This episode was written by Lindsey Taylor, whose blog “The Curiosity Chronicles” follows her adventures around the world.
Fifty years ago, in 1969, NASA sent astronauts to a remote location in southern Idaho. Their goal? To learn basic geology and study the local, relatively recent volcanic features located there in preparation for potential missions to the moon.
In the midst of flat plains and agricultural fields, lies the Great Rift, a series of fractures and deep cracks that start near the Snake River and stretch 52 miles to the northwest. 15,000 years ago, lava erupted from these fissures, sending molten rock burning across the landscape. The lava continued to erupt over the course of nearly 13,000 years, growing to cover 618 square miles, or 1600 square kilometers.
On this episode of America’s National Parks Podcast, Craters of the Moon National Monument.
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More than 200,000 people visit this remote park every year for it’s unique volcanic and geologic features, features that have not yet been weathered, eroded, or grown over by vegetation. Though the lava wasn’t always solid rock as it is today, humans have had a long history in this area.
People first inhabited the Snake River plains between twelve and fourteen thousand years ago. They were members of the Shoshone (a branch of the Northern Shoshone who lived in the upper Columbia River Basin) and Bannock tribes (a branch of the Northern Paiute), and their ancestors. Members from both tribes lived in this area together, traveling, hunting, and mixing often. In the summer, these humans lived in smaller semi-nomadic groups of a few families as opposed to a highly-structured tribe. Horses acquired in the 1700s allowed the Shoshone and Bannock tribes to hunt farther away from home, near present-day Montana and Wyoming.
Archaeological sites in the area include tools, hunting blinds, and rock shelters. Cut bones of deer and bison have been found in lava tubes throughout the Snake River Plains, indicating that the Shoshone and Bannock would have used these cool locations to preserve meat. According to archaeological sites, members of these tribes likely witnessed the most recent lava flows at Craters of the Moon. This story displays what they may have learned first-hand from the eruptions.
A legend tells the story of a serpent, miles and miles in length lying where the channel of the Snake River is now. Though peaceful, the people were terrified by it. One spring, it left its river bed and went to the large mountain in what is now Craters of the Moon. The serpent coiled its body around the mountain to sun itself, but a storm rolled in angering the serpent. The serpent began tightening its coils around the mountain. The pressure became so great the stone began to melt and fire came from the cracks. Soon a liquid rock flowed down the sides of the mountain, and the serpent, to slow in its movements, was killed by the heat and roasted into the hot rock. The fire eventually burned itself out and the rock became solid again. Today, if one visits the spot and looks closely at the solidified rock, you will see the ribs and bones of the huge serpent, charred and lifeless.
When pioneers, ranchers, and explorers traveled through what is now Craters of the Moon National Monument in the 1850s, it was a hard land to love. Miles of volcanic bedrock made travel challenging and there was little to mine or to graze on. An explorer named Robert Limbert had a different perspective. He traveled to the area in 1918 after hearing stories of grizzly bears roaming the rocks. In 1920, he and a companion, W.L. Cole, hiked the length of the Great Rift. It took them 17 days to travel 80 miles with cooking gear, binoculars, blankets, guns, a camera, and enough dried food to last the trip.
The first few days passed slowly as they picked their way across 28 miles of jagged flows. Imagine trying to find a place to sleep on such uneven rock beds. Water was scarce, but they followed the flight paths of birds or old Indian or mountain sheep trails to find a watering hole.
Limbert would later promote the region to be a national park. One year after his trip along the Great Rift, Limbert brought ten scientists and civic leaders to Craters of the Moon to show them the unique volcanic features that existed there. Art was to be a medium of persuasion; he shot more than 200 still photographs and 4,000 feet of motion picture film. These photos were published in numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide, and in 1924 he published “Among the Craters of the Moon” in National Geographic. He wrote, “No more fitting tribute to the volcanic forces which built the great Snake River Valley could be paid than to make this region into a National Park.” President Calvin Coolidge even received a homemade scrapbook of photos from Limbert, and later that same year he signed a proclamation to create a national monument. 1,500 people were in attendance for the dedication ceremony on June 15th, 1924.
Years later, in 1969, the park received a new kind of visitor: astronauts.
Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Eugene Cernan, and Joe Engle traveled to Craters of the Moon National Monument to train for potential future trips to the moon. In August that year, they landed at the airport in Arco and traveled to the park. So what were these men doing at a small monument in southern Idaho?
They were chosen to fly space missions because of their experience as pilots. But if they were to ever land on the moon, these men needed to know how to collect and record geologic data. Weight was limited on the lunar landings; only 850 pounds of material over six trips to the moon could be carried back to earth. With such limited space, it was extremely important that only the most valuable specimens were collected. NASA hoped that by sending a select group of men to Craters of the Moon, they would be able to learn enough about volcanic geology to understand how to observe the moon’s volcanic landscape correctly. Hopefully, they would be able to accurately describe geologic features to scientists back on earth.
For the most efficient training, NASA needed a site with relatively recent geologic activity and a variety of volcanic features that had not been weathered or covered in vegetation. This is where Craters of the Moon National Monument comes in. The park has lava flows, spatter cones, lava lakes, fissure vents, cinder cones, lava tubes, explosion pits, basalt mounds, subsidence craters, and more that were all created in the last 15,000 years, some even as recently as 2,000 years ago. It was the perfect site to study basic volcanic geology.
Though they traveled to the park together, the four men did not go out on the same lunar missions. Edgar Mitchel landed Antares on the moon when he piloted the lunar module for Apollo 14. He also logged 216 hours and 42 minutes in space during a lone spaceflight.
Years before visiting the park in 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to travel in space. At 47, he was the fifth and oldest person to walk on the moon. When he walked on the moon as the commander of Apollo 14, he hit two golf balls on the lunar surface. He and Mitchell brought back almost 100 pounds of lunar samples for continued scientific research. During this adventure, they set the record for longest extravehicular activity (EVA): nine hours and 23 minutes.
Eugene Cernan piloted the lunar module for Apollo 10, which was a practice mission for the first moon landing. He wouldn’t reach the lunar surface until he commanded Apollo 17, where he became the last person to walk on the moon. Upon returning to Craters of the Moon in 1999, he said, “If I could take all the vegetation out of Craters of the Moon, I think there would be a very similar feeling to the vastness of it … just simply the vastness and emptiness of it all.”
Joe Engle was the only one of the four men who trained at Craters of the Moon to never reach the lunar surface. As a backup pilot for Apollo 14, he was chosen to pilot Apollo 17 but was replaced by a geologist when NASA decided to send a scientist to the moon.
The United States’ Apollo 11 was the first crewed mission to land on the Moon, on 20 July 1969. Over the next 5 years, 5 more missions would follow. No human has been to the moon since December of 1972.
In 1970 Congress created the Craters of the Moon Wilderness. The park is also an International Dark Sky Park, granted by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
The park is open year-round, though some park facilities and the loop road are closed during the winter. When the road is open to automobile traffic an entrance fee is required.
A network of primitive roads through the Bureau of Land Management Monument offers backcountry driving opportunities and access to the National Park Service Preserve for those with high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicles. Individuals seeking challenge and solitude will find both in the cross-country hiking available through the sage-brush covered flats and rugged lava flows of the Monument and Preserve.
There is no camping inside the park, though plenty of options abound outside and range from full hook-ups to boondocking.
As for the volcano, it is likely that an eruption will happen again–the volcanoes are dormant, not extinct, after all. Historically, this area has seen volcanic activity every 2,000 years or so, and it has now been more than 2,000 years since the last eruption.