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Craters of the Moon: Lava and Cinders
The country was nervous for several days. She shivered with anticipation. Then clouds of sulfurous stench hissed from the widening gap. Fountains of lava shot into the sky from the fissure and heaps of ash and smudges around them. The prevailing southwesterly wind carried the volcanic dust and moved the growing cones to the northeast. Suddenly, as if they were closed, the fountains descended back into the crevice. The earth stopped shaking: all that remained was a hot hissing sound.
But the country was not finished. A cone of black coal jutted outward from his side and shattered a new wound. The blood from the lava stopped. The earth contracted and sent lava gushing to the surface. Fragments of the cones broke off and were carried away by the torrent. As the lava crust cooled from red-hot to dark, arteries of lava flowed beneath, suppressing the flow. Like honey, lava spread across the landscape.
Just two thousand years ago—a mere tick of the geologic clock—an event similar to the one described occurred at Crater of the Moon National Monument in south-central Idaho. But that was not the only case of volcanism here. A large weakness in the earth’s crust, known as the Great Rift, has on several occasions allowed molten rock to erupt from deep within the earth.
The park’s visitor center is the ideal place to start exploring this seemingly bleak land of lava. The center contains books and exhibits related to the geology, history and biology of the park. The video shows recent eruptions in Hawaii that were similar to those that occurred in lunar craters centuries ago. Across the street, visitors can camp among the volcanic rock and ash in a single campsite (no hookups) and enjoy an evening campfire program during the summer at the nearby amphitheater.
Once you’ve got a map, a campsite, and extra water (the visitor center and campground are the only sources), you can begin driving the seven-mile loop to explore the area. Just beyond the camp, the road turns sharply to the right as it reaches part of the young flow of the North Crater. Around the bend, a paved interpretive trail awaits those who want to see the lava up close. Along this trail, you’ll see the Triple Twist Tree – an ancient, gnarled pine. By counting the number of growth rings on this tree, scientists estimate that this stream may have occurred two thousand years ago, making it one of the youngest streams in the park.
You will learn that two types of basaltic lava flows are found in lunar craters. One species is called pahoehoe (pronounced pa-hoy-hoy; Hawaiian word for ropy). At the top of this flow, a cold but pliable crust formed, which pushed the crust into folds. Another type is aa (pronounced ah-ah; Hawaiian for “hard on your feet”). Aa lava, which is less gaseous and slower than pahoehoe, forms spiny patches on its surface as it flows.
A short distance beyond the parking lot is the North Crater Trail. This trail will take you to the crater where the lava flow originated.
Continuing on, you’ll turn left off the loop to reach the Devil’s Orchard. Geologists believe this is the site of an ancient cinder cone that has been reduced to pieces by erosion. You can take a self-guided trail – featuring numbered markers typed in a booklet – through the stubby remains. You will learn about geology, bird life, lichens and other plants. Lichens are an association of fungi and algae that can live on bare rock. Look for purple dwarf monkey flowers covering the ground here in the early summer season.
If you continue along the loop, you’ll reach the Inferno Cone. A short, steep path leads to the top of this ash mass. The summit provides a good vantage point for viewing the numerous cones along the Great Rift to the southeast and northwest. Standing at the top, you can feel the full brunt of the park’s constant southwesterly winds. Big Cinder Butte, one of the largest pure basalt cones in the world, is the tallest cone in the Southeast.
From late spring to late summer, many of the more than 200 species of plants native to craters of the Moon fill the slopes of the cones. Dwarf buckwheat, with its pom-pom-like flower clusters, and bitterroot, whose bright white petals contrast sharply with dark centers, are particularly common.
Spray Cones are the next interesting formations along the loop. Nowhere else in the continental United States can you find a better example of cone spray than in the craters of the Moon. They were formed when the earth ejected bits of lava that stuck together. One of the cones here contains ice all year round. This is because lava rocks almost always contain gas bubbles, which act as insulators.
A branch off the loop leads past the frozen lava falls to the Tree Molds Parking Lot. From here you’ll follow a path to the tree molds, which were created when lava flowed over the trees and then cooled, often leaving the rock with impressions of burning tree bark. You can take the Wilderness Trail from the parking lot to the rarely visited Craters of the Moon Wilderness Area. You will need a free permit to enter the wilderness area if you are backpacking.
The Wilderness Trail branches off the Tree Molds Trail, descends steeply to Pahoehoe Stream and crosses the stream. Rock boulders mark the path across the undulating, rippled surface. At the far end, you’ll find an old dirt road that stretches about four miles into the wilderness. If you follow this route, you’ll enjoy a gentle hike through wide open landscapes with only a little bit of dust and ash to worry about.
After crossing the wilderness line, you’ll pass between Big Cinder Butte and Half Cone, then continue through Trench Mortar Flat. The flat’s name was derived from the lava tubes that formed like tree molds, except that the lava formed around standing tree trunks. After you get around Coyote Butte, you’ll come to Echo Crater – one of the better backpacking camps in the area.
