Field Trip to the Moon

This is a difficult post to write because I’d rather just show you my photos and leave you with an impression, which would reflect pretty well how I’m feeling about this place.  Mystical. Otherworldly. Freaking strange and wonderful.  

But there’s some serious vulcanism (love that word) going on here (or I should say went on here, about 2,000 years ago), and I should pass on at least some of that data as context.  

Craters of the Moon Nat’l Monument and Preserve

I mentioned in my last post that this is a National Park, which is wrong.  I think a President has to make a place a Park, and this place ended up instead as a Monument (managed by the Park Service and BLM), but also the first National Wilderness, which I imagine has its own special protections.  

Truthfully, we don’t have cell signal at the campsite so I’m writing this with only a two-sided brochure to help me with the facts.  Suffice it to say this is a strange hunk of Idaho, protected federally. Calling it a Wilderness suits it well, too. 

Cones and Cinder

It’s not one big volcano that’s responsible for the miles of lava rock that make this place almost barren; it was a series of fissures—the Great Rift—that spewed lava from spatter cones and cinder cones and released lava through tubes into lakes, all forming this rough black, Mordor-like landscape. 

The developed part of the park (or whatever people refer to it casually) is a seven-mile loop road through the heart of the Great Rift, with a handful of spurs that lead to trail heads and caves.  

The trails are paths made of tar that match the black lava beautifully and give you views of tall craters and giant holes and vast fields, all created by erupting or flowing lava. 


This is the coolest part, though.  Lava flowing underground creates tunnels, and as the lava ebbs away and cools, empty subterranean tubes are left. 

One main cave here is closed to protect the bats that live there (there are plenty more bats around here, no worries).  We put on our bike helmets and work gloves and explored the other caves one morning.  

There is ice in corners, and evidence of bats, and tiny crevices you kind of want to go in but kind of don’t.  

I like best where the top layer of cooled lava had caved in and left holes in the tube’s roof, so bright blue sky appears in unexpected circles above.  Tracy likes best when it’s pitch dark and you could be anywhere in the universe when you switch off your flashlight. 

Lava Lava Everywhere

The lava is varied and fascinating.  In some places it looks like it rolls smoothly in waves, as if it were still wet.  In other places it’s huge boulders like trucks, all rumpled up like Paul Bunyan had come through with a rotor tiller.  In low areas where it’s fine, you feel like you’re walking on glass; turns out some cinders have turned to glass in part.  

Sometimes I’ll be walking on boulders, turn my foot a little, and it sounds like a tiny glass trinket got dislodged and rolled down the hill.  Just another very odd piece of lava. 

Forests were caught by eruptions and flows, and you can see where lava hit tree trunks; the trees disintegrated in the heat, and the lava cooled around them, leaving truck-sized holes in the ground.  

It’s not all barren, now.  Lichen, sagebrush, and wind-twisted pines live on “islands” isolated by the lava flows.

Dark Sky Location

We’re in the campground right inside the entrance to the park (monument, wilderness, whatever).  It’s a small campground, and people seem to come in for one night, drive around, then leave.   

We will have been here for four nights.  Each morning we go hiking (or spelunking), then have a lavish lunch we cook in the trailer, then lounge outside in the sun, then go for another hike in the evening.  The lava does not start looking the same after a while—it’s the opposite—the more you look, the more you can imagine the upheavals and the collapses. 

And the night sky is like no other I’ve seen.  Even in the Everglades it didn’t look so clear with so many stars.  We’re much more elevated here, above some of the Earth’s atmosphere (I’m guessing that’s it).  The Milky Way is a thick arc from one edge of the horizon to another, like a white rainbow.  The rest of the sky is so chocked full of stars that I can’t make out anything but … stars.  It’s like a crowd where you can’t find any familiar faces.  

And because I really should put this brochure to use since I have it on the table beside me, I’ll report that a handful of Apollo astronauts learned about volcanic geology here in 1969 as they trained for their moon mission.  I totally believe it.   

2 thoughts to “Field Trip to the Moon”

  1. Very cool find – what I call the big ball of string! Another for you to consider if/when you make it to Wyoming is Hell’s Half Acre. The movie Starship Troopers was filmed there because it looked so much like an alien landscape.
    And we saw the Milky Way camping at Assateague last week, but I know it was nothing to compare with what you’ve seen! Have fun!