Stay on Trail: Craters of the Moon National Monument

| 30.08.2013

During law school, aspiring biglaw attorneys usually spend their second summer interning at a law firm they hope to call home.  Although they’re not attorneys, they’re called summer associates and treated quite well.  There are activities aplenty, along with the usual work.  One of the activities during my summer was a family feud-style game for which we had to answer questions beforehand to populate the answers.

One of the questions was, if you could be something other than an attorney, what would you be.  My answer?  A park ranger.   I realize that for many reasons this is not a good fit for me at this point in my life – what with no science degree and no desire to move around frequently during the start of a new career.  Instead, I simply enjoy my time outdoors and in parks, doing and learning as much as possible.  Craters of the Moon National Monument was the perfect place to do this.

Though a National Monument and not a National Park, we found that the facilities, ranger-led activities, maintenance, and services offered at this park were fantastic, the best we’ve seen on this trip.  We stayed for three nights and took advantage of this time to go on a number of great hikes, attend three evening ranger programs (at least I did, while Alan stayed back at the site to watch the sleeping babe), attend a ranger-led walk, and attend a junior ranger program.

We had thought that Van was too young to attend this program, as most of the junior ranger programming in parks is geared to children at least four to six years old.  The traditional junior ranger program (receive a packet, complete a bunch of activities through exploration in the park, and present the packet to a ranger for inspection) at Craters of the Moon is for older children, but a ranger came by our site and invited Van to the evening program, saying that he’d enjoy it even though he’s younger than most who attend.  And enjoy it he did!  He had a blast, sitting up front and raising his hands for lots of activities.  His favorite part was using the magnifying glass to examine items found around the amphitheater.

My favorite part was the induction ceremony for all the junior rangers at the close of the program.  Alan says that using the term “induction ceremony” is a bit too formal, but it was a ceremony and he was inducted as a junior ranger at the park, so I think that’s precisely what it was.  All the children stood up on stage and had to raise their right hand and repeat an oath.  Van didn’t do so well on the repeating, but the ranger made sure that his right hand was raised the entire time.

At the close, each child received a badge, which Van continues to wear.  Whenever we ask him what a junior ranger says, he says proudly: “Stay on Trail.”  He’s now super vigilant about keeping us on trail and often lets us know his motto whenever we’re out hiking – or frankly, even when we’re not out hiking.  Sadly, I didn’t bring my camera to capture the magic, but you can just imagine a squirmy Van on stage, his hand in the ranger’s, beaming proudly amongst a line of older children.  The only thing that would have made it better is if Van’s Uncle Jack was there to see it.

My brother had an infamous experience becoming a junior ranger at Devil’s Tower, showing up to turn in his completed packet with a massively bloody leg that resulted from a top-speed run in the park.  As we were reading aloud the junior ranger rules with the park ranger in hopes that we both qualified for our badges, we quickly learned that one of the important rules was that “Junior Rangers Don’t Run.”  Luckily, they didn’t hold Jack’s accident against him, and we were both sworn in as junior rangers.  Van has illustrious company!

All this talk of “ranger this” and “junior ranger that,” and I haven’t said much about the park.  We loved it – absolutely loved it.  It’s not every day that you get to visit massively large lava fields and volcanoes aplenty.  We even slept on lava.  Basically, for three straight days, we were constantly standing, walking, sitting, sleeping, and eating on lava.  The park has two main kinds of lava: áa and pahoehoe.   The áa lava is larger, rockier, and more jagged and the pahoehoe is smoother and looks more like what I think of as a stereotypical lava flow.  In addition, there were large cinder cones in the park, essentially large mountains of cinders, and spatter cones.

These were my favorites, both to see and to hike to and around.  Walking on cinders is a completely different sensation.  They’re pieces of volcanic rock, but they’re fragile and they crunch beneath your feet.  Weirdly, I loved the sound and feel of walking on the cinders and can’t relate it to anything else I’ve ever walked upon.   Luckily, the parks has many great trails, because without well maintained trails (almost all surfaced with cinders), your shoes would quickly get eaten up by the lava.  The lava, which looks black at first glance, has a thin glass coating on the outside, which both makes it sharp and colorful.  Good thing we also had the little guy eager to repeat his new mantra, Stay on Trail!  Most intriguing to me was the various textures and surprising colors in this charcoal-looking landscape.  I tried to capture a few examples in the photos below.  I like to refer to the photo of brightly colored lichen as nature’s graffiti.

Craters of the Moon may be out-of-the-way in south-central Idaho, but it is well worth a visit.  Though many folks come through for the day, if you have the time, spend a few days there to explore all the different types of volcanic formations, including the lava tubes.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside any of the lava tubes because we were wearing the same hiking shoes we had worn on our visit to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky earlier this year.

Given the rapid spread of white nose syndrome, which has a very high fatality rate for bats, you could only explore the lava tubes if you were wearing clothing and shoes that had not been in any caves since 2005 or if these clothes or shoes were properly decontaminated.  I never did get a full understanding of what proper decontamination would entail, but we knew that whatever it was, we certainly didn’t meet the standard.

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