A LUNAR LANDSCAPE FOUND ON EARTH

January 10, 2003 11:00 pm
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Pilot story

and photos by Bill Lundquist

Where, besides the Bible, can you have breakfast in the Garden of Eden, and lunch in the Devil's Orchard?

Where can you visit a volcanic caldera that used to be where Yellowstone National Park is now, is headed for Oregon, and is named after the moon?

The answer to both questions is the Snake River plain of Idaho. More specifically, Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Most of the Snake River plain is covered by lava that oozed out of great cracks in the earth, instead of tall volcanoes.

The resulting landscape looks less like the moon than it does Mordor from Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."

Drivers on monotonous Interstate 84 can find an oasis from the dreary scenery, however, at a truck stop at the exit to Eden, Idaho, just east of Twin Falls.

There, the weary traveler can find just about anything but low gas prices. Beware, this oasis has some of the highest gas prices in the nation.

For truckers, it offers fuel, food, clean showers, and even a truck wash. For the rest of us, there are top-notch restrooms, a large convenience store and a whole food court full of fast food.

The real attraction, however, sits in the middle of all this. The tables are set in a reproduction of the Garden of Eden, complete with a serpent in the apple tree.

Water rushes over those fake "Star Trek" style boulders, and animated birds turn their heads. The food court is enclosed, but the walls and ceiling are painted to look like the sky and clouds.

The quickest way from Eden to hell is to drive north on highways 25, 75/93 and 20/26 to Carey, Idaho. Craters of the Moon is about 30 miles northeast of Carey.

If you've got a few hundred million years to spare, however, just sit tight. Craters of the Moon is coming to Oregon.

The national monument used to sit over the hot spot now occupied by Yellowstone National Park.

There are, in fact, a whole series of ancient calderas extending across the Snake River Plain and into Southeastern Oregon.

Each, in turn, passed over the hot spot in the earth's mantel as the crustal plate moved southwest. Land in eastern Montana will be the next to pass over the hot spot.

There is still plenty of heat, however, under Idaho's 50-mile-long Great Rift Zone, now entirely within the boundaries of Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Lava has flowed from the cracks there at regular intervals beginning 15,000 years ago. The most recent flow is 2,200 years old, and the area is due for a new eruption at any time.

Travelers can learn all about the geology of the monument at the visitors center just off the highway.

Besides interactive displays, the center also features a bookstore, restrooms, vending machines and cold water.

It's also a good place to stock up on water for the various hikes through the park, and even flashlights for exploring the lava tube caves.

Not far south of the visitors center is a parking lot and trail across the North Crater Lava Flow, the monument's most recent.

Along the quarter-mile trail, visitors can see examples of pahoehoe and lava. Some of the flowing pahoehoe lava hardened into serpentine forms with cracked blueish skin. It is called blue dragon lava.

Also visible from the trail are large pieces of the crater wall that crumbled and floated down molten rivers.

Hardier hikers can take the half-mile trail to the top of the North Crater Cinder Cone.

The next stop on the loop road is the Devil's Orchard nature trail. The "orchard" is made up of more monoliths that floated down the lava rivers.

There are several picnic tables near the parking lot, so visitors can dine in the orchard. Flying insects make this a real trial at certain times of the year, however.

The best view in the park comes at the next stop: Inferno Cone. From the top of this cinder cone, visitors can see, on a clear day, 100 miles across the volcanic landscape of the Snake River Plain.

The problem is getting to the top. The climb is a lot steeper than it looks, and when visitors reach what looks like the top from the parking lot, they will find another steep slope in front of them, and then another. The view is well worth the climb, however.

Inferno Cone has no crater on top. For that, cross the road and take another short, but steep, hike to peer into Big Craters.

Those tired of hiking uphill can take a short loop trail and look into small spatter cones, which look like miniature volcanoes.

The loop road reaches its southernmost point at the Lava Cascades. Those who want to go farther can hike a couple of miles to the Tree Molds to see impressions of trees left in the lava. Be sure to take plenty of water.

On the way back to the visitors center, travelers will encounter the cave area, where four lava tubes are open for exploration.

One must be a contortionist, however, to scramble over the jumbled lava blocks at the entrances of the caves.

Bring a flashlight, because daylight won't get you more than a few steps into the tubes.

That will be enough for all but the very brave or very stupid. Not far into each of the caves are signs and barriers that warn of falling rocks beyond. All of the barriers have been crushed, so it's not just an idle warning.

Craters of the Moon is a worthwhile diversion for anyone heading to Yellowstone National Park. Plan on half a day to really see the monument.

Those wishing to explore recent lava flows a bit closer to home in Oregon should try the Old McKenzie Highway between McKenzie Bridge and Sisters. It is generally open from June through October, depending on snow.

Lava tubes and cinder cones are also easily accessible at Newberry National Volcanic Monument just south of Bend on U.S. Highway 97.

Even closer for Southern Oregon residents is Lava Beds National Monument south of Klamath Falls on California Highway 139.