After leaving Yellowstone we headed to Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve. We were there for about a day and a half (2 nights): June 23 and 24.
It only took about 5-6 hours to drive there from Yellowstone, so we were able to set up our new campsite in early afternoon. We also checked out the visitor center, which had a really good display, and then later we climbed the 150 foot “Inferno Cone”.
Here’s my son about halfway up.
Maybe I should tell you a bit about Craters of the Moon, first. I know I’d never heard about it until I started planning this trip.
It’s in southern Idaho about 80 miles west of Idaho Falls. It is also above the line that the Yellowstone Hot Spot took (a bit over 10 million years ago) as the North American Plate rode over it.
And so that means vulcanism. The place is full of cinder cones (hence Inferno Cone), volcanic craters, lava of all kinds, and lava caves (lava tubes). It is really stark, and hence the name Craters of the Moon.
Here’s their map of the area.
Inferno Cone is right in the middle.
Continuing with the climb, here I am right at the top.
It was an easy climb to do barefoot. Yes, it was volcanic cinders, and yes the terminally shod think that ought to be difficult, but it wasn’t at all. It was like walking on coarse sand and nothing that a conditioned foot couldn’t easily handle.
The views from the cone were pretty spectacular. Off in the distance was Big Southern Butte (I think I’ve identified it correctly).
We’d driven by in on our way in. It’s near “Atomic City” and the Idaho National Laboratory, where a lot of government work on nuclear power occurred (and they are still doing a lot of research).
There is a bit of vegetation (mostly sage) and an occasional limber pine.
And here are the both of us at the top of the cone.
Let me try to say a few more works about what this stark environment is doing here. From the way I understand it, while the North American Plate is slowly heading westward over the surface of the earth, the western part of the plate (probably assisted by the Yellowstone Hot Spot) is heading westward slightly faster than the eastern part.
That means that, around the Rocky Mountains, North America is being stretched. That has led to the entire Basin and Range area, where the faulting has made all the blocks (mountain ranges) and valleys. Up here is Idaho, because of the Yellowstone Hot Spot passing over it fairly recently (in geological terms), there is still lava near the surface.
Thus, when the crust gets stretched and pulled a bit apart, that lava becomes an eruption.
And this was a really recent eruption, with the latest about 2,000 years ago. That’s why the lava is so recent and fresh, both to look at and to walk on.
There are even Shoshone legends of the event. All of the rangers told this story (found here):
The Angry Serpent
A Serpent trying to nap on the mountains above the Snake River was angered by lightning that disturbed its sleep. It coiled around and squeezed the mountain until pressure caused rocks to crumble, stones to melt, and fire to shoot out of the cracks. Liquid rock flowed from the fissures and the mountain exploded. The heat killed the slow-moving serpent and the hot rock roasted its flesh. Today, we see the ashes (cinders) and charred bones (pahoehoe lava) of the serpent on the landscape.
At the same web page, there is also this legend (but the rangers didn’t tell this one; maybe it wasn’t as exciting as the serpent legend).
The Medicine Man
Fierce warriors living in caves and rock shelters drove the Indians from their traditional lands in the forests. The Indians asked for help from the spirit world. In return for their promise that they would not harm wolves, foxes, bobcats, and cougars, the spirits lifted the tribe’s medicine man to the top of a high mountain. When he reached the peak, the mountain ignited and burned fiercely. Nearby hills and cliffs melted and flowed into the valley. The valley filled with a lake of fire and the invaders were destroyed.
On the 24th, we took one of the ranger-led programs around Broken Top. At this point I had confidence that I could easily handle doing those hikes barefoot. I’d been up the Inferno Cone, and the previous evening my son and I did just a short jaunt into Dewdrop Cave. I’d seen the cinders and the lava, and it was clear that I’d have no problem hiking around barefoot.
Now the interpretive ranger on the other hand . . .
Here’s what the Park says in their newspaper on safety:
Sturdy shoes (no sandals) and long pants are highly recommended.
