Volcanoes and moonscapes abound at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.

By Aaron Brandel
December 27, 2019

The Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in central Idaho allows visitors to explore the surface of the moon without ever leaving Earth. The name “Craters of the Moon National Monument” evokes a sense of otherworldly adventure and out-of-this-world scenery, and the unique name is more than just a marketing gimmick. In 1969, Apollo astronauts actually visited the preserve and studied its topography as part of their preparation for going into space. To this day, permits can still be obtained to conduct scientific research in the park.

While Craters of the Moon may seem like a uniform landscape at first, the geologic variety across the tubes and rivers of cooled lava will surprise and delight you. Be aware that you won’t see any huge volcanoes at Craters of the Moon. Instead, you will see about 25 “cinder cones,” each one qualifying as a distinct but small volcano. The monument's volcanoes are dormant rather than extinct — but don’t worry, there are currently no signs of impending eruptions.

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What to Do at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve 

Orbit “Mars on Earth”

Take in the alien views of the monument on the seven-mile loop road. The drive itself isn’t very long, but you’ll definitely want to stop for pictures at some or all of the viewpoints. There are also numerous trails to and through volcanic features that you can access from the road. Check out big craters and fragile spatter cones from stop 5 on the loop road.

Learn to Love the Lava

From the sensationally-named lava bombs to ropes and rows of unique pahoehoe lava, there’s a tremendous amount of diversity to appreciate at the site. Stop number 2 on the loop road is called North Crater Flow. From the top of the steep North Crater Trail, you can peer right into a lava vent. At stop 6, you can see tree molds, the encased lava remains of long-dead trees.

Related: Why You Should Plan a Stargazing Road Trip in Idaho

Become a Junior Lunar Ranger

At Craters of the Moon National Monument, as the park slogan goes, "you can explore the earth and then reach for the stars." Fill out an educational and fun activity book and turn it in to earn a cool-looking patch. Finished your activity book after the visitor center closed? No worries — you can mail in your completed booklet and get a junior ranger badge sent to you at home.

Discover a Cave

There are five caves at the monument that are open to the public. The bats in the caves are mesmerizing but vulnerable to a deadly new fungus that causes White-Nose Syndrome. While humans aren’t susceptible, they are carriers for the fungus. For this reason, cave permits are only granted after visitors go through a screening process with park staff. The cave area is the final stop on the loop road.

Related: How to Have the Best National Park Vacation This Summer

Come for Wildflower Season

Carpets of bright color appear every spring in the form of flashy wildflowers, bringing Craters of the Moon to life. Late May to mid-June is typically when the season is at its peak. However, the syringa, Idaho's state flower, is a notable mid-summer bloom at the monument. Despite the harsh and seemingly barren environment, stunning flowers makes their return each year in an act of stubborn survival.

Admire the Night Sky

Because of light pollution, two out of every three Americans are unable to see the Milky Way from their backyards. Craters of the Moon has some of the darkest skies in the national park system. There’s a Star Party each fall and spring, and during the summer, you can take ranger-led full moon hikes through the preserve.

Climb a Mountain of Ash

It requires a bit of effort to get to the Inferno Cinder Cone viewpoint from the parking lot, but it’s worth it. Conditions can be pretty windy on the way up, so hold on to your hat! At the top, you’re rewarded with tremendous views of multiple cinder cones against the seismic backdrop of the Great Rift.

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Where to Stay Near Craters of the Moon National Monument

A 42-site campground unfurls across the volcanic vista beyond the visitor center. The campground is first come, first served, and it costs 15 dollars a night in-season. There is no lodging available in the park, though plenty of lodging and services are available 18 miles east in Arco.

For those looking to add a quirky and unforgettable attraction to their Idaho agenda, consider finding lodging three hours away in Pocatello. There you'll find the Museum of Clean, a hands-on and oddly inspiring educational complex that promotes and shares the value of clean. 

Related: You Haven't Visited Idaho Until You've Slept Inside This Giant Potato

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