,000 acre preserve has one paved road, a 7-mile loop that provides access to all of the main sights and trails. The loop takes about half an hour to drive, plus time for stopping at viewpoints and hiking trails. The Craters of the Moon trails lead to the volcanic features of the park including spatter cones, crater flows, lava trees, and caves. Most of the trails are short (less than 2 miles). A couple of trails are around 4 miles. Backpacking and camping is also allowed in the Wilderness area, by permit only.

  • Park Map: National Park Service
  • Average Elevation: 5,900 feet
  • Campgrounds: There is a campground just inside the entrance of the preserve. It is first-come, first-served, no reservations accepted. Instead, I stayed in the Craters of the Moon Arco KOA 19 miles from the preserve. The Arco KOA is clean and comfortable, and has free waffles and coffee every morning!
Arco KOA Craters of the Moon
Post-hike hangout at the beautiful Arco KOA campground
  • No Shade (unless you’re in the lava tubes): There are very few trees in the preserve. Bring plenty of water and a hat.
  • Dogs Allowed? Yes, but only in the campground, parking lots, and paved roads and on leash.
  • Driving Directions to Craters of the Moon: Google Maps
  • Stay On Trails: There used to be many more trails through Craters of the Moon. But this accessibility damaged the preserve’s volcanic features. Now the trail access is greatly reduced. Please stay on the marked trails and don’t go off trail.
Broken Top Loop Trail Craters of the Moon
Stay on the Trail! Broken Top Loop

About the Craters of the Moon Caves

A permit is required to enter the caves in Craters of the Moon. You can get the free permit at the visitor’s center.

Bring a Headlamp or Flashlight: If you plan on visiting the caves (and you really must), bring a headlamp or a flashlight. A headlamp is better because it leaves your hands free for scrambling over lava rocks.

Spatter Cones

Spatter cones Craters of the Moon
Spatter cones are miniature volcanoes

Climb the short trail to the top of a spatter cone (a miniature volcano) to see different examples of lava. Spatter cones form when globs of lava eject from a fissure and pile up on the surface.

A'a lava Craters of the Moon
Thick, chunky a’a lava
Pahoehoe lava Craters of the Moon
Smooth, ropey pahoehoe lava
Snow Cone Craters of the Moon
The steep walls of the Snow Cone protect ice and snow from the summer sun

North Crater Trail

North Crater Trail Craters of the Moon
Traversing crater rims

The North Crater Trail is a 3.6 mile out-and-back through craters and volcanic landscape, moderately difficult. It felt surreal and spectacular to explore lava fields, craters, and cinder cones.

Crater Craters of the Moon
Walking along a crater on North Crater Trail
Lava flow Craters of the Moon
Crossing lava flow
Cinder cone Craters of the Moon
Climbing cinder cones
Craters of the Moon
Hardy beauty

Inferno Cone

Inferno Cone Craters of the Moon
Climb to the top of Inferno Cone for an amazing view

The climb to the top of Inferno Cone is short (0.2 miles) and steep, and well worth the climb! You can see the Great Rift, and Big Cinder Butte to the south.

This Inferno Cone view and hike reminded me of another dome-like feature with a view and hike, Enchanted Rock in south Texas.

Inferno Cone Craters of the Moon
View from the top of Inferno Cone
Tree on top of Inferno Cone Craters of the Moon
Out of nowhere, a tree stands solo on the top of Inferno Cone

Broken Top Loop Trail

Broken Top Loop Trail is 1.8 miles, of moderate difficulty. The trail is self-guided, with signposts along the way pointing out specific landmarks and features. You can access one cave from this trail, Buffalo Cave. A headlamp or flashlight is a must for this lightless cave. Also, the entrance is tight and rocky, with low ceilings.

Big Sink Craters of the Moon
The Big Sink, about three football fields long and 50 feet deep
Big Southern Butte Craters of the Moon
Big Southern Butte
Broken Top Loop Craters of the Moon
Lava beauty on Broken Top Loop
Big Cinder Butte Craters of the Moon
Big Cinder Butte, one of the world’s largest cinder cones
Pressure ridge Craters of the Moon
A pressure ridge
Broken Top Loop Trail Craters of the Moon
Here’s the reason it’s called Broken Top
Buffalo Cave Craters of the Moon
The entrance to Buffalo Cave

Caves Trail

Caves Trail is 1.6 miles long. The trail to the caves is paved and easy. The hike through the caves is rocky and rough. You can access four caves from Caves Trail. I visited two of them. Dew Drop is very small, with a single chamber. Indian Tunnel is the mack daddy of the caves in Craters of the Moon. It’s 800 feet long, gorgeous, and with collapses in the ceiling that provide natural sky lights. Indian Tunnel feels like something out of Lord of the Rings, a hike through Mordor. The caves on Caves Trail, and Buffalo Cave on Broken Top Loop, are lava tube caves.

Dew Drop Cave Craters of the Moon
Dew Drop Cave
Entrance to Indian Tunnel Craters of the Moon
The entrance to Indian Tunnel
Indian Tunnel Craters of the Moon
Exploring the underground beauty of Indian Tunnel
Skylight Indian Tunnel Craters of the Moon
A natural skylight through a collapsed ceiling in Indian Tunnel
Rocky magnificence Indian Tunnel
Rocky magnificence
Me Smiling as I exit Indian Tunnel
The smiling face of a happy caver
Me Leaving Indian Tunnel
Leaving Indian Tunnel

What unusual trails or places have you explored?

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