Southern Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve might be best known for the hiking trails that take visitors around the park’s vast network of lava flows and cinder cones during the warmer months, but there’s a variety of activities in the park even when snow lends its own oddness to this already strange moonscape.
In late November, the park’s main road, Loop Road, closes to automobile traffic and is transformed into a stunning winter trail for cross-country skiers. Black basalt, a byproduct of the area’s past volcanic activity, creates a sharp contrast with the pure white snow it juts out of. The groomed trail takes skiers on a journey around the park that can range anywhere from four to seven miles, depending on what the skier feels like undertaking.
For non-skiers, Craters of the Moon is also home to a mile-long snowshoe trail, which guests can explore on their own, or with a guide on the weekends during one of the park’s Snowshoe Walks. However, visitors don’t have to stick to the map. The park encourages guests to “venture off the winter trails and climb a cinder cone.” (Snowshoes are available for loan and donations of $5 are appreciated).
As a designated International Dark Sky Park, Craters of the Moon is committed to protecting the nighttime environment and eliminating light pollution within the park. To combat light pollution, the park is outfitted with lighting equipment that directs light towards the ground instead of into the night sky—and the effort shows. The uninterrupted view of the sheer number of stars above Craters of the Moon is simply breathtaking. “The Milky Way stretching across the park’s incredibly dark night sky is a sight many visitors will never forget,” says the park’s superintendent, Wade Vagias.
In addition to a magnificent night sky, Craters of the Moon boasts an incredibly rich history. Initially inhabited by members of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes, the Snake River Plain eventually played host to those traveling the Oregon Trail. The lava flow restricted travel, making the journey slow and hard, but it was considered a safer alternative to other routes.
It wasn’t until Robert Limbert began exploring the area, intrigued by the unique landscape, that it began to be perceived as more than just harsh terrain to be crossed as quickly as possible. In 1920, he made an 80-mile-long, 17-day journey across the region, accompanied by W.L. Cole of Boise. This expedition would only inspire him to explore further, and in 1921, he led scientists and civic leaders through the plain to show them that the area needed to be protected. According to Limbert, “although almost totally unknown at present, this section is destined someday to attract tourists from all America, for its lava flows are as interesting as those of Vesuvius, Mauna Loa, or Kilauea.” It is due to his efforts that Craters of the Moon was recognized as a national monument in 1924.
Craters of the Moon has also played an important role in space exploration. In August of 1969, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Joe Engle and Eugene Cernan—astronauts on the Apollo 14 mission—traveled to the park to learn more about geological structures and volcanic materials so they would know which samples would be the most valuable to collect on the Moon.
Since the main road is shut down to motorized traffic, entrance fees for the park are waived during the winter. The campsites are also closed, so those wishing to make a trip out to Craters of the Moon should look for lodging in the nearby town of Arco.