Looking for a guide to the best things to do in Craters of the Moon National Monument? Read on for details!
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is an incredibly unique, otherworldly landscape in southern Idaho. This national monument comprises an area that used to be covered in volcanic activity. Not just one volcano was in this Idaho natural wonder, but a series of large and small volcanoes erupted from a long trail of deep fissures – known collectively as the Great Rift.
Old cinder cones from these eruptions are found throughout the park, and well-preserved lava flows, lava tubes, and other volcanic features cover the surface of the ground.
You can walk on and by these ancient cinder cones and spackle pots, observe the smooth pahoehoe lava flows, and see the more chunky a’a lava rocks. There are tree molds, lava caves, and dramatic formations throughout the park. No trees and very few plants grow here, so most everywhere you look, you see stark, black basalt rocks. It is a riveting landscape.
One geologist described it as, “The surface of the moon as seen through a telescope.” This almost alien-like landscape is one that you just don’t hardly ever see, and makes visiting Craters of the Moon a place you need to put on your bucket list!
While the entire national monument is 750,000 acres large, the areas that has the trails and viewpoints for visitors to access is rather small. It’s very doable to see and experience all the things to do in Craters of the Moon with just one day.
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Where Did All This Lava Come From?
Millions of years ago, this area in southern Idaho used to be over a hotspot for volcanic activity. As tectonic plates shifted, the land moves, and Idaho is no longer over that hotspot. Currently, Yellowstone National Park is over the hotspot.
This hotspot, known as the Yellowstone Hotspot, has left calderas and lava flows over a wide area across several states. In Craters of the Moon, the crust remained particularly thin after the hotspot moved on, and magma has taken advantage of this weakness, erupting again several times, including as recently as 2000 years ago!
This lava field is still quite “raw” even now, as landscapes can take up to 25,000 year to recover from these types of eruptions. There is a little bit of plant life on it the flows from Craters of the Moon, but it is still in pretty pristine condition, to the point where some of the lava is still fairly rough and unweathered.
We have actually seen a volcano erupting and seen the brand new, still hot and smoldering lava flows when we visited Iceland. The types of landscape we saw there was remarkably similar to what we saw in Idaho.
11 Things to Do in Craters of the Moon National Monument
While Craters of the Moon is a relatively small park, there are a lot of cool things to see and do here, including the following:
1. First, Swing by the Visitor’s Center
I would highly recommend stopping by the Visitor’s Center before heading into the park. You can get information about the trails and conditions, get a permit to explore the caves, and see a lot of interesting exhibits about volcanoes, lava, and how the park was formed.
If you’re traveling with kids, pick up a Jr Rangers booklet for them to work on as you go around the park. It’s full of high quality activities related to the park, and when they complete a certain number of pages (depending on age), they can receive a Craters of the Moon badge. They can also complete the Caving badge here.
The Junior Rangers program is available at all National Parks and most locations in the National Park Service (even if it isn’t an official national park). Our kids have LOVED doing the Junior Rangers program in national park sites around the country.
2. Drive the Loop Road
Most of the park is on the one way Loop Road, with several turnoffs for different viewpoints and hikes. The loop road is 7 miles long and takes about 30 minutes if you just drive the loop without stopping.
The scenery on this road is incredible, stark, and alien – and driving past it all is an experience. Of course, you’ll want to make stop-offs to see the different volcanic remains up close and personal.
3. North Crater Trail
- Distance: 3.5 miles
- Elevation Change: 666 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
The North Craters trail is a really fun hike right by and through lava fields, spatter cones, and offers great views over the surrounding landscape. The coolest part of this hike is walking by the large volcanic crater! There are a lot of ups and downs on this hike, but it’s not bad and still considered a moderate hike.
This hike starts and ends at two parking lots, so you can hike in either direction. If you have two vehicles, leave one at the end so you can do a point-to-point hike instead of a out and back hike. The coolest sections are in the north, so if you’re short on time, start at the north trailhead and hike halfway in for the best views.
