Craters of the Moon National Monument feels like a world away. It even feels a bit extra terrestrial. So much so, that NASA actually uses Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve to train future astronauts for missions on the moon and mars. So, maybe the name is apropos.
Visiting here was a highlight of my time traveling through Idaho. Hopefully, I can help it be a highlight of your time as well.
About Craters of the Moon NM
Established in 1924, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve protects over 753,000 acres of volcanic area in Idaho. The area covers 3 major lava field areas and 400,000 acres was added in 2,000 to form Craters of the Moon National Preserve (to the over 350,000 acres for the National Monument).
Only a small portion of the park is accessible by road. Much of the park is considered wilderness and some areas of the land under Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administration is accessible by high-clearance 4WD vehicle.
The area was visited by people over several millennia but there is no evidence of more permanent human settlement.
Settlers began passing through parts of present data Craters of the Moon when with concerns from National American attacks they moved their wagons north through some of the lava beds. Although it was a very treacherous and difficult trip.
More popularity for the land increased when Robert Limbert and W.L. Cole explored more of the park through various treks. Limbert photographed much of the region and some of the famous landmarks (giving them their names) through his trip and subsequent trips. Through these photographs and stories (including publication in National Geographic) prompted the designation of the areas as a National Monument in 1924.
Places to Visit
The best way to access the park and the main sights is via the Loop road that travels 7 miles in a one way loop to the various sights along the trail. Just note if you miss a spot you’ll have to go back around to visit it again.
One of the most interesting parts of the park are the lava tubes and “wild caves”. You can explore and wander into the four lava tubes open to the public. Read the Wild Caves section of the guide to understand the restrictions and how to get the permit for accessing these caves.
Created when short spurts of lava were thrown in the air, these very interesting small cones are a interesting sight along the loop road. Several of them are in various states of falling apart, so please do try to stay off them and only on designated trails. One of the trails takes you inside the splatter cone and you can witness the interesting shape and how it is falling apart as well.
The Devil’s Orchard gives you a cool view of various broken pieces of lava along the black lava landscape. You can see some of these interesting rock creations on your way in, but the area gives you a good view and a way to explore, wander, and photograph many of them.
One of the most notable spots in the entire park, Inferno Cone is a cinder cone that rises 164 feet above the landscape. The views from the top of the inferno cone are worth it and you can see quite a lot of the park from up there. The cone though is made of cinder ash so it’s definitely more of a work out.
Hiking in Craters of the Moon NM & P
There are quite a few trails and places to hike in Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. If you are going here in the summer just also be mindful of the weather. Bring lots of water, sunscreen, sun protective clothing, and be sure to let people know if you are planning on taking trails that don’t see high traffic. In general the park doesn’t see high traffic so many trails you may be alone if you go more than a mile off the loop road.
Broken Loop Trail
This 1.8 mile loop is a great trail to get a good view at the various volcanic features of the park. The trail is pretty steady with not a huge gain so it’s an easy-moderate hike. Just be prepared if you go in the summer that it can get very hot.
Hiking up Inferno Cone
The trail runs about 0.4 miles in each direction to the top of the cinder cone. You’ll see various changes in the color of the ash as you go up and various plants that have attached themselves to the soil. There is a bit of a flat area to explore when you arrive at the top of the cone and some beautiful views. Even though the gain isn’t high and the hike isn’t long, the nature of the trail requires a lot more effort to climb.
North Crater Trail
Length: 1.8 miles one way; 3.5 miles round trip
This trail traverses about 1.8 miles along the north Crater, into the crater mouth, and through the vents where the lava once flowed. This trail also eventually takes you to the area where Splatter Cones are located above. Please stay on the trail as many of the areas off trail are protected.
The trail is 3.5 miles if you do an out and back. The trail starts either from near the beginning of the loop road (You’ll see a sign for North Crater Trail) or from near Splatter Cones.
Tree Molds Trail
Length: 2 miles (round trip)
One of the things you notice in the area is the amount of vegetation in the Craters of the Moon. During the last lava flow, the lava knocked over and ignited trees in it’s path. These trees left impression in the cooling lava. The trail takes you through areas where you can witness some of these interesting creations.
Backcountry Hiking and Travel
Much of the park is actually wilderness and fewer than 100 visitors request backcountry permits. You can explore the Wilderness Trail that goes an additional 4 miles beyond the Broken Top Loop. You can find solitude in the park from everyone.
There are even a few lava tubes such as Buffalo Cave that can be entered along the trail (another permit). And it’s possible to continue on past the wilderness trail and even to the other side of the park.
The area is real wilderness and very few folks traverse into these areas. There is also no regular source of water in Craters of the Moon. You will need to be well-prepared for desert travel and be able to carry enough water for your trip.
- Leave no Trace. You must pack in everything you pack out
- No open fires. Only Backpacking stoves allowed
- No mechanized vehicles allowed
- No Camping within 1 mile of Tree Molds trailhead
- All wilderness caves are closed to public use
- No Pets
Wild Caves of Craters of the Moon NM
One of the most worthwhile places to visit in Craters of the Moon are the several “wild cave” lava tubes that one can enter off the Cave Travel. The caves basically have a direction to go through and limited areas to explore, but they are of a variety of difficulty and sizes. Each cave is interesting and at the very least exploring one of them would be worthwhile.
The Indian Tunnel is the largest, most popular, and most photographed of the tunnels. If you can see one this is the one to visit. Also, it’s the least difficult to traverse and does not require induce the same level of claustrophobia as some of the others may.
The Wild Caves require an extra “free” permit to enter. You can receive this permit at the visitors Center. As part of the process, you need to validate that none of your clothing, shoes, accessories (watches, etc.) have entered any other cave system EVER. This is their way of protecting the bats from white nose syndrome which hasn’t affected CotM.
