Craters of the Moon Displays Unique Lava Fields
“A weird and scenic landscape peculiar unto itself,” is the way President Calvin Coolidge described Craters of the Moon. Definitely feel like you are no longer in Idaho, when you reach the Craters of the Moon National Monument in the southern part of the state. This geological extravaganza of rugged lava flow covers 750,000 acres, roughly the size of Rhode Island, and it is the largest lava field in the lower 48 states.
The Great Rift, located along the border of the Snake River Plain, is a showcase of volcanic activity. Lava flows, fissures, and cinder cones were created by a break in the earth’s crust about fifty miles long. Twisted rivers of lava coil around and through caves and tunnels.
But the eruptions here are not like those you would expect. When we think of volcanoes, we picture a high cone shaped mountain with steep sides and a crater at the top. However, Craters of the Moon eruptions are called “fissure eruptions” – outbreaks which occur along the cracks in the earth’s crust.
The Shoshone Indian legend tells the story of the volcano’s first eruption where the Snake River runs today. Many moons ago, flashes of lightning frightened the serpent so dreadfully that he squeezed the mountain until liquid rock came out of it, cracks had fire coming from them, and the mountain finally exploded. While there is evidence Indians hunted and sometimes camped here, no permanent settlements would have occurred. Perhaps they did use the basalt for their arrowheads.
Estimates date the first eruptions here about 15,000 years ago. The black lava flows were from the most recent eruptions, which occurred approximately 2,000 years ago. This desolate landscape has been described as a “garden fit for the devil,” and was later named Devil’s Orchard. Today scientists, hikers and curious visitors journey over many trails to explore the area. Need your walking shoes on, as the paths are sometimes steep and often quite long.
Isolated spots of vegetation called “kipukas” give clues to the type of plants growing in the past. High up on the hillsides you might find a 700 year old juniper tree, old sagebrush, or native bunchgrass. Down on ground level, collapsed tubes and caves demand that you use caution as openings can be hazardous. Many tunnels require special entry permits to ensure safety as well as protect sensitive geological features.
As you might guess, Craters of the Moon was used by NASA astronauts in training for the moon exploration back in 1969. They explored the unusual environment and studied the volcanic geology in preparation for their space journey.
Today Craters of the Moon is neither active nor extinct. Just sleeping! Scientists actually expect some activity to take place in the area within the next thousand years. Enjoy exploring where you can let your imagination run wild! It’s a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.