When President Calvin Coolidge designated Craters of the Moon a national monument and preserve, he called the area in southern Idaho a “weird and scenic landscape peculiar to itself.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Formed by lava flows and fiery cinder fountains, the 752,000-acre expanse is a jagged topography of black rock and sagebrush.
Craters of the Moon is such an alien-looking environment that NASA sent astronauts there in the late 1960s for training in collecting rock samples in a harsh environment. NASA returned a few years ago to use the rocky grounds for training for future missions to Mars.
Even if you’re not an astronaut, you can explore Craters of the Moon by driving the 7-mile loop through the park, which offers access to trails and caves. Walk to the top of one of the volcanic cones to survey the “Great Rift” that shaped this unique terrain across the Snake River Plain. Descend into one of the four caves, from the popular Indian Tunnel to the more difficult Boy Scout Cave. Hike along various trails that range from less than two miles to eight miles.
With 250,000 visitors annually, the peak season for Craters of the Moon is spring through fall. The Lava Flow campground, near the visitor center, offers 42 tent and RV sites. Although some facilities are closed in winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are available then.