Astronauts on Planet Earth
Following in the footsteps of an early adventurer, an intrepid group explores the surreal landscape at Craters of the Moon National Monument.
In 1920, explorer Robert Limbert found himself drawn to a stretch of south-central Idaho that had been shaped by volcanic eruptions thousands of years earlier. Limbert, his friend, W.L. Cole, and their Airedale Terrier camp dog, Teddy, ultimately crossed 80 miles of lava flows on a 17-day journey that Limbert wrote about in a 1924 National Geographic article. The influential story was widely read and played a key role in the creation of Craters of the Moon National Monument, which was established later the same year.
I first heard of Robert Limbert a year or two after I moved to Hailey, Idaho, during a National Public Radio driveway moment. The reporter explained that Limbert had built a historic lodge on the shores of the famed Redfish Lake near Stanley, Idaho, and also mentioned his ambitious trek. I had driven through Craters, as it is locally known, a few times after relocating from Bozeman, Montana, but never stopped to investigate.
Hiking in Craters requires a great deal of commitment and a significant amount of equipment. Though hiking trails exist in the northern section of the park, the vast majority of the park is unadulterated and pure backcountry. Because of the uneven nature of the terrain, ankle-high hiking boots, hiking staffs or poles, and well-balanced backpacks are necessary. First-aid kits are essential for remedying lacerations and blisters or stabilizing a victim until a rescue party arrives; bright, colorful clothing, space blankets, or a mirror can help rescue parties looking for a group on the lava. GPS and satellite phones are ideal to have as well. A lightweight backpacking stove and pots for quickly melting snow and ice quickly are critical, as is carrying freeze-dried food. The weather in Craters is typically extreme with high winds, hot days, cold nights, and fast-moving storms—dress appropriately. Finally, off-trail navigation skills are an absolute must in order to find known ice caves and kipukas. If a group has all these skills and pieces of gear, the rewards of crossing the lava are well worth the effort. It’s also possible to see Craters and check out the fascinating volcanic formations without undertaking a massive hiking expedition. Parts of the park are easily accessible and there are kid-friendly hikes and an excellent Junior Ranger program.
Hearing about an adventurer who was so enamored of this uninhabited section of Earth that he spent weeks crossing it spurred my curiosity. So, over the next few years, I explored Craters, and each time, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the experience.
The region is a land full of contradictions. Here, within just a few miles, the sagebrush steppe of the Great Basin Desert leads to Douglas fir and spruce forests, which, in turn, give way to the precipitous Rocky Mountains. Rivers that begin flowing from scree-studded lakes high above tree line carve their way down into mountain valleys before finally hiding deep within basalt-rimmed canyons. Tall and ancient granite batholiths rise out of parched and eroded desert hills. Yet, even amid such unique terrain, few sights can compare to the oddity that is Craters.
The landscape initially appears devoid of life, but as many adventurers who have explored this inland island of volcanic rock will testify, its bizarre personality gets more rewarding the deeper you probe its black surface. Craters encompasses everything from volcanic splatter cones, cinder cones, and lava bombs to sagebrush steppe and the steep foothills of the Pioneer Mountains. These surreal geologic formations are home to an amazing range of colorful flora and fauna, including the sage grouse, lava tube beetle, Craters of the Moon Buckwheat, and beautiful limber pine.
The volcanic eruptions that formed Craters began 15,000 years ago, and its most recent flows recast the landscape just 2,000 years ago. The hot spot underneath Yellowstone National Park is the same one that created Craters’ three different lava fields, 60 lava flows, 25 cinder cones, and half-dozen eruptive fissures, long cracks where lava once flowed.
As one visitor wrote in a park guestbook, “Craters is the best national park that nobody knows about.” It’s true that many travelers ignore Craters—just 200,000 visitors passed through in 2013 compared with 3.18 million at neighboring Yellowstone National Park. But others, like me, love wandering around the lava formations, which can feel like playing on a weirdly beautiful, kinesthetic playground.
