One of the best volcanic parks in the country has got to be Craters of the Moon National Monument in central Idaho. Fields of all kinds of hardened lava stretch in all directions, with just enough craters to give the park its name. Not the least of the attractions at this park are the lava tubes, caves that were formed when hot molten lava flowed away from a volcano, while the outside lava cooled quickly. The molten lava flowed out, while the outside lava hardened, leaving empty “tubes” behind. Although these aren’t the best lava tubes in the country, they none-the-less are quite interesting, and are a very nice place to hang out when the world above the caves is 90+ degrees.
To get to the parking area for the caves, take the park road past the visitor center, entrance station, and campground to the one-way loop at the end of the road. Drive most of the way around this loop to a short access road on your right with a small brown sign on the left side of the road that points towards the “Cave Area”. However, as of 8/11, to actually access the caves you will need to get a cave permit. To get the permit, the park people need to know that you will not be taking anything into the caves that has been in another cave since 2005. For us, that wasn’t a huge problem, although several of us had to switch shoes because we’d worn the shoes into the caves at Lava Bed National Monument the year before. So, be sure you get the permit before you go to the Cave Area, or you’ll be driving back to the visitor center and then all the way back around the loop!
Unfortunately, the day we visited, the trail to Boy Scout Cave and Beauty Cave was being resurfaced, so I can’t describe those in much detail. I do know that you would need to have a flashlight, and that they are both very nice (especially Beauty) from other visits to the Monument. A map of the area can be seen at http://www.nps.gov/crmo/planyourvisit/images/Crmo-trails-line.gif
To get to the caves themselves, you will need to walk down the trail for ½ mile or so. This can be very hot in the summer, but it is also fascinating at any time of year. You are walking on a paved path through the midst of a lava flow with big chunks of ‘a’a rock and ropy strands of pahoehoe lava all around you. Take time to look at this strange, fanciful, weird, and totally other-worldly landscape, both as a huge lava flow and up close. It’s amazing!
After less than ½ mile, you will come to Dewdrop Cave. This is located just to the right of the junction of the paths to Boy Scout/Beauty Caves and Indian Cave. It’s easy to miss, but a small sign does announce its existence. You will have to scramble down over the rocks to get down into the cave, but it’s not too hard. You can go almost into the cave itself before you need a flashlight. Then, one is quite helpful, but I managed to work my way around a bit using only the light from the flashlights that others in my group were using. (I don’t recommend doing this at all—it’s a great way to get your foot pinched between rocks, you shins bashed against other rocks, and to hit your head on the ceiling—but if it’s all you can do, share a flashlight with someone else!) It’s not too hard to understand how the cave got its name—water drips from the ceiling quite often; it would be surprising if you visited the cave and didn’t get a “cave kiss”! We even found a small pool of water over on the back left side of the cave. The cave itself doesn’t go very far, but it’s worth going down into.
After you’ve had fun in Dewdrop Cave, keep walking (right) towards Indian Cave. For this one, you don’t have to have a flashlight, although you will if you want to do everything that we did. Climb down the staircase and then scramble down the pile of rocks. I would recommend that you go to the right first, down the tunnel that is sort of behind the staircase (take a right, and then another right). This is fairly short, and you don’t need a flashlight to get to the other end. Turn around and come back. Now do a sort of U-turn, and head right down the other tunnel that is to the right of the staircase. For this tunnel, you will definitely need a flashlight. I tried sharing flashlights again, and managed to trip, fall, and bash my shins several times before I got to the “end” of that tunnel. You could probably go farther, but we chose not to. This tunnel is full of rocks that have fallen from the roof, so you really do need a flashlight to explore this section, and be ready to scramble quite a bit.
When you’ve finished exploring this tunnel, go back towards the staircase, and head into the tunnel that is to the left of the staircase. Here you do not need a flashlight because enough of the roof has fallen in that there is plenty of light. Follow the sort of “path” for 400 ft. or so to an opening in the roof where there is a pile of rocks. Scramble up these rocks and over to the other side. Go through the next section of tunnel, and scramble up the next pile of rocks to a small hole in the roof of the tunnel, large enough to climb out of back up onto the lava field. The entire length of this is about 800 ft. From here, you can follow poles stuck into cairns all the way back across the top of the lava to the paved path and the place where you descended into Indian Cave.
Although the path is paved, I would not say that it is wheel-chair accessible. There are far too many ups and downs for it to be wheelchair-friendly. However, you could probably get a stroller down the path (but not into the caves). Primitive toilets are available at the trailhead.
Round Trip Trail Length: 1 mile; 1.5 miles if you walk to Boy Scout and Beauty Caves as well.
Facilities: Primitive restrooms and signboards at the trailhead; water, information, restrooms, etc. at the visitor center.
Fees: $8 fee to enter Craters of the Moon National Monument, good 7 days. Interagency, Golden Age (Senior), and Golden Access (Access) Passes are also accepted. No fee is charged during the winter when the loop drive is closed.
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?