4. Devil’s Orchard Nature Trail
- Distance: 0.5 mile loop
- Difficulty: Extremely easy
This easy, paved path takes you through a sea of lava fragments. You’ll pass by scattered lava rocks, big mounds, and a lot of fun and funky rock shapes and formations.
This is a cool way to experience and see the lava up close and personal, plus learn about different conservation efforts in Craters of the Moon. Because the trail is paved and short, it’s great for families with small kids and anyone with accessibility needs.
5. Inferno Cone Trail
- Distance: 0.4 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 165 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
Inferno Cone is the remnants of a volcanic plume. It’s an ancillary formation due to a volcanic eruption – as lava erupted in a fountain, it hardened in the air and piled up as these small bits of rock and glass. The cone is made completely of very small, very light chips of lava – it almost looks like sand.
Being completely, dark black, it is a very stark structure. When you get close to the ground, though, you’ll notice that many of the tiny “pebbles” have an irradenscent quality to them.
It’s a steep, 0.2 mile hike up to the top of the cone. At the top, there are some shrubby plants and a few trees – the top is flat, there is no indentation like a “true” volcano. You’ll also get great views over the surrounding area, though. From the top, you can see the line of small cinder cones, where a hotspot moved and many small eruptions took place in a line.
Hiking and experiencing Inferno Cone is one of the best things to do in Craters of the Moon – so don’t skip this one!
6. Snow Cone and Spatter Cones
- Distance: 274 feet
- Elevation Gain: 24 feet
- Difficulty: Extremely easy
These three mini cinder cones are the ones visible from the top of Inferno Cone. One is named Snow Cone, and the other two are named the Spatter Cones. You can hike to the top of Snow Cone and to one of the Spatter Cones.
These much smaller cinder cones are extremely short, mostly paved, uphill walks where you can view the inside of the cones. Here ,you can see the where the lava would have come from – which now is a deep crater.
The Snow Cone has a patch of snow on the bottom that stays there year round.
Spatter Cone is noteworthy for the really cool textures and patterns and colors that swirl together in the rock.
This is a quick and easy stop, but also a pretty cool spot to explore and observe the mini cinder cones in Craters of the Moon.
7. Admire the Lava Cascades
Back on the Loop Road, after the Spatter Cones you’ll drive through a big section of land that was the epicenter of the Great Rift. Vast chunks of land on both sides of the road are covered with heaps and piles of lava fields, with jagged rocks stretching far out into the distance.
There’s also the official Lava Cascades viewpoint, where you can park and get a more up-close look at these vast lava fields.
8. Tree Molds Trail
- Distance: 2 miles
- Elevation Gain: 108 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
The Tree Molds trail takes you on a path through scraggly desert brush out to a wide expanse of lava fields.
What makes this area so different is that trees were caught in the path of the lava, and the near instant burning of the trees released all their water in a rush of steam that hardened the lava into perfect shapes (or molds) around the tree trunks!
You can see curved indentations where a tree was once lying on its side, and even see the pattern of the bark. Others show up as narrow holes where the trees were upright. There are several nice examples to find as you explore. Exploring the tree molds area is one of the most fascinating things to do in Craters of the Moon!
Plus, there’s a big, big area of lava fields that you can walk on and explore – it’s a fun area!
9. Broken Top Trail
- Distance: 1.8 miles
- Elevation Gain: 242 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
The trail to Broken Top starts at the same parking lot as the trail to the Tree Molds. This trail takes you around the base of the cinder cone that you can see on the left side of the photo, encircling it completely. This is a cool hike, but between Broken Top and the Tree Molds, I’d choose the Tree Molds trail.
You can also access the Wilderness Trail from the middle of the Broken Top Trail, which continues many miles out into the backcountry of the park.
10. Explore the Lava Caves
There are 4 lava tube caves in Craters of the Moon: Dewdrop Cave, Beauty Cave, Boy Scout Cave, and Indian Tunnel Cave. Not all caves may be open at the same time. Exploring these caves is one of the most popular things to do in Craters of the Moon.
