7/29 Craters of the Moon
The night before was spent in a motel in Idaho Falls. The notion of camping out had been nixed by the threatening clouds and the severe thunder storm warnings on the radio, but staying in a motel makes getting out for the morning quick and easy. No ground cover to dry out, no tent to roll up, and that fresh showered feeling just can't be beat.
We passed through Arco, Idaho on the way to Craters of the Moon National Monument. The town offers some swell small town charm on the main drag and just out side of town we passed this achingly worn abandoned house. Arco's claim to fame is being the first town electrified with power from a nuclear reactor. The first experimental nuclear breeder reactor in the U.S. was activated here in 1951 but it was a second reactor a few years later that lit up the town. A bit further to the West out of town one can visit that reactor site and see all sorts of didactic exhibits. Apparently this reactor had the world's first partial melt down too. That's nothing to sniff at.
Another bit down the road (we happened to be traveling part of the historic Goodale Cuttoff of the Oregon Trail) we arrived at Craters of the Moon National Monument. A truly surreal place and sooo hard to photograph.
Folks on the Oregon Trail had to use the few land marks and cinder cones that stick up in this unearthly place to skirt these lava beds either to the north (that's the cutoff I mentioned) or to the south on the main trail. Trying to cross any of this black rumpled blanket with a wagon would be nuts'o. We explored what we could before the heat of the day could turn the black landscape into an inferno. There are paved paths provided to reduce the erosion caused by foot traffic and lots of signs discouraging folks from climbing on the rare splatter cones. All the Hawaiian terms for the forms of lava rock are used in the educational materials about the geology here. It made me think that the National Monument staff might benefit by invoking the protection of Pele and her curse to help out with protecting this special place. Mess with Pele's stuff and she will put something real bad on your plate.
There are big lava tubes here too. Some of them are quite easy to explore and have steel stairs at the entrance. Others require spelunking gear and some experience. The one tube we visited was a favorite of the local pigeons these days (not too many but enough to dabble plenty of guano here and there). The temperature down in the holes was pleasant too, even as the air outside heated up to the high nineties. It was easy to see why these places were once favored by the Shoshone (and maybe the pigeons of yore as well).
The visitor center featured a relief map of the broad Snake River valley designed to highlight the volcanic history of the area. The big valley is primarily the result of a long series of caldera eruptions that blasted out huge quantities of materials. The Craters of the Moon area is a less violent lava flow that released some of the left over heat and magma from one of these ancient explosions. In addition I learned that the Yellowstone area is the remnant of the most recent of these calderas. The geothermal activity there is just a faint hint of the energy released when the caldera blew it's top.
Once again the heat of the day had us beat and we spent the second half of the day driving to a motel just outside of Boise where we took a nap. The rest, a shower, and a bed for the night would at least make the next day's trek to the John Day Fossil Beds easier.