ARCO • A day before Memorial Day weekend, the visitor center at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve was packed with people. We were there too, but only to pick up a free ticket to solitude: a backcountry permit for Craters of the Moon National Wilderness Area.
More than 200,000 people yearly visit the monument in southeastern Idaho, but on average fewer than 200 backpack in the wilderness (Nps.gov/crmo/planyourvisit/wilderness.htm).
The friendly Park Service employee dug around the desk and finally produced a pad of permits buried in a drawer. He suggested camping at Echo Crater.
The Wilderness Trail starts at the Tree Molds parking area at the end of the park’s loop road. It traverses lava fields between Big Cinder Butte and Half Cone, follows flats between Crescent and Coyote buttes, rounds Echo Crater at 3.4 miles, and morphs into cairn-marked trail through sagebrush to the edge of The Sentinel at 5.1 miles (according to our GPS). Cairns mark a steep route up The Sentinel to a small crater.
Our initial route into the wilderness was a bit less direct.
We took Tree Molds Trail on the far side of the butte to the “molds,” a few stony towers formed by tree trunks when forests were subsumed by lava 15,000 years ago. The mother and daughter ahead of me were not impressed. A long hike for a few tree molds, one observed.
I saw other assets: yellow cinquefoil and red monkey-flowers thriving among lava rocks, bright red Indian paintbrush and blue larkspur dotting cinder gardens. Bitterbrush adorned with yellow flowers. Limber pine outlining ridges.
Thunderstorms building on the Pioneer Mountains to the west offered a dramatic backdrop and a hint of threat. Between the mountains and me sprawled serpentine canyons of the Blue Dragon lava flows.
Two day hikers left this area in 2013 and wandered the lava maze. Searchers found their bodies two weeks later. The Craters wilderness should not be taken lightly. (In fairness, these were the only two known visitor deaths in the monument’s history.)
And we were prepared. My husband, David, had called earlier, discussing a “loop” route with a veteran employee who has traversed the entire length of Craters. He suggested contouring around Cinder Butte to rejoin the Wilderness Trail near more tree molds. We relied on GPS and a topographic map to stay on course but contoured too low, mincing across knife-edged lava rock and joining Wilderness Trail a mile past the tree molds.
The adventure was not over. David had stopped for photos but soon caught me, reporting a day hiker on our tail. He had no daypack and only T-shirt and pants; it seemed odd that he was so far out late in the day and odder that he was trying to catch us. We sped up, flying past Echo Crater. Arriving at the foot of The Sentinel, we left the path and headed for a pass between Sentinel and Watchman buttes. A dark cloud was threatening, and we wanted to make camp. The day hiker had disappeared. But strong west winds pushed us forward to seek shelter. Below the pass we followed a low ridge of lava flow and camped in an alcove slightly out of the wind.
Clouds had cleared and the sun was still bright at 7:30 p.m. after dinner cleanup, allowing for a nice scramble through larkspur carpet up the backside of The Sentinel for grand views of the snow-capped Lemhi Range to the northeast and the soaring South Butte on the far south end of the Craters preserve.
We awoke to full sunlight, meadowlark song and a still morning in the wilderness.
On our return trip we found the trail up The Sentinel, probably where the day hiker was headed. We also hacked through sagebrush 0.3 miles to a lip overlooking Echo Crater, a beautiful bowl dotted with pine and completely sheltered from the wind. We never found a trail in, because there isn’t one.
Backpacking How-to for Craters of the Moon Wilderness
Location: Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is off U.S. 93 between Carey and Arco. The monument website (Nps.gov/crmo/index.htm) offers history, natural history, hours and “planning your visit” advice on trails, wilderness and safety. Phone is 208-527-1300. Entrance fee is $10 per vehicle.
Season: Spring is best for wildflowers and mild temperatures — April (or when snow melts) to June. Late fall is also pleasant. Summer is too hot for reasonable hiking. The park is open year-round, so winter hiking /camping is also an option and almost guarantees solitude; however, be prepared for snow and cold, biting winds. Brisk winds are a reality in the park year-round.
Planning: A free backcountry permit, available at the visitor center, is required to camp in the wilderness. The center also sells a 1985 topographic map ($8) which we found essential for our visit. The topo map has not been updated to include a large southeast section added by Congress in 2000, but it does cover designated wilderness area including the Wilderness Trail, Echo Crater and The Sentinel.
Water: There is no dependable water source in the monument. Plan to pack a gallon of water per hiker per day. The park topo map shows a few water holes along features called “The Cracks”; however, these are well off the trail and, according to the Park Service, very difficult to find.
What else to bring: REI offers a list of 10 “essential” backpacking items at Rei.com/learn/expert-advice/backpacking-checklist.html.
Our Craters list: backpacks, hiking poles, sleeping bags, air mattresses, tent and fly, tarp, stove and fuel, titanium (lightweight) pot, bowls, cups, spoons, matches, light headlamps, matches, paper towels, toilet paper. Clothes: long hiking pants (can be zipped off to shorts), T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, hiking socks, hiking boots, raincoat and rain pants, turtleneck, warm gloves and stocking cap. Navigational: topo map, park map, GPS. Water: one gallon jug, additional gallon in several smaller containers (for about 20 hours out). Food: freeze-dried dinner (available at outdoors stores or ordered online), oatmeal, peanut butter, coffee packets, hot chocolate packets, Clif bars, granola bars, cheese sticks, beef jerky, candy. We review a checklist before we leave.
Safety: Stay on the trail unless you are experienced using topographic maps and features. Much terrain is flat, but lava flows are difficult to cross. Tell the Park Service and a family member or friend your itinerary. Check the weather forecast: Temperatures vary from below freezing in the winter to high 90s in the summer. More tips: Nps.gov/crmo/planyourvisit/safety.htm
Factoids: Craters wilderness is the oldest National Park wilderness in the country, designated in 1970 along with the Petrified Forest wilderness in Arizona. The monument is also one of the country’s earliest, designated in 1924. Information on Craters wilderness: Wilderness.net/NWPS/wildView?WID=142