“Beautiful, beautiful. Magnificent desolation.”
Fewer than 100 people a year get backcountry permits to camp in Craters of the Moon, I wanted to join the exclusive club of overnight astronauts. We planned to head down the “wilderness trail” to Echo Crater and stay the night on the moon under the stars. The wilderness trail only stretches an unimpressive 4 miles, after that the trail disappears and becomes impossible to follow. Echo Crater lies 3.5 miles into the trip. It took us about an hour to get there.
A Trip to the Moon
I’ve always been interested in the cosmos. The inky, infinite blackness populated by pockets of comets, moons, suns, and stars are unobtainable objects of constant intrigue. I’ve told myself that I’d be among the first to sign up to colonize Mars. But walking on the moon remains an unchecked, impossible, bucket list item -- at least that’s what I thought. I found Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve a fair proxy for a real jaunt on the giants.
Craters of the Moon has been on my radar for years but never made the short-list due to it’s adjacency to other close by world-class parks like Yellowstone, the Wind River Range, the Sawtooths and, all of Utah. It was an accident I eventually ended up there. My original plan had been a multi-day hike through the Sawtooths, but due to China-level smog from California forest fires, the visibility and air quality high in the mountains was out of the question. I had already scheduled the days off and needed something to do. So I turned around and nearly passed Craters before backing up and stopping into the visitor’s center--and I’m glad I did.
Even before I pulled into the park, I knew I had called the right audible. 400 square miles of lava-covered wilderness, cinder cones, and scoria fields stretched before like a black scar blistering as far as I could see. It was hot, but I was excited to explore the park with my brother Andy at my side.
We found that not only is there backcountry camping, but the permits are free. The ranger told us that fewer than 100 people a year get a camping permit. Not because of the scarcity of the permit, but due to the harsh conditions, lack of established wilderness trails, and general uninterest. Camping on the moon remains an exclusive club even here on Earth.
Cider and Smoke
A hazy, smoke-filled atmosphere accompanied the crunch of cinder under our boots. California fires raged hundreds of miles away, but the wind was just right to blow it across the states and over our ashy fields. The smoky sky was the perfect setting for our volcano vacation.
The only wilderness trail in the park begins near the Tree Molds parking area. Unfortunately, due to harsh conditions and attempts to keep the park as undisturbed as possible, the trail only travels over four miles of cinder. At the end of the trail, around The Sentinal, you can continue into the wilderness if you desire but it becomes a battle of elements. There’s no shade for nearly 750,000 acres, very, little water, spotty reception, and a lot of hazards to trip over.
Most of the few backcountry permit holders camp 3.5 miles into the trail at the Echo Crater, and we decided to join the ranks or crater campers. We were completely alone on the trail. We passed one other hiker in the parking lot, but they didn’t look like they were headed into the wilderness. Desolation brings silence, and we enjoyed the magpie calls overhead while we crunched along.
Very quickly on the Wilderness Trail, you'll come across the Buffalo Caves. Unfortunately, they were closed during our visit, but you can still see into the cool dark caverns from the top. Exploring the caves requires a permit even while they're open!
Soon after the caves, you'll come across the tree molds. These are shoots short cinder chimneys where trees were caught in the firestorm, encased, and quickly burned. Around every corner is an interesting ancient story waiting to be found.
Crest of the Crater
Echo Crater is easy to miss from the trailhead if you're looking down, but the simple map they give and the relatively short hike in makes it simple to find if you’re looking for it. Also, the landscape nearly completely flattens past The Sentinal, the last landmark on the map.
As you hike along the soot, you’ll dip in and out of seas of sage. A Sagebrush steppe grassland covers several hundred miles of the park, which adds dots of mint among the black.
Keep your eyes open for the path once you turn towards Echo. The sage is great at covering an already tough-to-see footpath that leads behind the crater. Andy and I missed the trail and hiked straight up the edge of the crater (being careful to avoid kicking plants and moving rocks) finding a beautiful, flat, plant-free spot to set up camp.
The view from the Crater is one of the best in the park. Hundreds of miles of true wilderness emit in every direction. To the right, you can see the boundary of the park blocked by Idaho mountains.
Despite the harsh conditions and unfriendly earth, there are remarkable 300+ plants that take residence in the park. My favorite was the perfect spaced, white cinder gardens of dwarf buckwheat.
At Craters of the Moon, you’ll find a geological wonder under every step and witness expert survival in the surrounding life. As one of the few National Monument wildernesses, the park strives to be good stewards of the environment. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” While you explore, keep this in mind. Avoid plants, don’t move rocks, and return your camp area to as it was before you book a night.