Monday, August 17, 2009

Check out Craters before it blows again

Published in the Post Register September, 2009.

CRATERS OF THE MOON National Monument and Preserve – As recently as 2,000 years ago, this weak spot in the earth’s crust caused by the rift between Snake River Plain and the nearby mountains oozed and spurted lava.

On first glance, the landscape is dreary and foreboding. To folks who pay just a little attention, Craters of the Moon is a diverse and fascinating landscape that evokes everything from coffee grounds to crackled chocolate, with a surprising menagerie of wildflowers, hardy trees and sage sprinkled throughout.

The thing is, you’ve got actually go into the park, get out of your car and look around to see the good stuff, like cave-like lava tubes, cinder and splatter cones and a wide variety of volcanic basalt.

For example, on the short walk to the cave area, stop and look down. You’re likely to see a variety of lava, from smooth to chunky to spiky (the Hawaiians have names for all of these, like pahoehoe for the ropelike lava, to ‘a ‘a for the spiky stuff). If you’re just in a hurry to get to the lava tubes, you could easily miss thousands of unusual formations surrounding the trail.

From May through July, the park sprouts a surprising array of wildflowers, and a handful survives into August and beyond. The cinder cone areas are peppered with dwarf buckwheat well into the late summer and early fall, looking from a distance as if someone had sprinkled the coarse, black earth with popcorn.

Craters can accommodate any sort of adventure, from a day trip with the kids to adventurers looking for a multi-day wilderness trips. For most, a day spent wandering the short loop trails with a break for a picnic lunch is plenty. To accommodate a weekend visit, Craters does have a campground (reservations are recommended).

The Great Rift lava beds were created over 13,000 years’ time, beginning around 13,000 B.C. and concluding around the time of Christ. Geologists believe, however, that the same general conditions that created the flows still exist and future eruptions are likely (so watch where you step).

Among the better stops on your tour of Craters are:
Devils Orchard: An easy half-mile loop trail that includes a wide variety of lava, cinders and plantlife.

Inferno Cone: A steep half-mile hike up this cinder cone opens a view to a series of other cinder cones in the region.

Splatter Cones and Big Craters: One of the more interesting stops, a short walk takes you to jagged splatter cones and a longer walk provides access to the Big Craters.

The Cave Area: Worth a couple of hours, the cave trail takes you to lava tubes, created when hot lava flowed through natural underground conduits, leaving open, cave-like gaps in the cooling lava. Some of these tubes have partially collapsed, while others, like Boy Scout Cave, are mostly intact and require a flashlight and good footwear to scramble over the rocks and ice underground.
Eastern Idahoans who are familiar with ancient lava flows all around us might have convinced themselves that Craters isn’t worth the 92-mile one-way drive from Idaho Falls, or worth the time to turn off the highway on the way to Sun Valley. Those assumptions would be, well, wrong.

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