Craters of the Moon is an under-the-radar national monument nestled in the mountainous landscape of Southern Idaho. This lesser-known park will feel like you’ve been transported to a different planet. Formed by volcanic eruptions as little as 2,000 years ago, this park was once used to train astronauts for their trip to the moon.
This blog post will show you why Craters of the Moon is not to be missed. As well as some of the top activities to do there and options for camping.
History of Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon is a super unique national monument defined by lava flows. The park was originally formed around 15,000 years ago and has continuously changed thanks to new eruptions.
The park’s position along the Great Rift (the same geological zone under Yellowstone) means the park lies on top of cracks, vents, and fissures in the earth where magma flows or erupts over time.
High-magnitude earthquakes often trigger eruptions. Which historically happens every 2,000 years. The last eruption at Craters of the Moon National Monument happened just shy of 2,000 years ago. Meaning another eruption could happen at any time!
Visitors can see several types of lava features at Craters of the Moon National Monument. Pahoehoe, a native Hawaiian word, describes the tube-like lava flows that resemble rope. Pahoehoe is the lava found above the lava tubes and lava caves that Craters of the Moon is known for.
A’a lava is super rough, sharp, and bumpy. These jagged rocks make traversing the lava extremely painful and difficult and can ruin even the sturdiest of shoes. Areas of the park that have a’a usually have signs for no walking to keep the landscape and your shoes protected.
You will also see spatter cones and cinder cones at Craters of the Moon National Monument.
These two different types of cones are formed during an eruption. Cinder cones are the iconic “volcano” image most people have in their heads. They are formed slowly as the eruption openings clog. The eruption then re-opens on top of the previous closure creating an upward formation of a cone.
The spatter cone is made from fierce and intense eruptions that spatter small pieces of lava onto the surface. The lava in a spatter cone will be rough and resemble a’a.
How to get to the Craters of the Moon
Given its remote location, it’s not a route most people take as they venture through Idaho. You really have to want to go there.
Craters of the Moon is located in Southern Idaho an hour and a half from Pocatello and around 3 hours from Boise. Pocatello’s proximity to Yellowstone National Park makes Craters of the Moon a common stop for those exiting the park and heading west.
When is the best time to visit?
The National Monument is open year-round, but given Idaho’s hot summers and cold winters spring and fall are the best times to visit the National Monument.
We’ve visited in the fall twice now. Both times the days were nice with the nights being cooler. Just be wary of smoke in the region in late summer. Because of its location in a valley, smoke from neighboring cities and states often linger here.
How long should you spend at the park?
Craters of the Moon National Monument is a big park that is home to around 400 square miles of lava fields. However, only a small portion of the RV park can actually be explored on foot or by car.
The Lava Flow 7-mile loop is how people commonly explore which can be driven or biked in just a few hours. Depending on the number of stops you want to make in the park, half of a day to a full day is more than sufficient for enjoying all Craters of the Moon has to offer.
Where to stay when visiting craters of the Moon?
If you’re planning on spending a full day exploring the park you’ll likely want to stay overnight. There are a few hotels and RV campgrounds to choose from in Arco or Carey.
Arco is about a 20-minute drive from Craters of the Moon National Monument. As a fun side fact; Arco was the first atomically powered city in the United States.
Carey is a bit further, about a 25-minute drive from the park entrance. Both cities are small and don’t have a lot of amenities. If you’re in a small RV or trailer, we highly recommend trying to camp at Lava Flow Campground at the entrance of the National Monument.
The campground works on a first come first serve basis and is dry-camping. Meaning there are no electrical, water, or dump hookups at each campground. There are drinking water connections to fill water containers, but those cannot be used to fill RV tanks.
The cost for camping varies by season and there are discounts offered if you have a Senior or Access Pass. Peak-season camping spots will run you $15. Which we personally feel is well worth the price. It’s not often you can camp in a lava field.
Things to know before you go
Craters of the Moon National Monument is a part of the National Parks system which requires an entrance fee in order to enter. The rate is charged on your vehicle, which at the time of this writing was $20 per vehicle, $15 per motorcycle, or $10 for a bicycle or walk-in. This fee is good for 7 days and covers anywho is in the vehicle.
