Here’s one aptly named national park: Bring the children here and they will feel as though they’ve gone to the moon. Three lava fields, with some 60 distinct lava flows and 25 volcanic cones, cover nearly half a million acres on the Snake River Plain, a haunting black basaltic landscape 60 miles wide with deposits that may lie up to 10,000 feet deep. You may not know the difference between slabby pahoehoe and spiny pahoehoe (hint: they’re both types of lava flow), but you’ll know that this desolate landscape is one of the strangest sights you’ll ever see.
The lava fields at Craters of the Moon were formed as long as 15,000 years ago, though much of it is quite young, formed only 2,000 years ago. At the visitor center, the kids will learn about such weird volcanic features as volcanic bombs (clumps of spewing lava that hardened in the air before falling to rest on the surface), lava tubes (underground tunnels hollowed out by receding flows of molten lava), and tree molds (the shapes of trees encased in lava before they decomposed). They’ll learn the difference between steep-sided spatter cones and pock-marked cinder cones. Look for these as you drive the park’s 7-mile scenic drive, with various spurs leading to such intriguing features as 700-foot-high Big Cinder Butte, one of the world’s tallest cinder cones, or the curiously colored Blue and Green Dragon lava flows. A half-mile hike will take you through the Devil’s Orchard, where lava fragments stand like wraiths upon a sea of cinders; another half-mile hike lets you explore several lava tubes such as the Boy Scout Cave (bring a flashlight) and the Indian Tunnel. Because it is situated along the Great Rift volcanic zone, you’ll see deep fissures in the earth, collapsed pits and craters, and ridges built by magma oozing upward through old cracks.
This is by no means a dead landscape; if they pay attention, the kids will discover plenty of hardy flora and fauna that has adapted to this environment. Big patches of sagebrush grasslands and islands of grass (kipukas) have sprouted wherever they could find enough soil; on the lacy surfaces of cinder cones, wildflowers, shrubs, and even twisted little limber pines have managed to get a foothold. The mountains at the north end of the park have Douglas fir forests and groves of quaking aspens that look downright lush in contrast. In the daytime, you may see ground squirrels, lizards, chipmunks, and hawks; at dawn and dusk, coyotes, porcupines, and jackrabbits steal forth; and if you were here at night, you’d see wood rats, bobcats, and bats.