I’m no stranger to volcanic features. From Mt. St. Helens to Mauna Loa, Sunset Crater to Yellowstone National Park—I’ve spent time at the best known volcano sites throughout the United States. So when our itinerary turned toward Craters of the Moon National Monument, I figured this stop would likely be more about teaching the kids than discovering something new.
@dinkumtribe Walking through Devil’s Orchard at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. #cratersofthemoonnationalpreserve #idaholife #familytravel #takeyourkidseverywhere ♬ Camping – Ian Post
I had no idea how much we would actually gain from making the detour to visit this amazing site!
Table of Contents
This is part of an ongoing series about our family road trip from Oregon to Georgia.
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Road Trip Fun
The fun actually started long before we even arrived at Craters of the Moon National Park. Our turnoff onto Highway 20 afforded us quick relief from the notoriously boring southern Idaho route.
The color and character of rural Idaho was all around us as we left the level plain, gradually climbing in elevation through volcanic rocks and lush mountain glens.
The towns were no less interesting! The scenic drive and a fabulous use of Mad Libs compliments of Appaloosa—our preteen daughter—made the drive time pass quickly.
I can’t believe how much fun it was to actually enter the park! Only minutes after reading a historical marker about the wagon trains on the Oregon Trail (Goodale’s Cutoff), we suddenly saw a pronghorn antelope. Moments later, the largest lava field I’d ever seen appeared before us seemingly out of nowhere!
We pulled off the road and walked out over the bizarre, glistening wasteland. We were delighted at the tinkling sound the lava rocks made as we walked upon them. These were my first indications that we’d come to a volcano park unlike anything I’d ever encountered before.
We realized that we’d better get on some sunscreen before going any further. So we loaded back up in the van, and continued along the main road into the park, more than ready to venture in and explore.
Bite Size Park
Craters of the Moon turned out to be a perfect fit for our itinerary. We found that we were able to have lunch, enjoy the visitors center, and explore several parts of the park within a four hour period.
Robert Limbert Visitor Center: is it worth it?
The Craters of the Moon Visitor Center is worth your time for a number of reasons. First, part of the wonder of this amazing spot stems from the nature of its origin. These natural wonders are difficult to appreciate without the excellent resources provided at the Visitor Center.
Volcanic history: Is Craters of the Moon still active?
Craters of the Moon is no ordinary volcanic landscape, but the net result of a massive super volcano—the Great Rift of Idaho that is still present in the American Rockies.
What’s more, the volcanos of Craters of the Moon originate from fissures no less than 52 miles long. This is the largest volcanic rift system in the continental United States, crossing the full extent of the Snake River Plain.
The volcanos of this national monument are dormant (currently inactive). But they are anticipated to resume volcanic activity within the next thousand years. These are only a few of the remarkable insights that people miss when they zip past the Visitor Center.
First stop: visitor center
I was pleasantly surprised by how much we got out of a brief stop at the visitor center. In about an hour we’d managed to:
- enjoy our lunch
- set up our children with the Junior Ranger program
- watch the excellent park video
- look over the informative displays
- purchase some books and a bumper sticker
- use the restrooms
- refill our water bottles
- and obtain a cave permit
Not bad for our whole family of eight moving at a relaxed pace!
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Current information and essentials
At a basic level, you’ll want to know what you need to know. Changing conditions outpace website updates in this remote destination. You’re going to want to get firsthand info from the national park rangers regarding current hazards, road closures, etc.
For instance, we were surprised to find that a visit to the volcanic caves required a permit. The bats that inhabit the cave are susceptible to pathogens that can be transmitted from travelers shoes.
Therefore, rangers require interested travelers to check in and answer a few questions in order to determine how to provide access that minimizes damage to the cave ecosystem.
A unique Junior Ranger program
Many national parks and national monuments provide a Junior ranger booklet and activities to aid children in their learning. Craters of the Moon provides two different Junior ranger booklets for different age groups.
Children who complete the booklets and give the Junior Ranger pledge can earn a Junior Ranger badge. Craters of the Moon NM holds the distinction of offering the one and only Lunar Ranger program in the National Park Service!
The Lunar Ranger program acknowledges the unique contribution that this Park made in the Space Program. The Apollo astronauts spent time training in this unique landscape while preparing for their moon landing.
Note: For families that can’t physically visit Craters of the Moon Idaho with kids, this park offers a virtual Junior Ranger Program!
Auto tour through an ancient landscape
I’d like to sneer at auto tours, but the fact is that if they weren’t around, I would have missed out on a host of national park experiences. Craters of the Moon’s seven mile scenic loop road deserves top credit for making our visit worthwhile.
