Ever wanted to feel like you were on another planet? Well, Craters of the Moon might just be the destination for you. Idaho often gets overlooked as a destination. I mean, when you’re bordering states like Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, and Montana, you may get the short end of the tourism stick. Unlike its neighbors, Idaho has no national parks (outside of a sliver of Yellowstone), but that doesn’t mean that it lacks in natural beauty.
Idaho has no shortage of National Forests or stunning mountain ranges. Best of all, you’ll stumble into far fewer tourists than you would in other nearby destinations. One of the most otherworldly destinations is Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. The black, volcanic landscapes transport you to another world, one that you would never expect to find in the middle of nowhere, Idaho.
Here’s all you need to know about a 2021 visit to Idaho’s hidden gem of Craters of the Moon.
Where Is Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve?
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. This place is out there. The closest town to Craters of the Moon is the small town of Arco with a population of 882. From there, it’s another 30 minutes or so to get to Crater of the Moon’s Visitor Center. In other words, it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The town of Arco has a couple of run-down motels and a KOA campground. Your best bet as a home base for travelers would be the KOA. It is honestly one of the nicest parts of this town, and that’s even accounting for the grimy scrapyard neighboring our campsite. As minority travelers, Arco and its many Trump 2020 signs was not exactly a place we felt safe. The whole town felt like one giant meth lab, no offense, but sort of yes offense.
Other potential home bases could be Idaho Falls or Twin Falls, although both would be around a two-hour drive one way. And boy, that drive is mind-numbing. After the stunning landscapes of the Tetons and Yellowstone, being back on endless flat ground was coma-inducing.
Until you actually get to Craters of the Moon, that is. From Arco, it’s about 20 miles to get to the entrance of the National Monument. The landscapes change suddenly and you’ll find yourself surrounded by black, volcanic rocks and surreal landscapes. It’s quite literally a hidden gem of sorts, and a worthy reward for the trails and tribulations of driving through and dealing with Idaho’s finest.
Is Craters of the Moon National Monument Worth Visiting?
Again, I’ll try not to sugarcoat my opinions. Craters of the Moon is otherworldly, and one of the only things like it that you’ll find in the continental United States. However, I wouldn’t particularly consider it an essential on a road trip. The entrance fee is included if you have an annual national parks pass, so if you’ve got one of those and feel like driving for a few hours, then I’d say it’s worth the visit. If you don’t have an entrance fee, it’s $20 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.
How much time do you need to spend at Craters of the Moon? It depends, really. You definitely don’t need seven days to see the whole park, but if you wanted to see everything the park had to offer, you could spread it out over a few visits. My original plan was to stay in Arco for two nights and do a few hikes in Craters of the Moon. It didn’t take too long for us to decide that we wouldn’t stay two nights in Arco and then kind of rushed through Craters of the Moon quickly in one day.
If you only had a day, you could easily spend that entire day here. There are an abundance of hikes, caves, and overlooks to fill up your time. I had initially hoped to spend the entire day here for my birthday. Unfortunately, it was not to be so as car problems forced me to hustle back to Salt Lake City before all the car dealerships closed. Still, in our few hours there, it definitely felt like it was worth the visit.
Highlights of Craters of the Moon, Idaho
There are quite a few things to do at Craters of the Moon National Monument. Unfortunately, some of the best things to do were closed due to COVID and safety concerns. Cramped places, such as the caves, were all closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It sucks, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy your time at Craters of the Moon.
One of the nice things about it is that compared to more popular outdoors destinations, Craters of the Moon was practically devoid of visitors. We ran into a couple dozen people throughout our few hours there. Compare that to Yellowstone and Grand Teton the day before where hundreds of people were cramped together to watch Old Faithful erupt. That’s definitely one of the highlights of Craters of the Moon. The feeling of having the entire park to yourself only adds to the otherworldliness of the experience.
Some of the highlights of Craters of the Moon National Monument include:
- Inferno Cone
- Devil’s Orchard
- Big Craters
- Spatter Cones
- Indian Tunnel (requires a free cave permit, but closed for COVID-19 as of August 2020)
The hike up to Inferno Cone.
Another nice thing about Craters of the Moon is that while the park boasts 753,000 acres, the main visitor area is relatively small. After driving hours each day just to get from place to place between Grand Teton and Yellowstone, it was a welcome change not having to drive too much. The Craters Loop Road is only about seven miles long, and all trailheads can be accessed pretty easily. The drive itself is quite stunning. Even without taking on any of the longer hikes in the area, we felt like we got our money’s worth with the views alone.
During the winter, Craters of the Moon is a popular destination for snowshoers and cross-country skiers.
Where To Stay When Visiting Craters of the Moon
One of the things that deterred me the most from visiting Craters of the Moon was how hard it was to find a convenient home base for a day trip. Idaho Falls and Twin Falls were both a bit too far to justify a lengthy round trip. Airbnbs and hotels were quite pricy and few and far between when searching through the smaller towns nearby. We eventually settled for the KOA in Arco, which was more than satisfactory considering the town it was in. For a tent site, it was $45 after tax, which was a bit steep, all things considered. For that price, you got free breakfast and coffee, and a few other amenities that we weren’t able to take much advantage of. They also have private cabins for travelers without tents or RVs.
One can also camp within Craters of the Moon National Monument itself. It’s actually a bit cheaper, but you’ll be far away from any real amenities and facilities. As of August 2020, the visitor center was still open, but other parts of the park were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What To Bring When Visiting Craters of the Moon
The heat was something else out here. The black, volcanic rocks apparently can reach temperatures of above 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Wear shoes that protect your feet. I recommend some hiking boots or sneakers with good traction. These are the boots I’ve been wearing throughout my many hiking trips. The terrain can often get uneven and tricky if you do decide to go hiking.
Make sure to bring sunscreen and lots of water. During the winter, the landscapes change entirely as they get covered in snow. It’ll get freezing, so dress accordingly. And of course, make sure to bring your camera. I shoot with a Nikon D5600. The stunning landscapes out here are something to behold, and one that you’ll want to remember forever.
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