National Parks Plus Kids: Volcanoes Are Cool

Ranger hat or astronaut helmet? Kids have important choices to make at Craters of the Moon.

Ranger hat or astronaut helmet? Kids have important choices to make at Craters of the Moon. Photo courtesy of the Obey family.

By Craig Obey, Senior Vice President, Government Affairs

A kid can hardly leave Yellowstone without volcanoes on the brain. It is a fascinating place. As parents, we knew we had a long drive ahead of us, and we came close to skipping Craters of the Moon in Idaho. That would have been a big mistake! Craters of the Moon is only a few hours journey from Yellowstone or Grand Teton, but receives little visitation. Yet, it is among the best parks for kids that we encountered.

Both kids were absolutely captivated. I had been there twice before, but the kids made it new and fresh for me, too. About midway through, Isabelle declared it one of the best days of her life.

The advantage of a small park like Craters of the Moon is its accessibility. For all of Yellowstone’s gravitas and fame, Craters is like an eccentric cousin, seldom thought of, but whose presence produces memories and stories for years to come.

Craters is a lava flow, with volcanic cones easily climbed and explored, small craters allowing young eyes a glimpse into a mini volcano, lava tubes offering awe-inspiring subterranean experiences, and a moonscape that may be unequaled this side of the Sea of Tranquility. The Park Service guided us perfectly to kid-friendly hikes that introduced the kids to different types of lava, helped them understand how life can take hold in such a barren environment, and opened their eyes to a fascinating, unique landscape different from any they had ever seen.

Craters is not the place you visit to be awed by mountain peaks, babbling brooks, grand trees, or large mammals. But it has a stark beauty all its own, enhanced by the reactions of excited kids who can readily see how different it is from everything else they know.

The Junior Ranger program there is excellent, and those who are sworn in can opt to wear either a ranger hat or an astronaut helmet during the ceremony. It’s a real kick to see a child consumed by a huge astronaut helmet.

Tips

  1. Start early in the day. The landscape is mostly black and unshaded, which means it will heat up quickly in the summer sun. If you hit the trail by 8:00 or 8:30, you’ll have plenty of time to hike around before the heat of the day. Nonetheless, bring plenty of water.
  2. Indian Tunnel is a must-hike. Nearly three football fields in length, this massive lava tube is sufficiently open and lighted, so this unique excursion feels enjoyable, and not claustrophobic.  It was the highlight of our trip.
  3. Take the short walk to the spatter cones.
  4. Hike to the top of Inferno Cone. It’s doable for young kids, particularly in the cooler morning hours, and offers a tremendous 360-degree view of the entire moonscape.
  5. Make sure your kids do the Junior Ranger program.
  6. Bring your own food. Because the park is so remote and small, it lacks food facilities—the nearest restaurant is at least 20 miles away.

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About the Author

Craig Obey is senior vice president of government affairs at NPCA.