by Henry Allen
In an otherworldly landscape, your imagination can run wild. At Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve in the remote wilds of Central Idaho, you can easily imagine you are on the moon—as its name implies. Except, there’s gravity.
Volcanic eruptions between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago formed the lava-strewn landscape. It’s a popular place to explore during spring, summer and fall, but winter weather brings a fresh element of otherworldliness in the form of snow. The Loop Road through the park closes sometime in November, and the Visitor Center closes for the month of December. Winter is a time when few people visit, yet the park is open. So why visit in winter?
Once there’s a layer of snow on the lava fields—usually in December through March—it’s an ideal place to snowshoe or cross-country ski. When the Visitor Center is open, rangers will loan snowshoes for exploring the park. So, pack extra clothing, snacks and plenty of water and go explore this moonscape under the snow.
The monument encompasses 400 square miles with three main lava fields, each with its own character and strange formations.
With snow cover, the only parts of the lava fields that will be visible are the rock formations that protrude through the snow like strange creatures frozen in time.
The groomed Nordic track is mostly level terrain and gentle hills as it winds around cinder cones, but you will encounter one steep section near Inferno Cone.
Those traveling counterclockwise will have to ski down this hill (not recommended for novice skiers); those traveling clockwise will face an uphill climb. You may leave the groomed track to explore the lava terrain, but keep in mind that surfaces under the snow can be uneven with jagged protrusions. Most people will be able to ski the 4- to 7-mile track in two to four hours.
Snowshoers can follow a marked 1-mile snowshoe trail and are welcome to leave the trail to explore further. Rangers organize guided snowshoe walks on most Saturdays in January and February.
Skiing and snowshoeing at Craters of the Moon National Monument is a free activity. Winter road conditions in this region of Idaho can vary, so check road conditions and park trail conditions before you travel. Remember, when you are skiing or snowshoeing, keep track of your distance and consider how far you must travel to return to your starting point. Exhaustion can sneak up on you and hinder a safe return.
Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve is located about 170 miles from Boise. If you wish to find lodging near the monument, the closest towns are Arco (20 miles away) and Hailey (52 miles away).
Know before you go:
Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, nps.gov/crmo
Winter road conditions, itd.idaho.gov/travel
Winter trail conditions, wintertrailink.bcrd.org