Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve: Caves Trail (Blog Hike #355)

Trail: Caves Trail
Hike Location: Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
Geographic Location: southwest of Arco, ID (43.44595, -113.53475)
Length: 1.8 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2011
Overview: A mostly flat trail leading to several cave entrances.
Monument Information:
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailheadThe entrance to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is located on US 20/26/93 18 miles west of Arco or 25 miles east of Carey.  Enter the preserve, pass the Visitor Center, and begin the main loop road.  The trailhead for the Caves Trail is located at stop 7 on the loop road.

The hike: For my general comments on Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, see the Devil’s Orchard hike blog entry.  The trail described here explores the caves section of the preserve.  Unlike muddy limestone caves familiar to most travelers, these caves formed as pockets in the lava flow and hence are very rocky, dark, and somewhat unstable.  For these reasons, permits and appropriate equipment are required to enter the caves themselves.  However, visitors walking along this trail can look into the small lava caves with minimal risk and no special accommodations.
Caves Trail heads into the lava
            The asphalt trail exits the far end of the parking area and starts out across the lava flow, heading slightly uphill.  Looking ahead to the east, only lumpy black lava rock can be seen.  Unlike the North Crater Flow explored on the previous hike, this trail heads across the Blue Dragon Flow.  This flow is larger, slightly older, and features many hollow lava tubes.  Lava tubes form where molten lava flows underneath lava that has already cooled to form rock.  Some lava tubes have their ceilings collapse to form a sink, while others intake water to form cave-like formations.  In fact, the caves featured on this trail are actually lava tubes.
            At 0.25 miles, you reach signed Dewdrop Cave, the smallest of the four caves.  Dewdrop Cave is 10-17 feet high, and most of the cave can be seen from the trail.  If you choose to venture into the cave, watch your step on the loose black rocks that cover the cave floor.  The trail also forks at Dewdrop Cave.  To save the largest cave for last, I chose to take the left (north) fork first.
Dewdrop Cave
            At 0.4 miles, you reach the entrance to Boy Scout Cave.  The entrance to Boy Scout Cave is only 3-4 feet high, and you will have to crawl over loose rock to enter.  Also, sunlight does not reach most of the cave, so you will need a flashlight to explore.  On the bright side, Boy Scout Cave is sufficiently large, dark, and cold that ice collects during the winter and remains year-round.  The cool cave interior makes a sharp contrast with the hot sun radiating off of the lava rocks on the paved trail.
Entrance to Boy Scout Cave
            In another 0.1 miles, the trail ends at the entrance to Beauty Cave.  More large rocks must be climbed over at the entrance, but the floor of this 300 foot long and 13 foot high tunnel is flat.  A flashlight will be needed to explore this cave, and be sure to turn around where the cave is closed: the ceiling beyond this point has experienced recent collapse.
            Turn around at Beauty Cave, retrace your steps to Dewdrop Cave, and then angle left to begin the south arm of the trail.  The trail heads due south across more black rock.  A collapsed lava tube forms a black crater only feet from the trail.
Collapsed lava tube
            1 mile into the hike, you reach the metal steps that descend into Indian Tunnel, the final and largest cave on this trail.  Indian Tunnel is 20-40 feet high, and several holes in the roof provide enough light for visitors to explore most of the cave without a flashlight.  With a little rock scrambling, you can walk through the cave to a second entrance 800 feet away.
Steps descending into Indian Tunnel

Cairns on trail across lava rock
            If you do not wish to walk through the cave, you can also reach the second entrance by following some cairns south across the black rock.  The hike across the rock is more challenging than the paved Caves Trail, but it provides more of a true wilderness hiking experience.  Of course, you could also walk through the cave and then follow the cairns to return to the Caves Trail.  The Caves Trail does not continue past Indian Tunnel, so you will need to retrace your steps on the Caves Trail, making sure not to miss the left turn at Dewdrop Cave, to return to the parking lot and complete the hike.

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