About a five-hour drive from Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser is Craters of the Moon National Monument in central Idaho.
If you’re out West enjoying Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, I highly recommend visiting Craters of the Moon. It’s uncrowded and peaceful, night skies are brilliant, and the monument is even home to moose (and excellent cross-country skiing) in winter!
The geologic landscape here is fairly young compared to other areas nearby. Some basaltic lava flows are a mere 2,000 years old. The extent of this and older volcanic activity abruptly ends to the north of the 750,000 acre monument, where foothills climb rapidly toward the Pioneer Mountains and other ranges.
Volcanic activity here is dormant, not extinct, at the moment. In geologic terms, it could be a short period of time (or maybe not) before things “wake up” again, creating the next generation of new lava flows, lava tubes, caves and charred “lava trees.”
Craters of the Moon sits at an average elevation of 5900 feet. When Erik and I were there for four days in early May, it was windy most afternoons, but things calmed down by nightfall. We enjoyed clear starry night skies rivaling those of Bryce and Grand Canyon, followed by frosty mornings that warmed up very quickly.
We also brought plenty of water (and refilled our containers at the visitor center water filling station), as the National Park Service cuts off the campground water from mid-September to late May to avoid pipes freezing and bursting.
Craters of the Moon’s official website posts updates, alerts and more information pertaining to visiting, but it’s always a good idea to bring ample water along wherever you’re traveling in the Intermountain West.
A seven-mile loop drive leads to some of the area’s most accessible geologic attractions, including short walks to the Devil’s Garden, Inferno Cone, Spatter Cone, and the aptly named Snow Cone. The loop drive also doubles as a popular cross-country skiing and snowshoeing route, usually from late November to early April. Craters of the Moon receives close to 90 inches of snow annually, more than twice what our home city of Missoula, Montana gets.
Outside of winter time, there’s little standing surface water here. During spring and summer, many plants compress their growth stages into a few weeks’ time to take advantage of available moisture. During our visit, Erik and I were surprised to see prominent signs warning people to keep a healthy distance from moose. We asked an interpretive ranger about this, who explained that deep mountain snows force moose to lower elevations to browse limber pine tree needles and other vegetation during winter. Perhaps the national monument should be called “Craters of the Moose” instead!
Seriously, though, be careful and never approach moose, which also live throughout Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Weighing up to 1000 pounds and standing 6 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, moose are formidable, unpredictable and wild. Keep at least 25 yards away from them, and even more so if there are calves present.
Other mammals such as mule deer, rabbits and pikas also live here, as do many bird species including kestrels, ravens, great horned owls, towhees, Clark’s nutcrackers, and Townsend’s solitaires.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is about six hours by car from Missoula. It’s about three and a half hours from Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, Wyoming, and Yellowstone’s west entrance at West Yellowstone, Montana.
If you’re looking for solitude and no crowds, only about 200,000 people explore the monument and preserve every year, a fraction of the millions that visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton!