We drove north to Utah’s most northern border which meant we were very close to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We could smell them in the air, that’s how close we were to them. But first, we had to take a detour and see the moon. Yellowstone would have to wait a few more days. So, let me tell you about our short time on the moon, and then we’ll get on with the granddaddy of national parks, all in good time.
It amazes me that during the 1920s when laissez faire government dominated the post-war, pre-depression era, 11 national monuments that remain in existence today were designated. Among them is Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve that was declared in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge. What is even more amazing is how it and many other parks and monuments came to be in the first place– through the passion and dedication of visionaries that insisted these lands be preserved and protected.
Before describing a fascinating story of a fascinating Idahoan explorer who took up photography to document his adventures, let me introduce you to Craters of the Moon. In short, the park service describes it as a “weird and scenic landscape where yesterday’s volcanic events are likely to continue tomorrow.” On the Snake River Plain in Idaho are three young lava fields covering a half million acres. For about 15,000 years up until about 2000 years ago, lava erupted through several deep cracks that all together are known as the Great Rift.
When you come into Craters of the Moon, you will not see a large volcano like Mt St. Helens, for instance. Instead, you’ll see fields of rugged lava flows with several volcanic cones, cinder cone fragments and lava tube caves. This harsh landscape was created from fissure eruptions, along cracks in the earth’s crust. The eruptions were many, but relatively mild, thus producing several small cinder cones and extensive lava flows. Each cinder cone is a small volcano, the highest rising about 600 ft. Long ago, it would have been twice as high before the top blew off.
How did Craters of the Moon get its name? Here’s where the story of how it became a national monument turns interesting. During the late 1800s, people who traveled this area found nothing to love about the inhospitable lava beds that posed only as an obstacle to travel. One of Idaho’s most enthusiastic promoters thought differently. In 1918, Robert Limbert’s interest in the area piqued when he heard of a species of dwarf grizzlies. He made a couple short trips into the area and while he never found his grizzly, he did discover a great interest for exploring the lava fields.
In May 1920, Limbert, his Airedale dog Teddy and friend WC Cole went out with 2-weeks provisions. Weighing in at 55 lb, his backpack included a large camera and a rifle. By this time, Limbert had become a well-known naturalist writer for magazines like Outdoor Life. To illustrate his articles, he became a photographer. He set out to discover the lava fields with intentions of recording his discoveries on film.
After walking several miles through sagebrush, they came onto their first lava flow, thick piles of sharp, irregular rocks. Limbert described it this way – “Like a pile of millions of cups and saucers where every time you took a step you slipped and, every time you slipped, you cut yourself”. The trek over the irregular rocks took its toll on the dog whose paws became raw. Limbert and Cole took to carrying the dog or waited for him to pick his way through the rock. At one point, Limbert cut patches of leather from his jacket to cover and protect the dog’s feet.
They crossed 28 miles of jagged lava flows during the first three days of the trek. Setting up camp at night was near impossible with very little level space to lie down upon. Waterholes were located by following old Indian or mountain sheep trails and watching birds drop down from the sky to drink water. After 17 days and 80 miles, they completed their journey upon arriving at the base of the Pioneer Mountains. Limbert summarized his experience this way – “To stand and gaze with amazement mingled with fear at things of which the world knows nothing…passing alone through volcanic craters…crossing miles of folds of rock similar to the folds of a huge blanket was indeed an experience never to be forgotten”.
After that, Limbert continued to explore the area (without the dog) and brought scientists and civic leaders with him while arguing for the protection of the volcanic region. During these trips, he made over 200 still photographs and 4,000 feet of motion picture film. Limbert described his experiences vividly with stunning photo essays accompanying his articles in newspapers and magazines, the most prominent of which was in the March 1924 edition of National Geographic. Limbert also sent President Coolidge a scrapbook with pictures and descriptions of his experience in the Great Rift. Within two months following National Geographic’s publication of ‘Among the “Craters of the Moon”, Coolidge proclaimed the establishment of Craters of the Moon National Monument.
Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Craters of the Moon was designated in 1970 as the first wilderness area in any national park unit. In 2000, its territory was expanded by 495, 000 acres. By the way, Craters of the Moon is not an extinct volcanic area, rather it is dormant. In other words, those volcanoes are not dead, they are only sleeping – for now.