69 – LOTS OF LAVA

Volcanic activity on the Idaho plains has existed for about 15,000 years, and two thousand years ago a series of volcanoes known as the Great Rift erupted, described as the most recent example of a fissure eruption in the continental United States. Lava rivers flowed through the surrounding countryside, leaving vast lava fields covered by cinder cones with large central vents that people thought resembled craters. Scientists predict that some time in the future such an event will occur again.

This region is now Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. Although the moon’s craters are mostly the result of meteorite collisions and this desolate cratered Idaho area has been developed through volcanic action, because of the similarity in the terrains’ characteristics astronauts came to train here as part of their preparation for their moon visit.

The cones formed when molten gas-charged rock spewed into the air. Frothy lava then cooled and hardened into cinders that fell around the vent, resulting in symmetrical cones. The cave area of the monument comprises a series of large lava tubes, hundreds of feet in length, formed when less frothy lava bombs were ejected at the time of eruption.

Two thousand years ago the area was totally devastated, and extensive open lava fields still remain, with virtually no vegetation. However, over time much of the land has begun to regenerate, with sagebrush and other vegetation beginning to take over. Pine trees are slowly growing in many areas, and in summer wildflowers proliferate in such variety that they are beginning to attract quite a few tourists. Similarly, with more growth and more food to sustain them, birds and wildlife are coming back to the park and the region.

Recognition as a National Park was recommended as long ago as 1920, but it is only recently that a vigorous campaign has been mounted to have it designated as such. First, Idaho doesn’t yet have a national park, and second, such a designation would do a great deal to improve the state’s economy. It’s been established that national parks draw much more tourism that national monuments.

A seven-mile loop drive winds through part of the monument, leading to many steep trails up and down to points of interest. A good portion is accessible only by all-terrain vehicles, and many treks require a permit. However, a reasonable portion of the park is handicapped accessible. There’s a short trail that is designated as wheelchair accessible, and, with a little help, I was able to navigate my walker over a third of a mile of asphalt path poured over one of the more recent lava beds.

It was an interesting feeling to stand inside what had been the midst of volcanic action and to realize that it could happen again.

Trivia Note: In 1994 lawns around the visitor center had become an attractive nuisance and were removed because deer were being killed when crossing the highway to graze on the lawns.

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