Craters Of The Moon
August 16 2015
U.S. Route 20 is the longest highway in the the United States, snaking quietly from Massachusetts to Oregon mostly parallel to the Interstate routes that superseded it long ago. From Chicago westward, it’s a lonely old trek that sees just a handful of one-horse towns through the entirety of Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming before cutting sideways through the breathtaking scenery of Yellowstone.
West of Yellowstone, the tourists leave U.S. 20 in droves in search of quicker routes to the Pacific. After Idaho Falls especially, the highway falls dead silent and all at once becomes a well-worn blacktop vector stretching away towards vanishing points in epic, beautiful landscapes that Idaho is strangely not-at-all known for. Wyoming and Montana get all the glory, but those prize potatoes really do grow on precious ground.
Outside the tiny town of Arco, the terrain begins to blacken—subtly at first, but then so entirely that the flora growing upon it takes on otherworldly casts of green, taupe, mauve against potting soil black. The sun—no matter its position in the giant sky overhead—plays dramatic shadowy tricks with distant trees, hills and oncoming cars. When the soil is at its blackest, you’ve arrived at Craters of the Moon National Monument.
Formed, according to the official literature, “during eight major eruptive periods between 15,000 and 2000 years ago,” and are a geologic anomaly in that they’re so well preserved. The area became a National Monument in 1924 during the Coolidge administration and was expanded again in the 1990s by President Clinton.
For those willing to hike a bit, the views are spectacular. At one point on the loop, you can summit a basalt hill that is mostly devoid of vegetation—the hike up is as close to a space adventure as you might get in nature, with impossibly light rock crunching underfoot and a darkened landscape as far as the eye can see in all directions. There are several caves in the monument accessible by special permit, and unlike many National Monuments nowadays, you can climb on and get up close and personal with many formations that might otherwise be off limits.
One particularly nice touch that has less to do with nature than an on-point parks service are the monument’s glassy smooth blacktop roads: they snake through the park with black painted cement curbs. Thanks to their continuity with the landscape, they almost give the impression that you’re driving atop fresh lava flows. And it’s impossible to spend any time at Craters of the Moon without drawing comparisons to its chromatic opposite, the stark and brilliant White Sands National Monument about 1,000 miles southeast in New Mexico. (At White Sands, though, nobody bothered to paint the roads white.)