Idaho: Craters of the Moon National Monument

Invigorated from our wonderful time in the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks we turned back west, bound for California, eventually. Then general plan for the year was to spend most of the summer in the Pacific Northwest, the late summer and early fall exploring the upper Midwest, and then work our way back to the Pacific Coast and south, all the way into Mexico, before winter.

One of many spectacular and surprisingly varied lava fields at Crater of the Moon.

Our next long-planned for destination would be the Salmon River in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Seeing as how that was more than a six-hour drive ending in the mountains, we looked for a convenient way to break the trip into two legs, and soon found Craters of the Moon National Monument just over the halfway point on our route. As long-time readers know, we often let the locations of national parks guide our itinerary, but have not focused much on the hundreds of other properties managed by the National Park Service, such as national monuments, forests, or historic sites, so the proximity and convenience of Craters of the Moon really worked out for us this trip.

Rose on the dried remnant of a twisted juniper tree.

The park is located just outside of Arco, Idaho, the home of America’s first fully nuclear-powered city electrical grid, as well as our country’s deadliest nuclear accident, when maintenance activity resulted in a meltdown and explosion killing three people in 1961. The investigation provided two theories as to how it happened, 1) an accident due to a sticking control rod or 2) something more nefarious involving a highly distracted, emotionally troubled maintenance member pulling out the control rod too far. So, uh, don’t work on nuclear reactors when in a bad state, ok kids?

Notice how different this lava field look compared to the first picture in this post. All the small, white, almost evenly spaced objects on the field are dwarf buckwheat plants, only a few inches tall and wide, their root structure is about 3′ in diameter, allowing them to dominate moisture up take in their area.

We arrived without reservations to find the park unexpectedly full. One uniformed employee directed us to the visitor center back parking lot, where we set up camp for the evening. A different employee seemed to think this was not at all kosher, but she did not make a fuss about it since we had already been given permission. They do not seem to have a consistently enforced policy on using the parking lot as an overflow, a fact driven home by the other RVs that pulled in for the night behind us.

Once again, notice how different this lava is from the other pictures. This path leads to several excellent examples of lava tube caves.

This first day we did little more than set up camp, explore the exterior of the visitor center and associated gardens, where we learned, among other things, that the visitor center has intentionally eliminated most of their non-native grass once they confirmed it was causing mule deer to risk dangerous encounters with automobiles trying to get to it. Yes, this is an odd little fact that I could not figure out how to seamlessly incorporate into this post, so we will have to live with that awkward segue. We also planned out the next day’s activities, which would start with moving into the first available official RV spot. This we accomplished by late morning the next day, having consulted with the camp volunteer running the check in booth after observing several rigs pull out.

Preparing to enter one of the aforementioned lava tube caves.

The campground is all “first come first serve” dry camping, has a 35′ length limit, and includes an extended loop for smaller rigs that should not be even entered by anything over 30′; one of the sharp turns is quite the tight maneuver for, say, a 35′ class A motorhome (so I hear.) We secured a beautiful and spacious site that would be a nice pull in for a smaller rig but required a bit of maneuvering for Serenity. Sure, we shifted from our free visitor parking lot to this $15 a night unserviced site, but at least we were fully legal, and the views and ambience really were lovey in a stark, millennia’s-old, lava field kind of way.

Our second site at Craters of the Moon. The campground is spacious, well layed out, and tiered such that you can only see part of two other RVs in this wide shot.

Once set up we spent the rest of the day exploring the park via the seven-mile loop road and adjacent off shoots and paths. This really is one of those places that you can see most of in one solid day of exploring. The loop road has seven major pull off areas that give you an excellent idea of the geology, history, and environmental conditions. While the bulk of the property is a rough lava field, or “Holocene basaltic lava field” for you pedants, there are fascinating variations, including a number of cinder cones, splatter cones, and eruptive fissures that make for fun and educational short hikes.

One end of Indian Cave. One of the few caves in the park that is large enough to allow casual exploration without flashlights or hard hats.

Next up: We return to Idaho’s Salmon River.

If you look carefully you can spot the elusive Greater Lava Cat, her camouflage broken only by her pink tracking collar.