Posts Tagged ‘Idaho’

Coolest Name in the National Park Service

My quest to visit all the National Park sites was inspired partly by grade school science textbooks. I remember all those iconic pictures of Old Faithful, Mount McKinley, the Smoky Mountains, and, of course, Craters of the Moon. The very name evokes fascination in 11-year-old science geeks everywhere: what sort of environment exists in that part of Idaho that earned it the coolest name in the entire National Park Service: Craters of the Moon? It’s not only mentioned in a geologic context, it’s also a place where NASA trained Apollo astronauts and moon rovers for decades. We’re talking a major attraction for science and history geeks here!

Lava Piles © 2008 America in ContextCraters of the Moon is a huge expanse of ancient volcanic lava flows and cinder cones. This type of stuff is pure gold for East Coasters like myself. Here, east of the Mississippi River, is the “old continent”. The weathered Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains in the world, and don’t change too much anymore. No earthquakes, no volcanoes, no change in millions & millions of years, other than the slow erosion of wind and water. Great place for coal mines, lousy place for geologic excitement.

The western part of the country, on the other hand, is terrific. The Pacific plate is still grinding alongside the North American plate, the Rocky Mountains are still pushing skyward, the Great Basin uplift continues, and the Yellowstone hotspot drifts ever so slowly towards the east coast. Craters of the Moon is evidence of this activity. It was the Yellowstone hot spot 8-15 million years ago, and within the park itself are lava flows from volcanic eruptions between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago, well preserved due to the low rainfall in Idaho’s high desert region.

Ghost Tree © 2008 America in ContextDriving & hiking around craters is groups of coolness. You can walk across miles and miles of lava flows, explore numerous vents and tunnels underground, and scramble around rocky cinder cones, mini-volcanoes spurting up like blackhead acne on a 14-year-old. It’s truly a rugged, alien landscape, reminiscent of countless sci-fi movies where Our Heroes are abandoned on some godforsaken hunk of rock to fend for themselves. There is little doubt why NASA tested Apollo mission gear here: few terrains are as uninviting in the United States as Craters of the Moon National Monument. Throw in the heat and lack of precious water, and you’re talking one of the most dangerous tracts of land in the Lower 48. Well, it would be if it weren’t for the well-paved park roads and the close access to State Highway 20, no more than 30 minutes away from the closest Denny’s and their Heart Attack on a Plate Steak-n-Eggs Scrambler….

In my travels, there are moments of great satisfaction when I finally visit a site from those old grade school textbooks. Craters of the Moon was one such moment. It was, indeed, groups of cool.

Cinder Cones © 2008 America in Context

[Pics on this post were taken by the blog owner and are copyrighted thusly. Do not reuse without permission. See my other Craters pics here].



Barky's Lava Buddy © 2008 America in ContextCraters of the Moon National Monument (check out this cool animation)

Idaho’s Great Rift Zone

University of California Berkely’s Plate Tectonics page

Google map to Craters of the Moon

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Missing the Point

When I go to a National Park Service site, I really try to get the point of the place. I’ve got to get out of the car, strap on my boots, and hit the trails. I have to get in a kayak and paddle the lakes. I have to clamber through the caves. I have to hit the vistas and the valley floors. Doing any less is missing the point. I don’t want to just go to the visitor’s center and buy a lapel pin, I don’t want to just take the scenic drive and stop at the overlooks. I don’t want to just look at stuffed animals on display. I want to feel the parks, get the sense of what they’re all about, even commune a bit with nature, as corny as that sounds. True, I don’t do hardcore wilderness backpacking (I’m too fond of hot showers and soft beds), but I still make that effort to get my boots dirty and breathe the clear air.

When it came to the City of Rocks, I blew it.

Westward Wagons © 2008 America In ContextThe City of Rocks is an expanse of rock formations, eroded from ancient strata over millions of years. It’s in the high-desert region of southern Idaho, so it is hot & dry, but it’s actually a pretty cool place, very Flintstone-esque. It was a landmark on the California Trail, supposedly earning its name from comments made by the first of the westward wagon trains in 1849, but its biggest claim to fame is its status as a great place to go rock-climbing.

Rock climbing is one of those things I’ve never done. Not being particularly athletic, and having some physical limitations (namely extreme nearsightedness that even contact lenses can’t fully correct), there are a lot of things I haven’t done. Rock climbing, however, is something I should be able to do. OK, I’ll probably never scale Half Dome, but there’s really no reason I can’t do simple climbs, with a little training and some hard work.

Worm From Dune © 2008 America In ContextBut when I went to the City of Rocks, I didn’t even think about rock climbing. I didn’t research the place at all, didn’t even know rock climbing was what CoR was all about. So, when I went, and saw all those climbers over all those rock formations, and I felt left out. It probably would have been very simple to sign up for some beginning rock climbing lessons while I was there, but alas, my pre-planning was completely absent. It was my own fault, and I had no time left to get into the groove (pun intended, I suppose).

Some time ago, I posted a comment about over-researching a park and only hitting the popular highlights. To me, that’s like only seeing blockbuster movies while missing great independent films. There are a lot of great hidden jewels in the parks that can be stumbled upon by walking the lesser-traveled paths. But City of Rocks taught me a valuable lesson: you should at least do a little reading before you go anywhere, to make sure you don’t end up missing the point.

[Photos on this post are the property of the blog owner. Please do not use without express written permission. A few more CoR pics can be found here.]


City of Rocks National Reserve

Rock Climbing at City of Rocks (notice “quantity of climbs = lifetime”)

Google map to City of Rocks

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