Surprisingly, Idaho has no national parks. The closest it comes to one is a National Monument and Preserve called Craters of the Moon. This is an expanse of lava that is so moon-surface-like that NASA’s Apollo astronauts learned about volcanic geology in this 1,100 square mile area in preparation for going to the moon. However, most of what appears to be the result of volcanos on the moon resulted from meteorite impacts while the Craters of the Moon’s craters are volcanic in origin.
This vast volume of what appears to be lifeless lava is the result of a series of deep volcanic fissures that began welling up about 15,000 years ago. Called the Great Rift, they left behind a veritable ocean of lava-bomb rocks from several lava-spitting cones with names like Silent and Paisley and, appropriately, Inferno. The most recent eruptions occurred about 2,000 years ago and could happen again. The area looks lifeless but is not. Several plants take root in the lava and Pygmy rabbits and Pikas are among the animals that make their home here. If you want to see plants emerging from the grey, come to Craters of the Moon in mid-June. I have been there twice, both times in mid summer, which is not a good idea.
There are 13 lava fields in the United States. There’s one in Alaska called Wrangell. The most southerly ones are in Texas and Arizona. All of them are in western states. The only one other than Craters of the Moon that I’ve been to is Oregon’s Boring Lava Field. A series of 32 cinder cones, it’s unexpected, eerie, and different from Craters. The closest big town to it is Bend.
Craters of the Moon has a visitor center and a 7-mile loop road usually opened to cars only from April to November. This road leads to several trails, lava tubes, and viewpoints. Unless you’re a geology buff or a volcanologist, you probably won’t be stopping much after the first couple. It gets, at least for me, rather repetitious quickly. The closest town to these lava fields is Arco, which has an interesting history related to the development of nuclear energy. Arco was the first town lit by a nuclear reactor.
Early travelers of this area, like settlers heading for California, thought that this area resembled the moon’s surface. They tried to avoid crossing these lava fields but, over time, the time-saving Goodale Cut-Off included a narrow passage between lava flows. Some expected to lose their possessions here but that didn’t happen.