If you have an America the Beautiful pass ($80 per year and gets you into any national park or monument) you can get into the park for free.
There are a few special days of the year that allow you to have access to Craters of the Moon National Monument and any other official National Park or Monument free of charge.
- January 17: MLK Day
- April 16: First Day of National Park Week
- August 4: Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
- September 24: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
The park has super limited cell reception that was intermittent at best. We have a cell booster on our RV and were able to get a workable connection at the RV park. However, when we ventured into the park itself we had little to no reception. Plan to unplug when you’re exploring the park. Or have your Starlink handy.
If you want to go inside any of the lava caves at the park you will need to stop at the Visitor Center to get a permit.
The Ranger will ask you if you are wearing anything (shoes, clothing, camera gear) that has also been in another cave before. This is to prevent white-nose bat syndrome from being spread from cave to cave.
If you can honestly answer “no”, then you’ll get a fun bat stamp on your hand. This means you’re permitted to enter any of the caves in Craters of the Moon.
What to bring with you
There is a great picnic area near Devils Garden. I highly recommend packing a lunch to enjoy among the lava fields. Idaho can be super dry so make sure to bring drinking water with you. We love our reusable water bottle from Camelbak.
If you plan to visit the caves it’s a good idea to have a flashlight or headlamp with you. The boy-scout cave is well-lit, but if you’re able to explore the Indian cave you’ll definitely want a light source.
Top things to do
We suggest starting your visit to Craters of the Moon at the visitor center. They have a small museum about how this national monument was formed. They also give more information on the different types of lavas you’ll see during your visit. Don’t forget to get your permit for the caves at the visitor center!
There are often ranger-led tours to the caves or around the park. We high recommend grabbing a spot at a session if you have the time.
The National Park is an official dark sky. On full moons, they offer Ranger-led walks through the park lit by only the moonlight. We weren’t able to do that during our visit. But if you’re there at the right time this is not to be missed.
After you stop at the visitor center start the 7-mile scenic drive. There are 7 stops throughout the scenic drive. If you have time we recommend stopping at each. Most are less than a 1/4 mile hike to the view or lava feature and are well worth exploring.
If you are short on time and want to know the major spots to hit, we suggest the following:
- Inferno Cone (spot 4)
- Snow Cone (spot 5)
- Tree Mold Trails and Buffalo Cave (spot 6)
- Indian Cave, Boy-scout Cave, and Beauty Cave (spot 7)
Inferno Cone is one of 25 cinder cones in the park. This steep hike is less than a quarter mile (0.8 km) and offers big rewards at the top. Look for a patch of land in the center of the lava fields that aren’t covered with lava. This isolated island of land is the only land mass untouched by modern European inhabitants.
The caves are arguably the best thing to do at the park. So if you’re physically able to trek down the stairs or work through the sometimes narrow spaces of the cave it’s well worth it. Indian Cave is the largest cave, and you can follow it through from start to finish, walking back on top of the lava fields.
It’s a super cool experience and will take you around 30 – 45 minutes if you walk at a normal pace. If you’re stopping to enjoy, take pictures, or just go slower give yourself an hour to an hour and a half.
The boy-scout cave is another awesome cave that requires a bit of bravery and preparation. Unlike Indian Cave, it is very dark in this cave. Bring a headlamp or flashlight and make sure you have good footwear.
If you come at the right time of year, you should see a decent amount of ice in the back of the cave. This part of the park was closed during our last visit. They do this to protect the area or due to protect visitors from lava tubes falling or caving in.
It’s important to stay on the paths to protect yourself and the fragile landscape you are visiting. On your walk to Indian Cave keep an eye out for circular rock piles. They were used by the Shoshone tribes who migrated through Craters of the Moon National Park.
While their exact purpose is unknown, scientists’ best estimates are that they were used as a base for teepees and wind protection, possibly for ceremonial rituals, or maybe as markers for directions on their migration.
If you have visited Craters of the Moon National Monument we’d love to hear how you liked it, what you did, or your favorite part in the comments below.