September 12-13, Craters of the Moon National Monument

With a long drive ahead of us, we got up early, “broke camp” (to the extent that quaint expression applies to getting a motor home ready to depart), fired up the Dutch Star (once again with the help of Battery Boost) and left the campground at about 7:30 am. For the return trip, we took the local advice and went north on Route 89, rather than retracing our arrival route by heading south. Then we took Route 464 east (a nice two-lane road) to get to the town of Browning, Montana, rejoining 89 south there. That added about 8 miles to the trip, but was probably the same or less time than retracing the route we came in on.

Our Garmin RV GPS mapped out a route that was about 80 miles longer than Therese’ phone Google Maps. It was determined to get us to Interstate 15 by the shortest possible path, even though that was headed in the wrong direction. The night before we had verified on our trusty Rand McNally Motor Carriers Road Atlas that the roads G-Maps was suggesting were all highlighted yellow, indicating safe truck routes, so we ignored the Garmin and took the more direct route – Route 89 to Route 287 to Interstate 15, then off at Idaho Route 22 to Route 33, to Route 26 to Arco. Even the Google Maps route was a pretty substantial drive, and we pulled into the Craters of the Moon Arco KOA at about 5:00, reading 8478 on the odometer – 511 miles.

During the drive, we tuned into CNN for more news about Hurricane Irma, most of which was bad, but not as bad as had been forecast. The turn inland weakened the storm, and thus the storm surges, which cause the most damage, were less than expected. We also heard from Joe, who looks after our house in Naples when we’re not there. He had been able to get to our house, with difficulty due to the downed trees and debris on the roads, and the lack of traffic lights with the electricity still out in most of Naples. The news was surprisingly good, all things considered. Our house survived quite well, although lots of landscaping was wrecked. Most of the damage in the neighborhood was apparently similar – palm trees stripped of their fronds, signs and trees blown over, some roof tiles blown off, and debris scattered everywhere, but the buildings survived without major damage. Needless to say, we were relieved and thankful for the news, tempered by the knowledge that many Naples residents were not so fortunate. First-hand accounts from people who stayed in town were that the sound and fury of Irma was terrifying.

In the afternoon, Therese used her cell phone to look for Spartan (the manufacturer of the Dutch Start chassis) service centers, with the idea that if we found one, we would try to get the first scheduled service done as well as getting the battery problem squared away. As luck would have it, Eagle Rock RV Service is located in Idaho Falls, which is right on our short route to our next stop, Yellowstone National Park. So we made an appointment for Thursday morning at 8:30. We will drop the Dutch Star off, try to find a place to get the Jeep washed, and see whatever else there is to see in beautiful Idaho Falls while they get the Dutch Star up to peak operational condition.

The Craters of the Moon KOA is vastly superior to the Glacier KOA – nice shade trees, nice green grass (which they have to water to keep that way), and generally friendly and up-to-date. They set a new standard for WiFi speed, too, perhaps because the park is comparatively empty during this September week and there isn’t much competition for bandwidth.

Campsite at Craters of the Moon KOA

Craters of the Moon National Monument is not one of the top tourist destinations, and it was a Wednesday with school already in session, so we didn’t anticipate big crowds there. Thus, we felt free to get a late start – finishing up a previous blog installment, etc. – and got going around 9:45. The drive to the park was about half an hour, and our first stop was the visitor center right at the entrance of the park. There we saw a few videos – one about the volcanology (I think that is actually the word they used) of the park. It is one of the most recently active volcanoes along the Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah arc of volcanic sites, having violently erupted as recently as 2000 years ago. The terrain is about as inhospitable as you can imagine – a combination of palhoehoe and a’a lava fields, and cinder cones. Palhoehoe (a Hawaiian name pronounced pal-hoee-hoee) lava fields have a comparatively smooth surface that forms late in the eruption cycle when most of the gases have escaped from the magma (molten rock). The surface cools as the underlying lava (which is what magma is called when it is above ground) continues to flow, so you get a sort of ropy appearance.

Palhoehoe lava in foreground, a’a lava in background.
Surface of palhoehoe lava
More palhoehoe lava on way to Tree Mold Lava

A’a (also a Hawaiian name, pronounced ah-ah) lava fields form from cooler, more viscous lava, which cools and solidifies before it has a chance to flow very far, and piles up as it gets pushed by the lava behind it. The a’a surface certainly looks other-worldly, but I’m a skeptic on the “Craters of the Moon” moniker – I don’t think the moon looks like that. The park was named in the early 20th century, though, so they didn’t have the advantage of having seen pictures from the moon.

A’a Lava Formation in Devil’s Orchard
A’a lava field

The cinder cones are formed from lava with high gas content, which gets blown higher into the air and solidifies before coming back to earth. It’s mostly in small pebbly grains, but there’s an occasional larger chuck that partially solidifies in the air and falls to earth as a volcanic “bomb”, which take various shapes.

Smaller Cinder Cone from Inferno Cinder Cone

The road through the park was in the process of getting repaved – they had most of the surface already ground, and were allowing only one-way traffic, with the attendant delay. As we passed the grinding machine, which grinds up the top inch or two of the road onto an integral conveyer belt that loads a dump truck following it, the poor filthy Jeep was further insulted by the wind blowing a sprinkling of the finer pieces of ground up road onto its hood, windshield, and roof. Between getting dragged around behind the rig and stuff like this, that vehicle is taking a beating on this trip.

As you travel the 7-mile loop road through the park, there are a number of opportunities to see the lava fields close up. We first took a short walk on the Devil’s Orchard Nature Trail, through some piles of a’a lava.

Deadwood in Devil’s Orchard

Then we took the steep quarter-mile trail to the top of the Inferno Cinder Cone.

Trail up the Cinder Cone (that’s not the top in this picture)
On Inferno Cinder Cone Trail

That was the highlight of the day, giving 360-degree views of the surrounding lava fields as well as the sagebrush steppe and mountains of central Idaho. It was well worth the walk up, but most visitors passed it by – we were the only ones on the hike up, although by the time we got back down there were a few headed up. The weather was absolutely perfect – sunny, about 75 degrees with enough wind to keep you cool but not enough to volcanic dust around.

Therese on top of the Inferno Cinder Cone
View from Inferno Cinder Cone
Smaller Cinder Cone from Inferno Cinder Cone
Tree on top of Inferno Cinder Cone – leaning due to prevailing winds?
Mountains from top of Inferno Cinder Cone
Selfie from the top of Inferno Cinder Cone
Another View from top of Inferno Cinder Cone

After the Inferno Cinder Cone, we took the Lava Cascades spur road, where we spotted a perfect picnic area – shaded and sheltered from the wind.

Picnic area at Craters of the Moon

From the parking area at the end of the Lava Cascades road, we took the 2-mile (round trip) Tree Molds Trail.

Trail to Tree Mold lava formation

Along the Tree Mold trail, we saw what most looked like a crater.

Closest thing to a crater at Craters of the Moon National Monument

Tree Molds are formed when hot lava encounters a growing tree. On contact the lava molds itself to the tree as it solidifies (burning the tree to smithereens in the process). I wouldn’t have recognized the tree mold without the helpful sign and explanation, but judge for yourself from the picture.

Tree Mold Lava Formation

Our last stop was the Snow Cone area, where we saw Spatter Cones – which form very late in the volcanic eruption cycle.

Spatter Cone at Craters of the Moon
Barry inside Spatter Cone

We headed back to the campground a little after 2:00. I tried to catch up with some e-mails, while Therese headed to the local grocery store.

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