We finally made a visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument–and I can’t believe it took us so long! It’s only about 2 hours away from us, and it’s part of the National Parks system which we love. But since it’s a monument, it’s smaller than say, Yellowstone. Also, it’s lesser-known and less crowded. This place is its own kind of cool.
Craters of the Moon is located about halfway between Idaho Falls, Idaho and Sun Valley. We have passed the turnoff several times, but never took the time to stop. Recently, on a whim, we just pulled the kids out of bed and told them to dress for an adventure. I didn’t anticipate their reluctance. They were certain it was just going to be a field of black rocks, totally boring and lame. I had to bribe them.
To be honest, I had little idea what to expect, and worried my kids might be right. I only knew that I would finally satisfy my curiosity. By the time our day was over, though, the boys wanted to stay longer.
Craters of the Moon is essentially an ancient lava bed. There are lava floes and cinder cones and spatter cones and miles and miles of trails through sparkling black lava rock. Its rocky landscape in the middle of nowhere really does resemble the moon or some other strange planet. But, it’s not merely the black, harsh and desolate landscape one might expect.
Bright orange, white and green lichen colonize upon the black rocks. Bright yellow wildflowers bloom amid the sage brush, cactus and junipers. The air out there–it’s the kind you want to inhale deeply and gulp right down. The whole place is surprisingly beautiful, stunning really, and a bit eerie.
There are miles and miles of hiking trails, many of them are paved and wheelchair/stroller accessible. Also, several are under 2 miles round trip making it easy to enjoy several parts of the park in a short time. We found this to be especially great for kids, since each section of the park offers something different, and they were constantly engaged in something new without getting worn out by a long hike.
Their absolute favorite part though? The caves. There’s a fantastic cave system, created by the lava and rocks of thousands of years ago, and visitors are welcome to explore them. It was very cool. We climbed over, under, and through massive rocks and into caverns. We observed tribal stone circles and counted ourselves as official spelunkers for the day. This particular cave was tall and wide, with plenty of light available without flashlights. We easily stood upright and maneuvered around safely. Some of the other caves are a bit more treacherous and time consuming.
Another great thing about this park is it’s accessible size. One day is plenty of time to feel you’ve really explored without feeling overwhelmed. We did 3 short hikes and explored a cave, and our boys participated in the Junior Ranger Program. To earn a really cool patch, the kids complete a series of activities (like identifying rocks and wildlife, doing a hike, listening to a ranger class, etc.) during their visit. A Ranger signs them off and they then get sworn in as Junior Park Rangers. It’s free with your admission to the park.
Craters of the Moon is open year round, but it is really nice to visit in the early fall or spring, when the temps are lower. With light jackets and sturdy shoes we were perfectly comfortable, even on an overcast day. I’d love to come back out in the winter when the trails are groomed for snow-shoeing.
If your travels lead you to Central or Southeastern Idaho, I highly recommend spending a morning, afternoon or an entire day at Craters of the Moon. It’s not like any other place I’ve ever been. Pack layers, wear sturdy shoes, bring a flashlight, snacks and plenty of water–it’s the desert, after all. And don’t forget about the Every Kid in a Park program for 4th graders, courtesy of the White House. Don’t have a 4th grader? Investing in a National Parks Pass is worth it, in my humble opinion. Ours has granted us access to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Craters of the Moon, and Zion. All places where we’ve experienced amazing things and made great memories.