Before long, I began contemplating a reenactment of Limbert’s 1920 trek. It turns out I wasn’t the only one harboring this lava-hiking dream. My search for fellow travelers quickly led me to Craters’ interpretive director, Ted Stout. Word then slowly spread, and by last spring, we had assembled a group of six like-minded adventurers. Our plan: To walk 80 miles across the lava flows with Limbert’s diary as our guide. Coincidentally, our 2014 expedition would mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which was first used to protect national park land in Craters and Petrified Forest National Parks back in 1970.
Our party met on a brisk and sunny April morning. Heading out into the unknown with Ted and me was Dan Buckley, Craters’ superintendent and our trip leader; Michael Mancuso, a Boise-based botanist; Brian Bean, owner of Lava Lake Lamb Ranch; and Allison Konkowski, a zoologist and Student Conservation Association volunteer.
April is the prime month to backpack into the wilderness sections of the park, because cooler days and freezing nights keep snow and ice in the deepest of cracks and caves—the only source of water available. But the winter had been unusually mild, and the April snowpack was meager. So before our departure, we dropped off water caches on two remote dirt roads we knew we would pass.
Our packs were heavy when we unloaded them from the trucks at the Wood Road Kipuka Trailhead, just east of the small farming town of Minidoka, Idaho. Each backpack contained seven days’ worth of freeze-dried food and at least four liters of water, which—we hoped—would get us through the first two days.
Even with the back-up water caches, we were nervous. As Brian sardonically explained, “Without water, your trip has ended and you may be ended, too.” But with a mix of bravado and optimism, we stepped away from civilization, with its soft and even soil, and ventured into the land of sharp and craggy volcanic rock.
Hiking over lava is akin to using a rickety, old stair-stepper that could break at any moment and send you careening to the ground. For every step forward, we were forced to take two steps to the side in order to avoid an intimidating rock, scraggly sagebrush, or a juniper tree. Even in stiff-soled boots, our feet became tender and bruised early on. The most seasoned backpackers in our group were humbled by the sections of
aa (pronounced “ah-ah”), a sharp, uneven, and broken type of lava as difficult to cross as any alpine boulder or scree field. Though each of us wielded a sturdy hiking staff for balance, it took more than a few miles to adjust to the unsteady rhythm. We called it getting our “lava legs.”
But before long, strength and muscle memory overtook uncertainty, and we were jumping over crevasses 4 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Sections of pahoehoe—rippling folds frozen in time as if they had cooled solid just hours ago—became so easy to hike on that they seemed like highways. Even the nastiest
aa flows began to invoke a pleasurable mindfulness from the heightened level of concentration necessary to safely pass through their clutches.
Our eyes were constantly trained on one another. On our second day, Dan placed a foot on an unstable rock and stumbled, which reminded us all that a fall in the middle of the lava would be excruciatingly painful, and any rescue would be extremely difficult without a helicopter.
SIDE TRIP: WATERFALLS, SAND DUNES, AND STEAK SPICE
Craters may seem like it’s on the far side of the moon, but it’s closer to civilization than its name implies. Idaho Falls, a city that’s often on the itinerary of visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, is only 90 minutes away. Twin Falls, Idaho, about the same distance away, so offers Snake River’s magnificent Shoshone Falls. At 212 feet high, the waterfall is 45 feet taller than Niagara Falls, as locals like to point out. St. Anthony Sand Dunes to the east and Bruneau Dunes State Park to the west are surreal wonders to behold and can each be found a couple of hours away. Also, just an hour due west of Craters lies the Wood River Valley, home to the world-famous resort town of Sun Valley. Here, Ernest Hemingway died and is buried; mountain bikers, skiers, and fly fishers delight; music festivals abound; and foodies rejoice. Finally, when heading to Craters, be sure to stop in at Pickle’s Place in the nearby town of Arco (first town in the world to be lit by nuclear energy) and buy a bottle of John’s Steak and Seasoning Spice for home barbecuing or French fries.
We had hoped to travel 10 to 12 miles each day to predetermined camp spots at the island-like peculiarities known as kipukas. (These older, eroded lava flows contain soil, grasses, and trees and are surrounded by newer, rockier lava flows.) Kipukas are the Four Seasons hotels of lava camping and offer soft and level ground for weary bodies. Our initial plans also had us camping near known ice caves where we could replenish our water supply. But the difficult terrain kept us from ever reaching these prescribed daily destinations, so we were forced to bivouac on a section of relatively flat lava with little or no water, which resulted in uncomfortable camps and restless sleep.