The loop provided beautiful, attainable access to every stop we made, allowing us to get out and explore without rushing or fussing—an unparalleled blessing for families. It’s one of the best ways to make the most of visiting Craters of the Moon Idaho with kids.
The loop also passes camping and RV facilities, allowing folks the option of staying overnight in close proximity to the visitor center. The Lava Flow Campground is another great option for families who want to stay in the park but aren’t in a position to backpack out in the bush.
The Devil’s Orchard
Hands down, The Devil’s Orchard was my favorite stop at Craters of the Moon National Monument. I figured that this volcanic region would be mostly the same as the others I’ve visited. Devils Orchard swept away that assumption.
@dinkumtribe Visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument near Arco, Idaho was like visiting an alien landscape. The volcanic formations and weirdly twisted dead pine trees in devils orchard give an otherworldly feel. @DinkumTribe ADHD family travel @DinkumTribe ADHD family travel @DinkumTribe ADHD family travel #cratersofthemoonnationalpreserve #roadtripwithkids #familytravelvlog #idaho ♬ Better Days – Animal Island
We took a short walk amid the bizarre crags and astounding shapes, at once beautiful, terrible, and surreal. The maze of cliffs and contorted trees began as the result of a massive explosion that tore a cinder cone to pieces, creating a remarkable fracas of shapes, sizes, and colors.
We encountered rocks unlike anything we’d ever seen before, Nature’s art glass set on display. Dead, twisted pine trees stood sentinel throughout the orchard forming a truly haunting scene. The area is fully accessible through a short loop trail.
The Spatter Cones
The volcanic eruptions that formed Craters of the Moon began as fissures, or cracks in the ground.
Heat and pressure spewed lava out of the cracks for days, pushing the erupted lava across landscape and gradually building up mounds know as cinder cones. Eventually, as heat and pressure weakened, erupted lava could only travel a short distance, creating fragile, miniature volcanos known as spatter cones.
Spatter cones were another feature that I’d never encountered in my travels, and these are some of the best preserved spatter cones in the world. Two short trails provide easy access to the spatter cones right from the parking lot, and the paved walkway on the Snow Cone Trail is wheelchair accessible. You can walk right up to the top of the cone and look down inside!
The Lava Tube Caves
If you had time for only one site to see at Craters of the Moon, the volcanic caves would be the place to go—not merely for the caves but for the adventure as a whole. Simply reaching the caves requires a 0.8 mile walk through an ancient lava field full of beauty and wonder.
A memorable path
Ripples of pahoehoe lava stand frozen in time, yet aflame with patches of color—hues from the rock itself and hues from overlaying lichen. Sudden clefts and pits appear and disappear daring you to proceed and reminding you to watch your footing.
Through it all hikers enjoy expansive views of the lava flow areas on all sides. All of this visual feast before you’ve even reached the cave area!
We took a ranger’s advice to explore Indian Tunnel, the largest of the caves at Craters of the Moon. Indian Tunnel could be easily navigated by our whole family (preschool age to adult) with little more than the brief use of a phone flashlight.
There are only two lava caves open to the public currently (depending on the season)— Dewdrop Cave wasn’t open when we visited. Check the website for open dates, since the lava tubes are closed during the winter months due to ice and snow.
Inside Indian Cave
The abundance of natural light only added to the glory of the lava cave, allowing us a clear view of details that we likely would have missed in thick darkness.
And what details there were! Looking up we could see stone drips hanging from the ceiling, lava drops that had cooled before they could drip down to the ground. Along the walls, sheets of lava once sliding down the wall now stood frozen in place.
All around, orange lichen covered the cave surface, complementing the gray stone so beautifully that you almost wondered if you were actually in a sea cave.
That said, there are a few things that you’ll want to keep in mind. Visitors are expected to obtain a permit to visit the caves. Moreover, just because the trip is simple doesn’t mean that it is a gentle stroll.
The cave doesn’t have wheelchair access, only a narrow steep staircase. The paved path that leads to the caves is uneven, having many dips and curves due to the lava flows. The trek may not be spelunking but it is certainly a light to moderate hike depending on your age and ability.
Looking for a longer hike?
We had only one afternoon to visit Craters of the Moon, so we enjoyed the scenic auto tour and several of the best places. We hope to return to visit some of the other fun things to see, such as:
- Broken Top Loop Trail (a longer hike but still manageable for kids)
- Inferno Cone hike (a short, steep hike to the top of the lava cone and see for miles around)
- Tree Molds Trail (another longer hike with molds of trees that got caught in the hot lava)
Know before you go: Craters of the Moon Idaho with kids
Craters of the Moon National Monument is remote, nineteen miles from the nearest town and nearly an hour and a half from the nearest cities (Idaho Falls or Twin Falls). Most of the nearby towns are small, having limited services and limited hours.