To go into the caves, you need to get a permit at the Visitor’s Center. It’s very quick and easy to get a permit, the rangers just want to go over the rules with you. The most important rule is that you absolutely cannot wear anything into the caves that you have worn into any other cave, as cross-contamination can cause white noise syndrome in bats. This includes ANYTHING that you may be wearing, including underwear, shoes, wedding rings, backpacks, phones.
All the caves are accessed via the Caves Trail from the parking lot, and from the path you walk down into the lava tube caves. When we went, only Dewdrop Cave and Indian Tunnel Caves were open.
Dewdrop Cave is fairly small and just has the area around the opening to explore. This is a good spot if you don’t like the idea of going deep into a cave system.
Indian Tunnel Cave is a much larger series of underground caves. This cave is actually a lava tube, where the lava flow hardened on the outside while the lava was still flowing on the inside.
In these caves you’ll definitely need headlamps, and you’ll actually be underground for a while. Since it’s mainly one long tunnel with a few very short off-shoots, you shouldn’t be able to get lost in the Indian Tunnel Caves.
Make sure you wear closed toed shoes, bring a flashlight or headlamp, and be careful.
11. Camping at Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon offers a really unique camping situation at the Lava Flow Campground, where the 42 campsites are actually nestled in and among the stark black lava rocks. This campground is first come, first serve, no reservations are accepted, and usually fills up by mid-afternoon.
Because Craters of the Moon National Monument is really located in the middle of nowhere, there is hardly any light pollution and on a clear night, the night sky is incredible!
The campground has tent sites and pull through sites for RVs, with water hookups, restrooms, charcoal grills, and picnic tables. No wood fires are allowed. Get more information about camping in Craters of the Moon here.
Practical Information and FAQs
Where is Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve?
Craters of the Moon is located in southern Idaho, about midway between Boise and Idaho Falls. The closest town is Arco. It is 2 hours 45 minutes from Boise, 2 hours from Idaho Falls, 1 hour 30 minutes from Twin Falls, and 4 hours 30 minutes from Salt Lake City, making it a great daytrip option from many locations in Idaho and northern Utah.
Hotels Near Craters of the Moon
The closest town to Craters of the Moon is Arco, and it is a *small* town. There are 2 hotels in town, and while neither are particularly well-rated, the DK Hotel does seem to be the better of the two. There is also a KOA campground in Arco.
Twin Falls is the closest big city, about 1.5 hours from Craters of the Moon. You can browse good hotels in Twin Falls here.
Getting Around the Park
There is no shuttle at Craters of the Moon, the only way to get around is to drive yourself. Thankfully, crowds aren’t usually bad here, and you can find parking spaces pretty easily.
How Long Do You Need in Craters of the Moon?
A half day to one full day is really a perfect amount of time for visiting Craters of the Moon. There are a lot of short, easy walks, combined with a few longer or harder hikes you can do. With 5-6 hours you can see a wide sampling of this national monument. With a full day, you can easily do every single thing in the park.
Craters of the Moon is working hard to provide accessible trails to people who need them. The Devil’s Orchard Nature Trail, the Spatter Cones, the Caves Trail, are all considered accessible.
Fees and Hours of Operation
Fees: It costs $20 per private vehicle to enter Craters of the Moon. This pass is valid for 7 days.
Craters of the Moon is a National Monument, which is part of the National Park Service. You can use your America the Beautiful Pass here. An Idaho State Parks Pass is not valid here.
Hours of Operation: Craters of the Moon is open 24/7, every day of the year.
While the park is technically open every day of the year, the Loop Road is closed to vehicles from November-April. You can cross country ski or snowshoe through the park and the roads during the winter months, but you cannot drive through the park.
Preparation: Be prepared for warm summer days – there is virtually no shade at Craters of the Moon, so you’ll want to wear a hat or sunscreen and bring plenty of water with you.
Things to Do in Craters of the Moon – The Wrap Up
There are a lot of extremely cool activities, attractions, and hikes in Craters of the Moon National Monument, and the entire area is extremely unique and different from almost anywhere else in the world. This spot is definitely a hidden gem in Idaho and in the western United States, but it for sure deserves a spot on your bucket list!