Please be honest.
The following are the four cave / lava tubes that are open for visitors to explore. Any other caves found currently at the park are closed to visitors.
For the Indian tunnel you may be able to get away with slightly less robust clothing and shoes given the stairs and the more open nature of the caves. For the others, I would recommend wearing good footwear as well as long sleeve shirts and pants. You’ll be pushing up against rocks often so you want to minimize injury.
You should visit this cave if you visit any, and for many folks it’ll be enough. It is certainly the easiest one for people to visit. The cave is entered via a stair case to a large open area. Follow the cave along the path and around various crumbled parts of the lava tube. The cave ends near a rock scramble to bring you back to the surface. Follow the markers along the lava to bring you back to the path.
You’ll find beauty cave at the end of one of the cave trail branches past the boy scout cave. The cave is small and has a smallish opening to get inside the cave. Once inside you can walk around a bit and explore. By the time I got here I had already spent time in the other caves so had a pretty quick look inside before heading on my way.
You’ll see the dew drop along the cave trail. It has a bit of an opening from the ground below and you’ll need to climb over some boulders to enter. Inside the area is pretty small and you can maneuver around and explore.
Boy scout Cave
This is the most difficult of the caves to traverse. The entrance and cave is very tight squeeze and requires someone to be able to maneuver through tight areas and be ok with some claustrophobic situations. It is the most difficult of the four to traverse.
Visiting Craters of the Moon in Winter
Winter is one of the best times to visit Craters of the Moon. The park is still open during the winter season, and it’s free.
The area can get quite a lot of snow in the winter, and there is a lot of winter based activities that folks do during these months.
You can still hike in various places, however the loop road in the park is closed to motor vehicles during the winter months.
The road is however open to snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and telemark skiing. You can actually hike up the various volcano cinder cones in the park and ski down. You’ll see fresh tracks in the various areas of the park.
If you do decide to hike, stay within the area that is recommended and made for hiking. Otherwise you may sink down through the snow! We stepped right off the trail and my entire leg went right through the snow.
The visitor center also rents snowshoes for about $5 per day.
Where to Stay – Craters of the Moon NM
Camping at Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve
There is one campground available within the Craters of the Moon National Monument, located close to the entrance of the Park.
# of sites: 42
- Regular Season: $15.00 ; $7.50 (Senior | Access Pass)
- Shoulder Season: $8.00 ; $4.00 (Senior | Access)
- Winter: Free
There are 42 sites available at the campsite and all are first come first serve. You reserve the site at the machine at the front of the campground. Be sure to put something there or park your car in case some one else tries to take it while you go to pay.
There are flush and vault toilets available. The flush toilets are closed during seasonally however.
There are no RV hookups although some of the sites are large enough for an RV to pull into the site. Be sure that your vehicle fits completely in the parking area and off the road. Otherwise you might get cited.
Overall the campsite can fill-up so it is recommended you to try book your site as soon as you arrive. However, during the times I’ve been there I’ve not seen the campground full, so you should definitely check even if you arrive later.
Hotels near Craters of the Moon
There are few options for hotels near Craters of the Moon National Monument. The closest town with lodging is Arco Idaho (20 miles away) which has two options in town. I don’t have a lot of opinion on any good place in town sadly as I prefer to camp when I go to Craters of the Moon.
The Robert Limbert Visitor Center is located at the entrance to the park off US Highway 20. The visitor center has bathrooms, gift/book store, information, and a few exhibits.
Address: 1266 Craters Loop Road Arco, ID 83213
Summer Hours: 8:30 am – 6:00 pm Daily (May 27 – October 1)
Winter Hours: 9:00 am – 4:30 pm [Wed – Sun] (Jan 15 – May 26)
Closed: MLK Day; Washington’s Birthday; Columbus Day; Thanksgiving
- Private Vehicle: $20.00
- Per Person (Bicycle | Foot): $10.00
- Motorcycle: $15.00
- Winter Access: Free
Backcountry and Wild Cave Permits
Permits are required for certain activities within Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. Like many national Parks, Backcountry permits are required for any travel outside of the road and several trails that traverse near the loop road.
These Permits are available for free at the visitor Center
One of the coolest and most unique places in the park are the lava tubes that one can visit within the park off the Caves Trail. These “Wild Caves” are truly wild and while some do have a bit of construction, they can be treacherous to enter and wander around. The caves are also home to wild bats in the area as well. As part of protecting these bats from White Nose Syndrome you need to get a permit to enter the caves.
The permits are Free but require you to attest that nothing you are wearing (clothing, shoes, socks, accessories) have been in any underground system, ever. Yes, if you’ve worn your boots in any other cave system, even one where you walked over the bleach pools, you can’t wear them in these caves.
Please be honest and either change your clothes or forgo entering the caves.
National Park Passport Stamp
There is a National Park Passport (cancellation) Stamp located in the visitor center above.
Website: Official NPS Site
The Park covers over nearly 1,200 square miles in Eastern Idaho and is pretty remote compared to a lot of other places. The nearest town to Craters of the Moon National Monument is Arco Idaho (famous for it’s place in nuclear history).
The park is located off US Highway 26 about 1.5 hrs from Idaho Falls and about 2.5 hrs from Boise.
The park is a great half-way stop if you are traveling from Sun Valley (Ketchum Idaho) to Idaho Falls and beyond. It is about 1.5 hrs from each of those towns. Ketchum is also a great place to visit for skiing at Sun Valley or exploring other historical parts of the town.
Flights into Idaho Falls (IDA) are probably the most convenient in terms of time. However, you’ll probably find better connections and more options flying into Boise (BOI).
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