Craters of the Moon NM, the Wilderness Trail


Sep 12, 2014
"Recreational use of the wilderness area has remained limited. Fewer than 100 people a year obtain overnight camping permits for the area."

I have a national parks pass that expires this month, so i thought that i should try to squeeze a little more use out of it. I started looking at Craters of the Moon, and when i found this information on the wilderness, i knew i wanted to backpack there. Fewer than 100 people, not just parties. That's practically no one.
The Wilderness Trail of Craters of the Moon travels four miles from the Tree Molds parking area at the end of the road to The Sentinel, one of the buttes/cones in the monument. Information on the Monument web site said that most backpackers camp at Echo Crater, three miles in. I had to work an event saturday until two, so i figured i'd pack the night before, leave as soon as i could, and we'd be able to start hiking around five. An easy three miles in to camp before dark, then finish the trail the next day with out packs, head out, and see some of the areas closer to the road before we left. Seemed like a great plan. Short week end trip with the girl friend.

You're supposed to pick up a permit from the visitor center, but they close at 430. I wasn't going to make that, so i called to ask what my options were. They filled out a permit for me. They also told me that the road with in the monument was closed a short ways beyond the camp ground. This changed our three miles in to seven miles in. Oh well, we were committed now.

Trees like this at the camp ground. We showed up a little after five, and managed to be on the trail by 520.

Being on the road wasn't as bad as i'd imagined it could be. It has a whole different feel when you know that there is no chance of there being a car on it. There weren't any people around either. There were more cars than i expected at the parking area near the gate, but we passed two large groups after about ten minutes from leaving our car, and those were the only people we saw until we got back to it the next day. Which was fantastic.DSCF9534.JPG

We had views of the Pioneer Mountains beyond the lava to the north, and the Lost River Range farther away to the northeast. This picture is looking out to the Lost River Range.

Losing the sun behind the foot hills. At this point we were finally on the actual trail. The four road miles went very quickly, but making it the last three before dark looked unlikely.

Crescent Butte with a glow on it.

Some wrinkly lava flows.


Brittinei and a couple pines.

Sun set. We set up camp a little ways beyond here in between Big Cinder Butte and Half Cone on some nice cinders.

The next morning, and i mean late morning, Brittinei opted to sleep in, and i went to hike to the top of Big Cinder Butte, the tallest in the monument. It's 6500', a climb of about 700, and offers great views of the surrounding area. This is a crater on it's flank.

Looking down on the cinders where we'd camped. Brittinei is a tiny green dot next to a tent colored smudge sticking out from behind a pine. I can see her looking for me. She hears me yell to her, but can't find me.

At the top. These are the foot hills of the Pioneers.

The Lost River Range a ways away.


Wind shaped pines. It blows east. In an area known for how bad the wind can be, we were very fortunate on this trip. Most of the time it was dead calm for us. Occasionally on the top of some thing it would be windy.

Looking south, the lava flows stretch dozens of miles this direction. You can see some of the buttes, with larger snow patches, extending along the great rift.

Crescent Butte to the east. Big Southern Butte on the left horizon, far in the distance.

The Buttes to the south. Coyote Butte front and center, Echo Crater beyond it slightly right, The Watchman and The Sentinel next to each other beyond that, Fissure Butte top right beyond them. The horizon fades into no thing. Sheep Trail Butte barely peeks over the left edge of Fissure.

Looking at the craters to the north. These are all visited by the monument road, which you can see just left of center. Much less snow on the lava in this picture because every thing i can see faces south.


The view east. Cinders on the side of Half Cone.

Back at the bottom i ate breakfast with Brittinei, and then we started out to see the rest of the trail.


Lost River Range viewed between two of the buttes.

Some limber pines. In some places they grew relatively thick, in others quite sparse.



Trench Mortar Flat, Crescent Butte.

Looking back toward Big Cinder Butte, capped in dark dark red.

Suddenly the vegetation changed from brush to this grass. I'm inclined to believe due to fire based on the tree skeletons in the grassy area.

Here you can see the edge of a lava flow, where it's advance ended.

One of the dead trees in the area where there are no longer any trees. The grass i assume is the first to come back.


Brittinei in front of The Sentinel. We at some snacks, and then we'd come this far, so we went to the top of it.

Looking back north on the way up. Big Cinder Butte on the left, must be Crescent on the right. I loved the way the cinders show up in patches amidst the vegetation. I imagine that it's due to wind blowing soil of appropriately faced topography. Also, you can see light colored grass area fringed by the sage colored areas dominated by brush.

Zoomed in on Big Cinder Butte, with Echo Crater in front of it.

Here you can clearly see the line between the grass area and the brush area. And also the hills.

Again, the lines between vegetation covers. Looking north.

The Watchman, just to the side of The Sentinel.

Brittinei waited here while i went out to the very end of The Sentinel. The Sentinel and The Watchman both are not that tall really, but every thing around is so flat that you can see for miles.

Big Southern Butte in the distance to the east. It is about 7500', and probably has quite a view. The smaller bump on the left is probably Middle Butte.

On top of The Sentinel.

Looking south, Fissure Butte right in the center. Split Butte to the left of it barely rises above it's surroundings.

Looking back.

The Watchman again.

The black rock running across the view here extends from The Watchman and is part of the Little Prairie Aa Flow.

