|Sorry, North Dakota, but the summer-yurt just jumped 500 miles west.|
If you've been following along on a map, you might be wondering why I veered so far north on I-15. The direct route to the coast from the Great Salt Lake runs through Nevada rather than Idaho, and if all I'd wanted was a glimpse of the latter, I could have gotten that just as easily westbound on I-84. But out of all the western highpoints I'd hoped to climb this summer, Idaho's Borah Peak was the one I'd most looked forward to. Even if my lungs wouldn't let me summit, I wanted to see it with my own eyes--and thus the Lost River Range, north of Arco along US-93, was my destination.
But I couldn't quite make it there tonight. The hotels in Pocatello were pricey, so I drove another 30 minutes northeast to North Bingham County Park, a small park along the Snake River whose website promised both tent and RV camping. I arrived to find the tent site(s?) were unlabeled, so I pitched my tent on an unoccupied spot of grass, paid my fee, and settled in for the night, hoping I wouldn't be evicted midway through.
(I wasn't, of course. Idahoans are far too nice to do that.)
I woke after a cold night's sleep to a bright sunny morning:
|All August mornings are sunny in Idaho. It's actually kind of a problem...|
And so I followed the two-lane US-26 straight across the broad Snake River Valley. For most of the way it was hard to remember I was in a valley at all: the land was as flat as the Dakotas, its mountain-walls lost to the distance. Every so often a massive butte emerged from the haze, rising thousands of feet above the open range. I later learned these were volcanic remnants, just like the mountains I'd seen in eastern New Mexico. Along the way I also passed the Idaho National Laboratory, a major site for nuclear power research... but, like Radium Springs, I felt this was a place best left unvisited. I made a left at tiny Arco, the central metropolis of this swathe of nothing (which also bears the distinction of being the first nuclear-powered town in the world, thanks to the INL), and continued west down 26 towards the Craters.
The land around the monument was unassuming: just more empty sagebrush plains:
|With the occasional tree.|
|What happened here?|
|MomMom: "Mmm, it's all smooth and fresh!" LarLar: "But it's too spicy!"|
Intrigued, I entered the park proper--luckily, it was fee-free day here, too--and headed up the loop road that circled its main attractions.
You wouldn't think anything could grow on lava, but a surprising amount can:
|...like this dwarf buckwheat on Paisley Cone (its real name, I swear!).|
Further on, I abandoned my car to climb Inferno Cone, one of the park's largest (and newest, by the looks of it) cinder cones:
|No buckwheat yet.|
|"Come on, LarLar, try some. It's just like cotton candy."|
|...where life was slowly creeping back.|
These rough, irregular, oozy-looking cones had coalesced from globs of lava spat out by their parent vents. I climbed the paved path to the top of one cone, from which I could see down into its empty center:
Though all these lava structures may look sturdy, they're actually quite fragile. A stray step can easily shatter a brittle spatter-lobe or crush cinder-stones to dust. In fact, the two spatter-cones beside the road were twice their present size before decades of untrammeled tourist access ground them down. Once the park's management realized what was happening, they blocked off the mouths of the cones and built paths to guide visitors' footsteps, but it was too late to reverse the damage already done.
Naturally, spatter-cone turned out to be the one flavor of igneous rock LarLar liked:
|"It's weird, messy, and completely off-limits. What's not to love?"|
This trail wandered up through the hills:
to the rim of a massive crater formed by a collapsed volcano.
|See that tree at the bottom? It's taller than me.|
|View from the crater's rim.|
|"This stuff just isn't the same..."|
|Yet another example of beautiful desolation.|
|"Quit sulking, LarLar. Smile for the picture."|
|That's it, apparently.|
|Or, for backcountry expeditions, the starting point.|
And that was about it for Craters of the Moon. There were some lava-flow caves I could have seen, but caving's not really my thing, plus I was getting kind of sunburnt out there on the lava fields. So I looped back around to the road, retraced my route to Arco, and headed north up the Lost River Valley towards Borah Peak.
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