CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT -- The famous "Inferno Cone" was black, wind-swept, and beautiful.
I climbed the massive volcanic ridge on Cinco de Mayo. It took me 15 minutes. The elevation was more than 6,000 feet.
This was my first visit, and in more than one way, my timing was right.
That's because the Inferno Cone (in all its volcanic glory) was spewed onto Idaho's landscape less than 2,000 years ago. That's when a plume of lava leaked from a crack in the earth's crust, shooting molten magma hundreds of feet into the air.
Needless to say, anyone trying to climb it back then would have had a mighty challenge.
During the two days I spent exploring the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, the Inferno Cone lookout provided the best view of the jagged sea of lava this place is famous for.
Below me, VW bug-sized chunks of basalt stretched for dozens of miles, creating a landscape of sharp cracks nearly impossible to cross on foot.
Park rangers at the visitor center told me they were filled with rattlesnakes, rock rats, and little else.
However, to say "Craters" lacks a vibrant natural ecosystem is a big mistake. From my vantage point I saw wildflowers, hawks, furry little pikas, and green groves of limber pine. Further onto the plane were lava tubes filled with several species of bats.
The famous "Boy Scout Cave" is one of these old lava tubes. I found the cave had a beautiful crust of ice and icicles that dripped from the lava underground. See the video above for a special guided tour.
To my immediate right was a series of tiny volcanoes that blistered from the black valley floor. These were the famous "spatter cones," formed after Idaho's latest volcanic period -- which scientists say may have lasted several hundred years.
Since then, the site has become part of Native American folklore, plagued the hardy pioneers who struggled to cross it via wagon train, and more recently -- back in 1970 -- entered America's National Park System as the first National Wilderness site.
It's easy to see why Uncle Sam decided to protect the place.
As I explored some of the park's more remote volcanoes, I truly felt like I was clinging to the surface of the moon. Here the sage brush thinned, the wind whipped the few hardy pines, and nothing but bands of melted rock broke the scenery.
I also ran into just a handful of people. That is why I planned my visit in early May. Park staff say the place is noticeably more full June through August. In total, 250,000 visitors come each year.
Viewing the wildflowers
However, for those who don't mind the extra foot traffic, mid-June is the best time to view the park's outstanding wildflower bloom, according to park interpreter Sue Brown-Morris.
Brown says that's when a special plant known as the dwarf monkey flower makes these rugged volcanoes erupt with color.
"The cinder cones almost look pink -- they're definitely a pink tint," Brown-Morris told me with a smile.
While I didn't see any monkeyflowers during my early season trip, I did notice the very first blooms of the season poking out of the cinders. It would be a safe bet that you would too.
New for 2012: More accessibility
While Craters of the Moon offers unique and beautiful scenery, the aspect that struck me as particularly special was how clean and accessible the roads, pathways, and campgrounds here seemed to be.
I've camped at countless state parks, hiked many a national forest, and lingered in places like the Everglades, Hawaii's Volcanoes, and the Great Smoky Mountains, but never before have I seen a park that is so neatly groomed and tucked into its surroundings.
The place is an island of smooth pavement with zero garbage and no tourist trap factor.
What's more, park officials told me that various roads and pathways in "Craters" have been closed for re-paving throughout the past two years.
New for 2012, these paths have been completed and reopened to the public. Park rangers say they are now more accessible for walkers, strollers, and folks with wheelchairs.
That's an impressive feature when if you gaze into the miles of sharp lava everywhere else.
If you decide to go:
- Bring a windbreaker and plenty of layers. I had a hat and gloves, and alternated between being really warm in the sun, and super cold in the wind.
- Bring supplies because food and beverages are limited here. The nearest service station is 18 miles away in Arco, Idaho.
- Bring sturdy shoes. Lava is sharp, and your feet are not.
- If you want to enter the caves, you should know that most require a flashlight and a permit.
- Camping is available by permit, and the facilities are well-equipped.
- The entrance fee is $8 per vehicle. Those entering by bicycle, motorcycle or foot pay $4 per person. Individuals age 15 and under enter free.
- The visitor center has a unique solar eclipse viewing planned for May 20th.
Check out the park's official website for more details, a visitor guide, and trail maps.