Our trek roughly followed Limbert’s route along the “Great Rift,” a 60-mile line of deep cracks, which may be the longest in the contiguous United States. Encountering fissures that are 100 feet wide or 650 feet deep in places is a Tolkien experience; with an ear tilted toward their depths, it is easy to imagine the sounds of dwarfs and bubbling magma resonating toward the surface.
Like the fictional Mordor, Craters is also very dry—parts of the park see an average annual rainfall of less than 10 inches. Thanks to the aridity and the incessant high desert wind, the plants in this region are dwarfed, but their hues are magnificent. Flora as bright as molten-red lava stopped us in our tracks and quickly led everyone in our party to investigate what type of flower, lichen, fern, moss, or tree had found a shred of life-propagating chemistry from within the tiniest of cracks.
Michael, the expedition’s botanist, was especially enamored of the mosses and lichens we encountered; on several occasions, he found species on a fist-sized piece of lava. “The flora may not be as jaw-dropping as walking through the giant redwoods or as Death Valley in a wet spring,” he says, “but Craters of the Moon offers a stunning expression of beauty and tenacity in its own way.”
We spotted a great horned owl, prairie falcons, and deer, and droppings revealed that sage grouse, antelope, and rabbits were nearby. On the fourth day, a well-nourished coyote with a bushy tail ran in front of us and disappeared into a chasm. Allison and I slowly followed the mysterious creature to the edge in hopes of capturing another sight and, perhaps, a photograph, but found that it had vanished into a maze of lava tubes as if entering a portal into the spirit world. Summiting a butte on day five, our party surprised a herd of elk. All the cows ran off and out of sight, but the young buck of the herd stayed and even came charging toward us, head bowed, before stopping a few hundred yards off.
On our sixth day, a member of our party was so hobbled by blistered feet and sore muscles that he and his hiking partner fell far behind on a three-hour hike. The rest of the group arrived at that night’s camp and waited. And waited. As the hours passed, we grew increasingly concerned; we began searching for the two missing hikers by scanning the horizon from a nearby butte. During this uneasy stretch, it was hard to avoid thinking about a tragic incident that had occurred seven months earlier, when two women had perished on similar terrain after becoming lost while hiking off trail. Finally, eight hours after they had set out, the stragglers arrived, and all six of us were together as we set up our camp. We were immensely relieved, though a full day behind schedule and still 15 miles from our finish line, the Tree Molds Trailhead.
The seventh morning, we were unsure if we had the stamina to push through the final miles and finish our expedition on time, or if we’d find ourselves forced into yet another bivouac. In the end, our lava legs carried us through, and we reached the trailhead just as the sun was setting.
A quick estimate puts our group’s cumulative tally at somewhere between 750,000 and a million steps, a figure that fills me with pride. This section of wilderness might not be as remote or vertical as the backcountry in better known national parks, but as Brian put it, “few are as wild.”
On the last night, I walked a short distance away from camp, climbed to the top of a 30-foot-tall splatter cone, and sat down to take in the expansive view. I meditated in that spot for nearly an hour while the sun set. Cumulus clouds cast shadows across the lava flows, and the unremitting wind was the only sound. As I sat on that ancient cone, which once spewed hot molten lava, I had the kind of backcountry spiritual event I’d read about but had never experienced myself. Perhaps it was induced by hunger or fatigue, but regardless, my mind opened into a state of bliss, and I realized at that moment that the most important and powerful occasions in my life thus far had occurred with close friends and family on adventures such as this one. I absorbed the scene until the sun finally sank behind the distant horizon and the hues of twilight turned the distant peaks into silhouetted sawtooths. Then, trying not to let go of this feeling, I ambled back to my companions to eat the last of my freeze-dried lasagna under the blue glow of my headlamp.
About the author
Photographer and writer Craig Wolfrom lives in the mountains of south-central Idaho, where he is in constant pursuit of adventures on foot, skis, and bikes.