Craters of the Moon Trails – The 6 Best Hikes

Craters of the Moon Trails
The Craters of the Moon landscape can look otherworldly. This image of the Spatter Cone has an uplifted fissure that looks like the encased face of a martian.

With a name like Craters of the Moon National Monument this Idaho location beckons travelers to explore the unique landscape. The best way to explore this volcanic landscape, born of several eruptions over thousands of years, is on the well laid out hiking trails across the park. The Craters of the Moon trails are mostly flat and easy. This makes them accessible by most individuals of varying skill levels. We’ve got the six best trails when visiting this lunar-like landscape listed here.

Planning Your Visit to Craters of the Moon

Monkey Flower
One of the highlights of visiting Craters of the Moon in the summer is seeing a sea of Monkey Flowers blanket the volcanic terrain.
  • Time: 2-3 days to do it all.
  • When: June – Sept
    • Campground opens mid-April thru November. It snowed on us in early June.
    • The park can be explored on skis or snowshoes during the winter but expect a vastly different experience.
  • Camping: Lava Flow Campground
    • Reservations: No (First-come, First-served)
    • Cell Service: None
    • Showers: No
    • Potable Water: Yes
    • Electricity: Some sites
  • Hotels/Motels: Nearest Town is Arco, ID

#1 – Spelunking The Five Lava Caves

Craters of the Moon Lava Trails
The Indian Tunnel Lava Tube is a massive cave easily explored by those visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument.
  • Permit: Yes – To enter any of the caves
  • Type: Out-and-Back
  • Distance: 1.6-miles (total)
  • Rating: Easy (trail) – Caves Vary
  • Warning: Do not bring any gear that has ever been in another cave system.

No visit to Craters of the Moon is complete without venturing into the Park’s spectacular Lava Caves—Indian Tunnel, Boy Scout Cave, Beauty Cave, Dewdrop Cave, and Buffalo Cave. Getting to explore these dark and cold (sometimes frozen) caves is a unique opportunity and the highlight of any visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument. Make sure you stop at the visitor center to pick up your cave permit and to educate yourself on what to bring and, more importantly, what not to bring on your adventure. If caving isn’t your thing, know that all the caves are shallow and short hikes. While most require a headlamp, the Indian Tunnel can be done without one.

#2 – Hiking North Crater Trail

Big Craters
The North Crater Trail is one of the more difficult trails found in the National Monument but it is one of the most scenic as well.
  • Type: Out-and-Back or Thru-Hike
  • Distance: 1.8-miles (one-way)
  • Rating: Moderate

North Crater Trail has the most picturesque landscape to be found on the trails in Craters of the Moon National Monument. Made up of North Crater and Big Craters, the red and orange hues of the Big Craters remind me of the colors found in New Zealand’s active Tongariro Crossing. Like on the Broken Top Loop, this hiking trail crosses over the ancient lava flow.

While the trail is one-way, it can be done as a thru-hike if you have a second vehicle or a bike that can be dropped at one end. You can also try hitchhiking. 

North Crater Trail
One of the scenic overlooks from the North Crater Trail.

#3 – Hiking the Broken Top Loop

Broken Top Loop
An uplifted fissure found on the Broken Top Loop.
  • Type: Loop
  • Distance: 2.8-miles
  • Rating: Moderately-easy

Hiking the 1.8-mile loop around Broken Top, which is a large cinder cone, provides visitors with panoramic views across the lava fields. A lava bowl known as the Big Sink is one of the unique features that can be seen from above on a short spur off of the loop. Other highlights include getting to see uplifted fissures up close, lava bombs, and walking across the youngest lava flow in the park (Blue Dragon). This loop also provides some of the best views of the largest cinder cone in the park, the aptly named Big Cinder Butte. The trail is also the way to Buffalo Cave.

Big Cinder Butte
Big Cinder Butte as seen from the Broken Top Loop.

#4 – Backpacking the Wilderness Trail

  • Type: Out-and-Back 
  • Distance: 5-miles (one-way)
  • Rating: Moderately-easy
Crescent Butte on the Wilderness Trail
The Crescent Butte is one of the many cones that can be seen when hiking or backpacking the Wilderness Trail.

Want to sleep under the stars in a volcanic landscape? If so, then Craters of the Moon has you covered. There is a 5-mile (one-way) mostly flat trail that leads between the buttes and into the volcanic wilderness. Acquire a permit from the visitor center and you can actually camp inside one of the craters. 

Even if backpacking isn’t your thing a hike to the Lava Trees is well worth the effort. You can see small cones with tree molded inner linings formed from the tree bark. The abundance found in this area is far better than those found on the Tree Molds Trail and it is only slightly further into the wilderness.

Lava Trees
A formation known as a Lava Tree forms when the molten lava wraps around a live tree, cools, and forms a cast that is seen after the tree decays.

#5 – Climbing the Inferno Cone

Inferno Cone View
Some of the best overlooks of the Craters of the Moon landscape can be found from the top of the Inferno Cone.
  • Type: Out-and-Back 
  • Distance: 0.2-miles (one-way)
  • Rating: Moderately-difficult

The Inferno Cone Trail is a short but somewhat steep climb up a well-worn cinder scree path. From the top of the cone, hikers are rewarded with 360-degree views of the volcanic landscape. The Park’s cinder cones and buttes stretch out across the otherworldly terrain. This is also the best spot in the park to see Idaho’s snowcapped mountains to the north.

Craters of the Moon Trails
The snowcapped Pioneer Mountain Range is a great backdrop to the blackened earth found at Craters of the Moon.

#6 – Walking Inside the Spatter Cones

Spatter Cone Trail - Craters of the Moon Trails
The paved trail leading into the Spatter Cone.
  • Type: Out-and-Back 
  • Distance: 0.1-miles
  • Rating: Easy

A unique experience to be found in Craters of the Moon National Monument is to walk into a small ancient volcano. These dormant, miniature volcanoes had explosive births and the terrain is gnarled and potted from that violent past. There are two cones to be explored. The larger of the two allows visitors to walk directly into the top of the spatter cone. The second one ends with a view looking straight down the barrel with the surprise that this once fiery cone is now filled with ice, giving its name of Snow Cone.

Lava Pitting & Lichen
Make sure to check out the Spatter Cones and look closely to see the lava pitting and the lichen that is slowly eating these formations.

Conclusion to Hiking the Best Craters of the Moon Trails

Craters of the Moon Trails
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Walking along the Craters of the Moon trails feels like stepping off of this planet and onto the lunar landscape. For many of us, this is as close as we can get to walking on the surface of our celestial neighbor. This is a unique and wonderful place to be discovered and should not be missed by anyone traveling through this remote region of the country.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jim says:

    YOLO, and y’all are not wasting it. Proud of you both

  2. mark says:

    great pictures, looks like a great place. Only recommendation – pictures of jenn 🙂

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