Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is an otherworldly environment, hence the name. A short hike up the Inferno Cone will take your breath away, literally. A vast expanse of basaltic lava fields allows the wind to advance unimpeded across the plains, making it difficult to keep your balance or open your eyes fully to take in the view (thanks lava dust). I was amazed to find a tree surviving in a setting where I could hardly last ten minutes.

Landing on the moon was easier than you’d think, only a 3.5 hour drive east of Boise. It is located along the Great Rift of Idaho, a geologic feature that contains open rift cracks, including the deepest known rift crack on Earth at a depth of 800 ft. Volcanic cones and lava flows contribute to a uniquely inhospitable landscape which calls to mind images of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor. Washington Irving, using the diaries of Army Captain and explorer B.L.E. Bonneville, described the location as a place, “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.”

However, a few plants have managed to survive here. Sagebrush has been able to infiltrate the older lava flows and take root. Limber pines and Juniper trees have somehow managed to survive as well, slowly reclaiming this landscape of death for the living. While it may be hard to believe from my photos, during the summer, wildflowers speckle the black volcanic soil, adding color to an otherwise barren scene.

The Shoshone and Bannock tribes who inhabited the Snake River Plain would pass through what is now Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve during their seasonal migrations. They built trails which skirted the edges of the lava fields, and built structures to block the wind in places where it was necessary to spend a night in the inhospitable wasteland. The most recent eruptions in the area took place about 2,100 years ago, and the ancestors of these tribes were likely around to see their effects. There is a legend about a serpent that lay within the valley of the Snake River which was awoken one spring by thunder and lighting. Angered, the serpent coiled tighter and tighter around a mountain, building pressure until stones began to melt and fire spewed out of the cracks in the rock. Too slow to escape, the serpent was killed by the heat. Eventually the fire burnt out and the liquid rock solidified. If you look closely today you will see the ribs and bones of the serpent.

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