Craters of the Moon National Monument in southern Idaho is often described as “the strangest 75 square miles on the North American Continent”. This chaotic mess of volcanic craters, lava flows, and piles of loose rock is so other-worldly that the Apollo astronauts trained here in preparation for their moon missions. Julius Merrill, who visited in 1864, described it as “a mass of Black Vomit”.
The youngest lava flow in Craters is only 2000 years old. Roman tax collectors were still causing considerable angst when the last fissures opened up and unleashed millions of tons of lava over the surrounding dry sandy landscape. Last weekend I had the opportunity to explore that lava flow, traversing the complex terrain by foot.
Without a high-clearance 4×4, I walked 10 miles along farm tracks and cow paths to the southern end of Craters.
The walking began fairly easy. In some places the lava is flat and smooth, interrupted by occasional cracks, giving it the appearance of a broken parking lot.
Progressively, it becomes more convoluted. Sudden craters appear without warning where the lava has collapsed back into the earth. Cracks, sometimes 30 feet deep and wide enough that I looked for a way around rather than trying to jump, open up and give you a peak into the deep unknown.
“Nothing meets the eye but a desolate and awful waste; where no grass grows nor water runs, and where nothing is to be seen but lava.”
– Captain Benjamin Bonneville on his mapping expedition in 1833-1834.
I scared a dozen deer as I entered a pocket of forest where, somehow, the lava never flowed. I made this oasis my camp for the night. A coyote did his best to keep me awake, howling into the wee hours.
The next morning I continued across the lava, finding the walking constantly engaging. This landscape requires that you watch your footing at all times and keep an eye on the bigger picture so that you don’t end up walking in circles (or falling into a deep fissure).
“We saw perhaps one of the most remarkable lava flows in the world… The surface is netted and veined with small cracks, having the appearance of the scales of some prehistoric reptile.”
– Robert W. Limbert on his 1920 trek across the lava
The constantly changing shapes and textures of the lava are fascinating. Some look like long strands of dreadlocks, others form tubes where lava exposed to the cold air hardened but the molten rock inside continued to flow.
Reaching the end of the lava flow at Wapi Park, I was happy to get back onto solid, regular earth and walk the final few miles to King’s Bowl. I’d love to return again, earlier in the year when there is still enough snow to melt for drinking water, and continue all the way across the northern lava flow to the other end of the park.