A good view of Echo Crater and Big Cinder Butte beyond it.

Brittinei the green dot back along the ridge of The Sentinel.




We made our way down and started walking back. We decided on the return we'd detour off trail to see Echo Crater.

Echo Crater. People camp here, looks like the place to do it.



Back at our site. It was pleasant. We made an other chicken noodle soup before the hike back to the car.

Part of the trail near the road is marked by these posts. On the way back they have the small arrows cut in to them. Coming out there was no marking on the other side, you just had to look for the next post.

Big Cinder Butte from the north side, near the road.

Pioneer Mountains across the lava.

On the way back we cut one of the curves of the road on this trail.

Our eight mile out and back turned out to be more like seventeen, which is more than usual for Brittinei. We were only out for about twenty five hours, and didn't see any other portions of the park due to the road closure. But i actually loved this place more than i expected to, even though it was different from what i expected. I expected more lava, more right next to me, but i suppose that's not where they put the trail. I keep thinking about going back to do some thing longer.

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I live in the JAckson area and have been thinking of a Spring trip here for some time. Thanks for an awesome report and photos. Great way to kill time before heading in to the grind.
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Great report. Very interesting looking area with all of that lava around. Those snow covered Pioneer Mountains are beautiful. I love how open everything is out there. I'm always stuck inside a sea of trees over here. Btw - sometimes I like to look up some extra info on an area after reading a TR just to learn a little more, and I realized after googling that you meant National Monument by "NM"... The whole time I was reading your report I was thinking to myself "wow, this really isn't what I expected New Mexico to look like!"
Been there 3 memorable times:
Being from Idaho, I did like everyone there did in grade school and went on a 4th grade field trip there...loved it. except they told us we couldn't take any rocks home with us. (i did anyway)
Also took my mother in law there to show off some of the cool things about Idaho.
And the most notorious trip to Craters of the Moon...while driving back to Ricks College in Rexburg, ID with my wife (married for 2 weeks at this point) decided to go the back way thru Craters of the Moon...long story short I let my wife drive and we wrecked/rolled our car there. And spent the day/night in "lovely" Arco.
So if you see any tire marks just past Craters of the Moon on Hwy 20/26 toward Arco tearing into the lava rocks...that's me!
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Believe it or not Vegan where the CDT goes through El Malpais in New Mexico looks very much like this. Wander much there and you will tear the kwap out of your shoes if not more.
Believe it or not Vegan where the CDT goes through El Malpais in New Mexico looks very much like this. Wander much there and you will tear the kwap out of your shoes if not more.
That's right - I read the whole thing assuming it was in New Mexico. Love New Mexico.
Because of its proximity to the airport, I've considered flying into Albuquerque for a weekend, to hike the La Luz trail. You can get a 30 min cab ride directly from the airport to the trailhead and vice versa. Perfect candidate for a quick cross-country, weekend hike.
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Does Santa Fe have an airport? Their mountains are way cooler. May be able to hitch a ride to the ski area where a huge wilderness opens up to you.
Does Santa Fe have an airport? Their mountains are way cooler. May be able to hitch a ride to the ski area where a huge wilderness opens up to you.

Just googled it, Santa Fe has a Municipal airport (SAF) whereas Albuquerque is an International airport (ABQ). Flying into international airports is usually cheaper (I recall seeing round trip flights to ABQ from NYC last summer in the $275 range). I just checked flights to SAF using random dates in Sept just to get an idea and they are around $450. Still doable, but a little more expensive. My schedule is full for this year, but I'll keep this in mind for the future. Another great candidate for inexpensive airfare into an international airport close to hiking destinations is Boise (BOI) in @ben cowan's neck of the woods near the Sawtooths. I saw round trip flights into BOI in the $275 price range last summer.
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Great report. Your pics are great but I have to say that I have been perplex by this place as i can never get any photos that give even a hint of how spectacular it is to wander around. Good photo opportunities, but I consider it one of the most difficult places to shoot. Nice job.
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i thought i had some pretty good ones here until i looked back at the report yesterday and felt that they didn't quite give the sense of the place that i got while actually being there. i really did love the whole place more than i expected to though. need to get back and do some hiking beyond the trail.
'Burque is an interesting town now but still has some rougher edges. I lived there for eight months in the mid eighties and growing at an insane rate it was rougher than fiberglass underwear. But some friends like it more now; with kids there are museums, etc.

"Way cooler" or not Santa Fe is just an hour from 'Burque so airfare spent is up to you. You never know, some shoulder seasons Taos might be doable. The Jemez is/are magical. Vandalism at trailheads was in my experience a bit more common in New Mexico than Colorado. Whatever the case Colorado south of Highway 50 down to the Bosque an hour south of 'Burque is pretty darn magical. Then you go farther south in New Mexico and it can get even better for some folks with the Gila Mountains and so much more. , flying in and cabbing/hitching removes that variable.

Road tripping between Colorado Springs and the Taos/ and or Santa Fe areas fairly frequently was a great joy when I lived in Colorado. I'm biased and sometimes thought a weirdo in that I think the best of Colorado is south of US Highway 50 and East of the Divide on down to the Land of Enchantment. I'm not the only one of us that simply comes to love what we come to know. The education was among the greatest of privileges.

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