Ocean Of Volcanic Lava Offers Awesome XC/Snowshoe Experience.

“[It is an] area of about 60 miles in diameter, where nothing meets the eye but a desolate and awful waste, where no grass grows nor water runs, and where nothing is to be seen but lava.” (Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, 1868 )

The North Crater shows the jagged lava outcrops. Credit: NPS

Some things leave a lasting impression. I flunked geology my freshman year of college—just couldn’t figure out technical things like how to measure a geosyncline or why it matters—and consequently rejected the whole science for years. And then I found that in the right context, absorbing geology can be amazing fun. Aside from Yellowstone National Park, the place that’s had the most volcanic effect on my geologic viewpoint is Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve  in south-central Idaho.

I used to pass the entrance a couple of times a year, driving between Jackson Hole and Sun Valley, at 5,900 feet in the middle of high-desert seeming-nothingness. Hummocks, ridges, cones, lava and cinders don’t create an inviting landscape; in fact, formations are so moon-like that the Apollo astronauts studied geology there prior to their lunar landing.

Craters isn’t exactly a winter destination. There’s not a whole lot of temptation to stop because there’s not much sign of human activity; there’s no on-site lodging; the nearest restaurants, motels, and gas stations are some miles away.

Beautiful snowshoeing and XC skiing on a volcano. Credit: NPS

Man doesn’t seem to have had much impact on the Craters locale. Oh, there’s more air pollution drifting through than a few decades ago, so you’re not as likely to see the high mountain ranges along the Snake River Plain; and larger animals like grizzlies and big-horn sheep disappeared a century ago—but overall, there’s not a lot of visible change.

The region began erupting around 15,000 years ago and stopped around 2,000 years ago. There’s a school of thought that another eruption is due in the next few centuries; but it’s expected to again be flowing lava rather than an explosion like Mount St. Helens in 1980.

There are no streams and few water holes, but the ecosystem is home to 2,000 species of insect, almost 200 bird species, 59 species of mammals, plus reptiles, amphibians, and a remarkably diverse plant population. Of course, you don’t see a whole lot of any of them in winter – primarily shrubs and limber pine.

It’s a unique land of tremendous extremes that an early visitor called “the strangest 75 square miles on the North American continent.” My first visit was in mid-summer with a geologist-friend who was ecstatic to see both aa lava (a Hawaiian name that’s spelled at least three different ways, meaning a jagged surface best avoided) and pahoehoe lava (smooth and ropey-looking). The heat was stifling – air temperatures may only reach the 90s in July, but surface temperature on that black rock can reach 170 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s more than hot enough to fry an egg – if you can find a flat surface.

I remember the physical shock of following a trail into a lava tube that’s perpetually chilly. We lost perhaps a dozen feet in elevation, started to shiver, and came across ice.

Snow covered spatter cone arises from the landscape. This is a place for other-worldy exploration. Credit: NPS

Winter Landscape: Milk And Vanilla Ice Cream.

Snow can bring a gentler face to Craters, or as one guide told me, a “Sahara arctic flavor.” He added, “It’s an entirely different experience from what you can have in any other area because of the brilliant white snow and the black basalt rock. It kind of looks like cookies and cream ice cream out there.”

Explore the snow-covered lava on snowshoes with a guide. Credit: NPS

Winter conditions can see -30 degrees Fahrenheit at night, with the wind rising to 30 miles per hour and not much tree-cover. It’s a great time to have the right clothing and good judgment on how far to venture from your car. There’s usually about a four-month season for skiing and snowshoeing.

The Park Service grooms up to seven miles of two-way trail along a summertime scenic loop drive. When I visited it was double-tracked, with a skate lane shared by snowshoers plus a separate snowshoe trail. There’s no fee, no dogs, no bikes, no snowmobiles. It’s easier to ski clockwise if you’re a beginner in order to avoid a downhill on the southwest edge of Inferno Cone.

In some ways, snowshoeing around the Monument is more fun than skiing because you get more flotation so can do more off-track exploring. But if you enjoy downhills, it’s a blast to make some turns on the open-sloped cinder cones, which can give you 400-500 feet of vertical drop.  

You can climb to the summit of Mt. Paisley for grand views before heading back to the Visitor Center. As a guide once noted to me, “How many places can people say, ‘Ya know, I went out Saturday and snowshoed to the top of a volcano?’”

At 6,000 feet, snow dominates the landscape from November to April. Credit: NPS





  1. Stumbled on this place by accident nearly 50 years ago…not in winter. It really is unworldly. A dream discovery for a photographer

  2. A must see. It is an overlooked treasure. Some interesting walking trails in the non snow seasons, and a good visitors center. The Yellowstone caldera used to be under this place; who knew? The entire region is well worth a few days of your time to explore. (Spent nearly a year working on a project out of Twin Falls 2 years ago; so reminded me of Bend, OR 30 years ago and priced like it too.) Just go!

  3. Within just a mile or two of Craters of the Moon National Monument, there is a ski area called Blizzard. It has a long platter lift that takes you to the top of the mountain. It is open only on Saturdays. It is sponsored by the Arco, Idaho Lions Club. Nobody except the locals knows about this ski area, but that means that there are no crowds and plenty of wide open terrain to ski on a good powder day.

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