Located in southern Idaho between the hopping city of Boise and beautiful Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is a fantastic destination to head to to learn more about the area’s history and to see some very unique volcanic structures.
While this national monument and preserve doesn’t necessarily have a lot of adventures to offer — especially when it comes to epic, Class 2 fun, it is still beautiful and worth seeking out — especially if you have the time while road-tripping, or if you are looking to explore a less popular area of the West.
This short adventure guide covers everything you need to know about visiting Craters of the Moon; including, how to get there, what it costs to enter, camping, and the best hikes. So with that — let’s get exploring!
\\ Fast Facts About Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
YEAR ESTABLISHED: as a Monument in 1924 and as a Preserve in 2002
LOCATION: southern Idaho
SIZE: 753,000 acres
NUMBER OF ANNUAL VISITORS: ~251,000 in 2020
COST TO ENTER CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT: $20 per private vehicle (valid for 7 days)
BEST FOR: hiking, geology
➳ Check out the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve website to learn more.
\\ A Brief History of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve covers three major lava fields and roughly 400 square miles of sagebrush steppe grasslands. In total, the Monument covers just over 1,000 square miles of land in southern Idaho.
All three lava fields lie along the Great Rift of Idaho — an area with some of the best examples of open rift cracks in the world, including the deepest known crack on Earth at 800 feet deep. Within the Monument, there are excellent examples of almost every variety of basaltic lava, as well as tree molds (cavities left by lava-incinerated trees), lava tubes, and numerous other volcanic features (like spatter cones).
Between 1901 and 1903, Israel Russell became the first geologist to study the area that would eventually become the Monument. In 1910, Samuel Paisley continued Russell’s work of surveying and later became the Monument’s first custodian. Other geologists and scientists soon followed and in time much of the mystery and questions surrounding this and other lava beds found around the state were put to rest. While a few European settlers who visited the area in the 19th century created local legends that the monument’s area looked like the surface of the Moon, it was actually geologist Harold T. Stearns who coined the name “Craters of the Moon” in 1923. He did this while trying to convince the National Park Service to protect the area and make it into a national monument.
❔GOOD TO KNOW: Apollo astronauts actually performed part of their training at Craters of the Moon's lava field. Their main task was to learn what to look for and how to collect quality rock specimens while in an unfamiliar and harsh environment.
\\ When to Visit Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
The region where Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is located — the high steppe of Idaho — can be quite harsh during both the winter and summer seasons. I would highly recommend visiting during the shoulder seasons, especially during the spring when you will be able to see lots of varieties of wildflowers, both in the Monument and in the surrounding area. Plus, during spring, the temperatures are usually quite comfortable (low to mid-80s) and sunny.
\\ How to Get To and Around Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
The two closest major cities to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve are Boise, Idaho — located roughly 2 hours and 45 minutes away — and Salt Lake City, Utah, which is just under 4 hours away. No matter where you start your journey, you will need to have your own vehicle for there really is no option to reach the park via public transportation.
Once you reach the Monument, it is really easy to start exploring. Because Craters of the Moon National Monument is quite small, at least in terms of the major sites to see, it is super easy to visit everything either from your vehicle or from the seat of a bike (or if you are gumptious, you could do it via walking too).
You will likely want to start your adventure at the Robert Lambert Visitor Center, which is located right at the turn off into the Monument. Here you can find lots of information on the Monument’s main attractions, including the lava tubes/caves, lava fields, and spatter cones (one of the most unique volcanic attractions in the Monument). There is also a small gift shop, bathrooms, and a water refill station. Find the exact location of the Craters of the Moon National Monument visitor center here.
❔GOOD TO KNOW: right after the visitor center you will get to the Monument’s only campground (learn more about this below) and the entrance station. It costs $20 per private vehicle to enter, though if you are planning to visit other National Parks or Monuments (or National Historical Sites) then consider purchasing the America the Beautiful Annual Pass, which costs $80 and is good for a year. Learn more about the park pass here.
\\ Camping in Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
There is only one campground within Craters of the Moon National Monument: Lava Flow Campground, which consists of 42 sites and includes amenities such as potable water and flush toilets (seasonal), a charcoal grill and picnic table. All sites are first-come, first-served (no reservations are taken) and cost $15 per night. The campground is open May — November.
❔GOOD TO KNOW: while a couple of sites can accommodate larger vehicles and RVs, none have electrical hook-ups.
If camping isn’t really your thing but you still want to stay near the Monument, then your best bet will be to book a night in the small towns of Carey (nearly 30 minutes away) or Arco (20 minutes away). Both have a few mom-and-pop hotels or motels, though do not expect anything too luxurious.
Otherwise, you can camp outside of the monument in the nearby Sawtooth National Forest or simply visit the Monument on your way to other destinations — like Grand Teton National Park or Boise.
CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT AND PRESERVE TRAVEL ITINERARY
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU NEED IN CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT AND PRESERVE? 2–3 hours to see most of the major sites in the monument, though you may want more time if you want to do a bigger hike.
WHAT TO BRING WITH YOU? Highly recommend wearing shoes with good traction (like these), especially if you are looking to hike up Inferno Cone (it is very slick). Also, you will definitely want some form of sun protection — either a hat (like this one) or just some sun protective clothing. And of course sunscreen.
CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT AND PRESERVE ITINERARY
START: begin at the Monument visitor center, which is open from 8:30AM to 6PM 7 days a week during the summer and 9AM to 4:30PM Thursday — Monday during the winter (though it is completely closed late-November to late-January). Here you can learn a lot about the Monument’s human history as well as its unique natural environment.
1 | Head out on the 7-mile scenic loop, which starts and ends just past the entrance station. Along the way, you can stop at numerous trailheads and viewpoints. Definitely recommend checking out the very short Devil’s Garden Nature Loop to learn more about the area’s plant life and volcanic history.
2 | Hike up Inferno Cone. This short but steep hike — 0.4 miles one-way — gives you unparalleled 360° views of the surrounding area, including the nearby spatter cones, lava fields, and mountains.
3 | Check out the spatter cones, which look like miniature volcanoes and were formed at the later stages of a volcanic eruption (they’re formed when hot lumps of lava are thrown a short distance into the air only to fall back to earth around a small central vent). There are two trails to explore (both quite short): the Snow Cones Trail and the Spatter Cone Trail.
4 | Finish your visit with a short hike along the Tree Molds Trail, which measures 2 miles and gets you up close to molds of ancient trees that were encased in lava.
Other areas to explore in the Monument include the Broken Loop Trail (1.8-mile loop), one of the lava tubes or caves (make sure they are open ahead of time), and the North Crater Trail (a 3.5-mile trail that ends at North Crater). You can also spend a good part of a day out on the Wilderness Trail — which measures 4 miles each way and ends at The Sentinel.
\\ Must-See Spots Near Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
The Monument is located in a pretty remote and out-of-the-way area of southern Idaho. The closest places of much distinction are Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Great Basin National Park (all multiple hours away but definitely worth exploring).
Besides national parks, you can also visit the popular towns of Sun Valley, Idaho; McCall, Idaho and Big Sky, Montana.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is a fantastic place to spend a few hours and learn about this area of the country’s unique geology and human history. While the park doesn’t offer too many adventures, it is still worth checking out — especially if you are in the area.
If you have any questions or comments about the Monument, or about exploring the USA’s numerous other national parks, then leave them below or reach out directly.