Craters of the Moon National Monument in southern Idaho is a must-see attraction for kids and parents of all ages. If you’ve ever wanted to walk on the moon, this expansive area gives you the chance to pretend, with lava flows, cinder cones, sagebrush and more featured throughout. This rugged and remote landscape might be the closest thing to a moon-like surface you’ll find on Earth. Back in the 1960s, NASA even sent astronauts to Idaho to learn about volcanic geology at Craters of the Moon.
The 600-square-mile lava field is a volcanic wonderland that offers a full day’s worth of exploration for families. You can start with the 7-mile loop drive, but the best views are up close and personal on the numerous hiking trails winding in and around more than 25 volcanic cones and 60 distinct lava flows, some of which date back 15,000 years. Most of the trails are short and easy, ranging from one-tenth of a mile to a half-mile. There are a few that are between 1 and 3 miles, and one 8-miler if you want to do some backcountry exploration.
If you have a budding geologist or rockhound in your family, making a visit to Craters of the Moon will be a dream for them. The Park Service offers several activities, including a free junior ranger program that will teach kids about the unique geology of the area. They’ll learn about pahoehoe lava, cinder crags, spatter cones, tree molds, fissures and lava bombs. But the best part might just be going underground into the lava tubes and caves. Some of them are quite extensive, and dark (so bring a flashlight), but very safe for even the youngest kids to venture into with their parents. The tubes are so deep in places that you’ll find remnants of winter ice and snow even on the hottest days of summer.
Kids should also be on the lookout for wildlife. Unlike the moon, the monument is teeming with life, with more than 700 species of plants and over 300 species of animals. Elk, foxes, antelope and woodrats are just a few of the critters that call the landscape home. Underground, in the caves and lava tubes, you may spot one of the 11 different species of bats, although they are really good at hiding and you might only see them at night when they come out to eat gnats, mosquitoes and other small insects.
The Craters of the Moon National Monument is open 24 hours a day, year-round, and the Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, with extended hours during the summer months. Admission to the monument is per car, bicycle, motorcycle or per person if on foot. Teens and kids ages 15 and under are free.
Though the monument is open, the loop road is closed during the winter months, so you’ll want to plan your visit for any time between April and November. When there’s snow on the ground, the only way to see the park is by cross-country ski or snowshoe. Ideally, you should aim for a spring or fall visit: temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees in the summer, which bakes the black lava to temperatures as hot as 170 degrees. Word of advice: don’t sit down on the lava flow if it’s a sunny day. We suggest doing most of your exploration in the earlier, cooler, part of the day.
Craters of the Moon is an hour from Twin Falls, Idaho, where you’ll find plenty of hotels and restaurants. It’s also three hours from the state capital of Boise. Many travelers make Craters a stop on their way to Yellowstone National Park, which is four hours to the east. If you want to stay close to the monument, hotels are available in the nearby small town of Arco. If you need to stay even closer, the Lava Flow Campground is next to the Visitor Center.
However you get to the monument, plan for at least a half day of hiking and wandering to get the full effect of the place. Start at the Visitor Center and drive along the 7-mile loop road, making sure to stop at each of the trails that will lead you to different areas of geologic formations.
It might be as close as you get to walking on the moon.