Be sure to fuel up your vehicle and stock up on the items you’ll need before venturing off the interstate. At the time of our visit, the monument had no services other than the visitor center—no grocery store, gas station, or restaurant anywhere in or near the monument.
What’s more, Craters of the Moon is a rugged, difficult landscape, offering little shelter and even less water. Summer travelers will want to come prepared with sunscreen, sun apparel, sturdy shoes, and plenty of water.
Be sure to also pack salty snacks rich in electrolytes to replenish the nutrients lost when sweating.
Remember how hot the asphalt is in July? Craters of the Moon is literally ‘paved’ in dark volcanic rock. Summer temperatures on the side of a cinder cone can exceed 150℉!
In contrast, the inside of the lava caves can be quite cool. You may want sweatshirts if you’re exploring Craters of the Moon Idaho with kids.
The season of the year and the time of day may determine whether you enjoy or merely endure your visit. In the summer season, the best time to go is after an early breakfast while it’s still cool!
The monument’s high elevation also subjects the park to all the extremes of winter weather, including snow, ice, and freezing rain. Check the forecast and prepare accordingly before embarking on your adventure in this remote, wild area.
Finally, visitors should beware of thunderstorms as strong winds and lighting endanger those trekking across this open, barren wilderness. In the even of a thunderstorm, seek shelter and avoid metallic surfaces.
Be aware while visiting Craters of the Moon
The glassy, jagged landscape poses real dangers to people and their pets. Cracks, sinks, and caves pervade the landscape, so keep a close eye on your footing and your children. The glass-like consistency of the lava rock can rip and tear at uncovered feet, providing a strong motivation to stay on the paths.
Besides the pronghorn and bats mentioned previously, there are many desert creatures who call this place home. Mule deer, coyotes, yellow-bellied marmots and other small mammals are commonly seen.
An abundance of reptiles, birds and amphibians also frequently make appearances. Finally, the Western rattlesnake is a rarely-seen, but natural resident at Craters of the Moon. Keep an eye out for these venomous snakes—especially at night.
Closures for 2023
The North Crater Flow Trail is closed for 2023 while the trail is being improved. The good news is that you can look for a fully accessible trail in the future!
Buffalo Caves, Boy Scout Cave and Beauty Cave are currently closed (no estimated reopen time) to protect the bats.
More to See
A few miles east of Craters of the Moon National Monument is the town of Arco, Idaho’s self-proclaimed Atomic City, being the first city in the world to be lit by atomic power.
Dusty and forgotten, Arco is for those of us who love one-horse towns. Put another way, we drove almost the entirety of Main Street before we saw a single soul. One day, I hope to get back there and explore a little.
Arco got its claim to fame from the Idaho National Laboratory—the world’s first nuclear power plant, and a national nuclear laboratory that is still in action today. Visitors can now learn the history of the installation at the EBR-1 Atomic Museum located on highway 26/20.
For our purposes, the high fences, strange structures, and warning signs furnished plenty of interest and conversation.
Going to Craters of the Moon Idaho with kids?
Craters of the Moon National Monument may not be a walk in the park, but I’d recommend it to any family. As with most parts of the life, the best things are apprehended through risk and work.
The next stop on our epic summer 2021 road trip was the Museum of the Mountain Man.
Is Craters of the Moon on your itinerary? If so, please drop us a line. We’d love to hear your questions or comments.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is Craters of the Moon worth going to?
Absolutely! It’s one of the most unique and memorable National Monuments we’ve visited, and one of the ones we can’t wait to return to.
How much time should I spend at Craters of the Moon?
If you have a full day and no mobility issues, you can see some of the best spots and most interesting features easily. That allows time for a longer hike, as well as several shorter walks.
We saw the Visitor’s Center, Devil’s Orchard and the Indian Tunnel lava cave in a 4-hour visit, as well as seeing other features from our vehicle along the loop road. That was plenty of time to enjoy Craters of the Moon Idaho with kids.
Does Craters of the Moon have a Junior Ranger Program?
Yes! The Lunar Ranger badge is available for kids who fill out one of the two age-appropriate booklets. There’s even a virtual Junior Ranger program for distance learners who can’t visit the park in person!
© Copyright 2021 Brian A. Warren. Updated and expanded: May 23, 2023.