The Moon on Earth

Explore a combination of unique and scenic landscapes at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho. 

Located in the Snake River Plain in central Idaho and stretching nearly to the size of Rhode Island, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve was established in 1924. It is a remarkable region formed by immense lava flows dating as far back as 15,000 years, with the most recent eruption having occurred about 2,000 years ago. The Craters of the Moon lava field is, in fact, so massive that it spans approximately 1,600 square kilometers and is made up of 60 distinct solidified lava flows, which erupted from the Great Rift volcanic zone. This has created an astonishing landscape and habitat.

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve got its name from the similarity it bears to the surface of the moon. In fact, in 1969, Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard Jr., Edgar Mitchell, Eugene Cernan and Joe Engle visited the area to explore the lava landscape and to learn the basics of volcanic geology in preparation for their trips to the moon. NASA believed these men, who might walk on the surface of the moon in the future, would benefit from observing a similar landscape, particularly so they might be better equipped to recognize anomalies and unique celestial features on the moon. This would enable them to make the most informed choices about the rock samples from the surface of the moon to be brought back to Earth. In 1999, to mark the 75th anniversary of Craters of the Moon, most of these astronauts returned to visit the place once more.

But it’s not just about the lava. Craters of the Moon offers visitors the chance to experience the region’s unique wildlife species and vegetation. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the area is the complexity of the instances of natural adaptation thriving within its harsh landscape.

There are over 750 different species of plants growing in the region, including wildflowers, limber pine trees, junipers, cedars and sagebrush. All of the flora has developed unique adaptations to deal with the adverse conditions of the region. Most common among these are ways of dealing with drought, like physiological changes in the form of evolved leaves that minimize moisture loss and the ability to grow in lava flow cracks.

Animals, too, have flourished in the region. Biologists have catalogued over 2,000 species of insects, and nearly 200 varieties of birds and some 60 species of mammals. Animals living here, like most desert creatures, are nocturnal, including owls, bats, nighthawks, and even mountain lions and bobcats.

There are plenty of options for exploring Craters of the Moon and the surrounding area. Among these are park ranger-led walks that cover a host of topics, from flowers to geology. Visitors can also opt for self-guided tours or simply take the Loop Drive route, aided by the numerous conveniently-mounted and informative displays. Along this route, visitors should make sure not to miss the final stop, a cave area showcasing a collection of lava tubes. These geological marvels are all open to the public. Formed when the surface and walls of a lava flow hardens, the cave is shaped when the fluid interior disperses and flows away. These can be viewed using flashlights, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There are 42 campsites at the Craters of the Moon Campground. These cannot be reserved in advance and are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Water, restrooms, picnic tables and charcoal grills are usually provided at the campsites. The cost is $15 (Rs. 1,060 approximately) during the main season and $8 (Rs. 570 approximately) per site after water is turned off to the campground. As an added bonus, the campground amphitheater provides evening programming in the summer and a Lunar Ranger program provides fun and education for children. Hiking enthusiasts will be happy to know that the place offers many options, including two trails that enter the wilderness area. In 1970, nearly 17,500 hectares were designated as Craters of the Moon National Wilderness Area under the Wilderness Act of 1964. The wilderness area extends for a few kilometers, after which hikers can follow the Great Rift to explore a host of rarely-visited volcanic formations.

Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.


Mud Volcanoes and More

Baratang Island, part of the Andaman Islands, is home to beautiful beaches, mangrove creeks, limestone caves and the rare mud volcanoes, making it one of the most geologically-unique and striking islands in the entire region. The island is about 100 kilometers away from Port Blair, and visitors have to travel by road and then cross a creek by a vehicle ferry to reach it.

Mud volcanoes are formed by an eruption of mud, water and gases. Unlike lava-spewing volcanoes, they produce not molten rock but mud and are calmer. Following eruption, these volcanoes continue to seep their mud-like substance, helping to accrete their size and giving them their signature dome shape. They can greatly vary in size, ranging from just a meter to up to 700 meters high.

To see the limestone caves at Baratang Island, visitors need to take special permission from the Department of Environment and Forests. The trip to the cave from Baratang Island includes a boat ride through a wide creek, which leads to Nayadera Jetty, and a further one-and-half kilometer walk through tropical forest. Some of the caves are so dark that visitors need a torch to be able to see anything. They will have to go through the dense mangrove forests, another attraction at the island, to reach these caves.