Wandering the West
July 14, 2009
There are scenic places we all go to time and time again, and there are those places where you say, "Well I’ve never seen that before." Once is generally enough for the latter, and once was enough for me when I pulled into Craters of the Moon National Monument in south central Idaho. I’m reminded of the place this week on the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. Apollo astronauts actually came to this weird landscape to train that’s how moon-like it really is.
There are many descriptions. Here are some I found cruising the Web: desolate, dismal, weird, strange, awful and, my favorite, "the Devil’s vomit." How could you pass such a place by if you were, say, on the road to Sun Valley or other lush Idaho locales? "Craters" is off of Highway 93 which leads north to Challis, past Idaho’s highest peak, Mt. Borah. It’s on the northern edge of the Snake River Plain, a mostly flat, sage-covered expanse that’s of little interest unless you’re a geologist.
Craters of the Moon is a huge expanse over a thousand square miles, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island. It encloses the entire Great Rift, where hundreds of volcanoes blew their tops, creating the largest basaltic lava field in the lower 48. It was recently expanded to include two other flows on adjoining BLM land, making it a 750,000-acre preserve of not much more than lava lots o’ lava so much lava it can be seen from space by those astronauts who were once bound for the real craters of the moon.
I wouldn’t call it ugly, but it definitely isn’t pretty. What it is is interesting.
After a quick stop at the visitor’s center, you hop back into your car for a seven-mile loop road with about a half dozen stops for points of interest. There’s the North Crater flow, with a three-and-a-half-mile hike up to the top of the North Crater’s vent hole. The next stop is the Devil’s Orchard, where small islands of vegetation, including trees, broke through the lava crust to form a patchwork of sorts. At Inferno Cone you can hike a half-mile to the top of the cone and see a line of cinder cones making the Great Rift. You can also see Big Cinder Butte, a rounded black landform that is one of the world’s largest basaltic cinder cones.
All along the way look for volcano bombs smaller pieces of lava that taper off into tails of lava and sit on top of, but separate from, the lava flows. Imagine back two thousand years ago when these bombs of flying molten lava were shooting from the vent holes nearby. Continuing around the loop you’ll see the spatter cones, a collection of mini-volcanoes, and the caves made from lava flows that cooled and left hollow spots. In such dark places, snow and ice lingers year round. Two hours after starting the loop you’re about done and can exit for greener pastures.
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Early pioneers avoided the place. The lava flows were virtually unknown until a geologist did the first serious documentation at the site in 1901. 1924, National Geographic magazine had run a big story on it and later that year Calvin Coolidge declared it a national monument. Volcanologists as well as astronauts Alan Shepherd, Eugene Cernan and Edward White, came here to study the flows and get a better understanding of volcanic geology.
The eruptions started about 15,000 years and the place has erupted anew about every two thousand years. A magnitude 7.3 earthquake rattled the area in 1983, lifting Mt. Borah by a foot and dropping the Lost River Valley by a whopping eight feet. The last big volcanic eruption was about two thousand years ago. It’s time for the devil to puke again.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
THE VITALS: Park City to Craters of the Moon 297 miles
Insider tip: Hold onto your hat and camera when peering into the cones. There’s no getting them back if they drop in.