But I showed up, barefoot as usual (and wearing shorts).
The ranger (the one with the neon hair in the photo) was a bit concerned. I just told her I had “Hawaiian feet”, and she went along with it. The safety tips were just recommendations, after all.
Here’s a picture of one of the faults that the lava came out of.
There is both “aa” lava (the sharp, jagged kind) and “pahoehoe” (the smooth, pillowy kind).
Here I am on some pahoehoe.
It has a really nice texture.
But I also walked on the sharp aa. It really wasn’t much different than walking on flint, which I’ve done at Flint Ridge in Ohio. As long as you don’t slide your feet (which can cut them), it won’t penetrate a leathery sole.
Here’s near the end of the hike as we were being what is called a “bomb”.
These are formed when large blogs of lava are thrown high in the air, and they solidify before they land. (Cool stuff, eh?)
My son and I also took a hike down to the “tree molds”. This is an area where the trees got swallowed by lava. The trees then burned as the lava cooled, leaving an impression of the tree behind. To be honest, we had a hard time identifying the features.
However, along the way was this pretty cool crater.
The other thing we really enjoyed was one of the interpretive cave tours. In this case, the tour went to the cave called “Indian Tunnel”.
Now, I have to admit that I started out wearing my moccasins.
The path to the cave was a paved asphalt path. It was 4:00 in the afternoon, and the sun had been beating down on it all day. It was hot.
At the start of the tour, in the parking lot, I could see the interpretative ranger checking out everybody’s footwear. Moccasins: OK.
But then, when we got to the cave and off the asphalt, I took them off. Climbing down there was a short stairway, and then from there a bunch of large, broken lava chunks to walk on. For that, barefoot is best!
Let me say a few words about the following pictures: I used a crummy camera, and it was not good in the low light areas. So some of the pictures are blurry. On the other hand, they’re the only ones I have, so we’ll have to go with the blurry ones.
They have bats in these caves, and they are trying to get them from being infected with White-nose Syndrome. So there is a screening, and they don’t want you going into a cave wearing any clothing (including shoes) or equipment that has even been in another cave. So I left my good camera behind.
Back to the cave tour . . .
Here’s the interpretive ranger right after we all got down into the cave.
Shortly before this she’d looked down and suddenly noticed that I was barefoot.
There is a reason the word “dumbfounded” was invented.
She was struck dumb.
It must have taken her about half a minute to regain the ability to speak. (You could see her mind working, “What?” “What do I say?” “How did this happen?”)
Right about then I spoke up: “Hey, I always go barefoot. I have Hawaiian feet. This is no problem. Earlier today I did the Broken Top hike barefoot.”
So she accepted me, and from then on it was a non-issue.
Here’s the only picture of me we took inside the cave. Sorry it’s so blurry.
But you can see: I’m barefoot.
It was definitely the case that I had to be somewhat careful walking barefoot down there. There was broken lava everywhere.
In some locations is was kind of cindery, but there were a few places we had to walk where it was pretty sharp. When standing still on some of those places (as the interpretative ranger “interpreted”) I had to shift my feet a bit to find a more comfortable position. But barefoot was the way to go.
Wouldn’t you want to be barefoot on this, so you had a really good grip and feel on what you were walking over?
(You can see my son in the background.)
And then here’s the exit at the other end of the lava tube cave.
You can see that that is actually pretty comfortable stuff to walk on.
Since the cave was a lava tube, we came out at a different place from the one we went in on, and there was no paved asphalt path back to the entrance.
So we all walked back on the lava.
Which was really fun and I loved the texture. Oh, and I didn’t put my moccasins back on because the temperature of the lava was quite comfortable. But then when we made it back to the path, I had to put the moccasins back on again, because that was still ridiculously hot.
Give me the natural every time!
Finally, let me finish with a sunset from our campsite.
You can see that the campsites, too, were on the cinders.
From here, we headed to Great Basin National Park, which I’ll write about next.