The Old Hotspot
August 22 - Craters of the Moon
Another clear and warm morning dawned over the state of Idaho. With the ending of the very successful eclipse segment of the trip, we now turned our attention to a more relaxed and carefree bit of vacationing. A bit of sightseeing, a bit of hiking and exploring.
Situated as we were next to an interesting unit of the National Park Service - Craters of the Moon National Monument - it seemed only natural that we kick off our post eclipse activities with a visit there. We packed up our at-large campsite and drove a few minutes eastward to the park entrance. The day's bulk of visitation had not yet arrived, although we suspected it was likely to be very elevated, given all of the extra people in the region for the eclipse (and now with time on their hands!). Fortunately it was still early - the perfect time for us to visit.
Craters of the Moon National Monument
Given that we didn't have any campsite facilities at our at-large camp, we had deferred breakfast. Now in the nicely-appointed confines of Craters of the Moon, we drove along the scenic main park road and found a handy roadside picnic area. Breakfast amidst the lava flows.
Morning Breakfast in the park
Craters of the Moon is a spot in central Idaho that, at a distant point in the past, was directly over an active hot-spot in the Earth's mantle. This meant the area had received extensive periods of volcanism, usually in the form of broad, extensive flows of basalt lava. Occasionally, a series of small cinder cones would form through this landscape. The resulting expanse of black lavas, cinder cones, and other volcanic features gave rise to the area's name: Craters of the Moon.
Spatter Cones Trailhead
First up, we chose to visit a linear sequence of cinder and spatter cones strung out in the central area of the park. It was nice to get out and walk - without packs - on easy, short trails, and we were in high spirits as we climbed up to the "Big Craters" area. Afterwards we visited the very well-preserved pits of some small spatter cones.
Infection from Valley of Fire
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Craters of the Moon - click map to view
After the cones exploration, we headed over to an area with several lava tubes. These tubes, which commonly form in large basaltic lava flows such as these, can sometimes go on for miles, and are pretty cool to explore. Headlamps in pocket, we walked across the blackened, blasted landscape on a delightful little paved path until we reached the first of several tubes. This one was somewhat small and there already seemed to be a couple of people taking up most of the space, so we moved on. We soon came to a much larger, more extensive tube called Indian Cave. A large sturdy metal staircase led down through a large collapsed section of the tube.
This one was huge - perhaps forty feet across and twenty feet high. Although the floor was covered in collapse debris, the park service had cleared a small path through it.
Indian Cave went on for a long way, and was very interesting: sections where it got nearly (but not completely) dark, areas where the bottom of the tube wasn't covered in boulders, revealing the ropey, textured nature of the floor; another huge skylight from another collapse, filling another section of tube with light. And, finally, a far exit that narrowed down into a wee little chamber, walls lined with all sorts of interesting and complex drip and flow textures, frozen in time.
The far exit to Indian Cave was as tiny as the main entrance was big, and served to cap off a very fun and varied tube caving experience. On to the next one!
Boy Scout Cave was very different from Indian Cave - it was small, with low ceilings, damp, and clammy, and basically pitch black once you were in it. Headlamps were absolutely required. Cool enough (both figuratively and literally), but it was less exciting than had been Indian Cave (admittedly we only explored one half of its network).
For a finale, we visited Beauty Cave. This one was midway in size between the two previous ones, and had a nice, symmetrical tube-like shape to it (probably why it was called Beauty Cave). It too was dark and not very long. Five minutes or so was all it took to explore.
We finished with the caves and with Craters of the Moon around lunch time. As we had suspected, the park was now jam-packed with visitors, and simply stopping at the visitor center to take advantage of the bathroom was an extreme exercise in congestion.
We continued east through Idaho and discussed our next points of visitation. Our schedule was flexible, and I had proposed a number of ideas. One of them was a multi-day backpack to the highpoint of Utah, 13,534-foot high Kings Peak. I was thinking of a three-day expedition, and had the benefit of being nice and close to our fly-out airport in Salt Lake City when we completed.
The group felt this was a slightly too stiff objective, so I proposed my second idea: a three or four-day exploration of the Grand Teton / Yellowstone area, in Northwest Wyoming. Both parks offer amazing beauty, and there was plenty there we could do as day outings, and maybe even throw in an easy backpack if everyone was up for it. This idea was pretty readily agreed to, so... off we went.
The logical first destination for our Teton / Yellowstone adventuring was Jackson, WY - a very affluent and upscale resort / outdoor community just south of Grand Teton National Park. We arrived in time to take a brief look in the downtown square, complete with thousands of elk horns and an old-west Wyoming gunfight recreation - in progress. After a nice dinner in a local cafe, we set about finding a campground for the night.
Pu and the very antlery main square
Once again, our physical and temporal proximity to the recent eclipse's path of totality meant that everything was full up, including campgrounds near and far. We drove further east into the Gros Venture wilderness area and managed to find a spot in the overflow camping area of the Atherton Creek campground. Good enough for us!