We camped at Echo Crater on our first and last visits to this wilderness. During our first visit, we set up camp on the rim of the crater and hiked from there daily in search of holes, cracks, and other features we spotted on the topographic map. On our last night there, we heard and saw peregrine falcons flying around the crater. After observing them for a while, we discovered that the male and female took turns hunting and guarding their nest on the edge of Echo Crater.
On a visit in the 1980s, we reached Echo Crater around dark. The wind was otherwise persistent, so we camped inside the crater for protection. As it happens, the crater is crescent-shaped – a high western rim sloping down to a lower opening to the east. As we began to cook dinner, the moon rose a full, flaming, orange-red orb, casting its light across our camp and into the crater.
In the late 1990s, we investigated mapped features that form in lava flows, such as lava tube caves and lava bridges. Lava can flow like a river, and when the lava at the top is exposed to cooler air, a crust can form that hardens and stops moving. But the lava crust is a good insulator, so the still hot lava below can continue to flow. Eventually, the still-flowing lava may drain away, leaving behind a pipe. If part of the roof eventually collapses then there is a cave of lava tubes. If another part of the roof collapses near the second collapse, the solid crust covering the space between them is a lava bridge.
The Crater of the Moon map lists two lava bridges, Bridge of Tears and Bridge of the Moon. We went to the Bridge of Tears and camped next to it, and also explored Moss Cave and Amphitheater Cave, which formed along the same lava tube as the bridge. We had heard rumors that the Moon Bridge might have collapsed and wanted to go to the area where it was supposed to be and see if we could find it. The inability to find it could be taken as a sign that it crashed.
After camping at the Bridge of Tears, we set off on a hiking trail that would take us straight to the mapped location of the Moon Bridge. After the start, we had to go around an elliptical depression. We noticed that there appeared to be an opening at the opposite end of the depression. So we decided to take some time to explore it. It turned out to be a cave with two openings side by side. The map didn’t show this feature, so we took notes on it, including its GPS coordinates. We continued to the mapped location of the Moon Bridge, but could not find it. We headed back out of the wilderness but spent another night.
After hiking the next day, we turned in our record of the unmapped cave to the rangers at the visitor center and asked if this feature had ever been described before. Turns out it’s not, we see we have to name it. Since we are twin brothers and the cave had two openings, we called it Twin Cave. However, they will never appear on any maps, as the Park Service tries to protect the caves from vandalism and does not want to give away their location.
In August 2016, we returned to the Craters of the Moon Wilderness to visit “our” cave after almost 20 years and found that one of the openings had become larger due to the collapse of parts of the roof, but the other appeared to be the same as before. We took what we call “twin selfies” at the entrance to post on our social media pages.
The dirt road into the wilderness turns off as it reaches the two cinder cones located next to Echo Crater – Stražar and Stražar. South of here, in 1879, JW Powell and Arthur Ferris of Arco, Idaho, left a marker at Vermilion Chasm during a scouting trip to determine if the Crater of the Moon area had enough water to support cattle grazing. It’s not. Then, in 1921, Robert Limbert, WL Cole and a dog ventured north from Minidoka to explore this largely unknown region. During their journey across the aa flows, they could hardly sleep at night because of the sharpness of the lava. The dog cut his legs, so the men had to carry him. After running out of water, they managed to find water holes by watching the flight of pigeons. Despite these adversities, the two men were enthusiastic about this land, and gave many of its features the descriptive names by which they are known today. Thanks to Limbert’s reports, photographs and lobbying, and an article he wrote for National Geographic, the Craters of the Moon were declared a national monument in 1924.
Back on the road, after rejoining the loop, you will continue towards the cave area. Pahoehoe flows advance through channels or pipes beneath the cooling crust. As the eruption subsides, the lava can flow out of the tube, leaving the crust to support itself. The India Tunnel is an example of a lava tube where most of the overlying crust has collapsed. Because of this condition, you don’t need to carry a flashlight to explore the subway-sized Indian Tunnel. Just outside the tunnel, a ring of rocks is all that remains of a windbreak where the Shoshone Indians once camped while hunting deer and other wildlife in the park. However, you will need a flashlight to explore the second cave. The scout’s cave is especially interesting. Throughout the year, this cave contains a thick layer of ice, which can be covered by a layer of water in the summer.
The moon’s craters are also famous for being part of NASA’s efforts to send humans to the real Moon. Several astronauts came here to study the area as an example of what they might encounter when they landed on the moon.
To find the Craters of the Moon, drive 24 miles east of Carey or 18 miles west of Arco on combined routes US 20, 26 and 93 in Idaho. The monument is open year-round, although the ring road is usually only open from late April to mid-November. Cross-country skiing is available in winter. For further information, write to Craters of the Moon National Monument, Box 29, Arco, ID 83213 or call headquarters at (208)527-1300, visitor information at (208)527-1335.
The Craters of the Moon National Monument website is at: http://www.nps.gov/crmo
To learn more about lava, see the wikipedia entry on lava at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lava
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