Located just north of the Snake River Plain in Central Idaho, the wonderfully bizarre landscape of this park seems to bubble up from the surrounding plains like some strange brew from an underground cauldron. Indeed, this descriptor is not far from the truth, as the park’s myriad of craters, fissures, and fossilized lava flows that comprise some 750,000 acres owe their existence to the region’s intense seismic activity and violent volcanic past. The most recent eruption occurred only 2,000 (!) years ago.
We opted to explore this strange and somewhat unsettling landscape by foot, as mountain bikes are not permitted on the trails. Additionally, there are a few areas where you have the option to explore caves formed by ancient lava tubes, and which are only accessible by foot (hint: bring a headlamp!).
Our day hike took us from the very top of the Inferno Cone – which at 6181 ft afforded beautiful panoramic views of the entire valley – to the caldera of the immense North Crater, and finally down to the subterranean maze of the Buffalo Caves. Along the way we encountered people of all ages and walks of life enjoying the wonders of the park, including the largest group of Boy Scouts we’ve ever seen. We have no idea how the Scout Masters kept them all accounted for.
Apart from being an ideal destination for losing a Boy Scout, Craters of the Moon also is an important ecological site that sustains a diversity of plant and animal life – including six species of bats that make their home in the lava tubes.
Interested in going? Check out the park’s website here for information on hikes and other activities inside the park. One important note: With the dark volcanic rock and ash, it can get particularly hot during summer months, so try to plan your visit early in the day.
Fee? Yes – $15 per vehicle. National Park Annual Pass also accepted. Pets? In the campground, park lot, and on paved roads. Not on trails. MTB? No.
Situated on the border of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America, and the second deepest after Crater Lake in Oregon. The majority of the lake’s watershed is protected land, with several state parks including Sand Harbor; Sugar Pine Point; Spooner Lake; and of course the eponymous Lake Tahoe State Park.
The area is popular year-round – offering a myriad of lakeside activities in the summer, and skiing or snowboarding in the winter. Apart from being an Instagram-perfect vacation destination, though, Lake Tahoe also provides important ecological benefits as a watershed. Additionally, it’s home to numerous protected or endangered species, including the bald eagle and kokanee salmon, as well as rare plant species like the Lake Tahoe watercress.
On our visit, we took advantage of the beautiful blue-sky July weather to explore the region by bike and by foot. Our first venture took us on a 70+ mile bike ride around the entire lake, which included 4,000+ feet of climbing over a mix of long, gradual mountain inclines and gentle rollers.
Throughout the ride, we were afforded panoramic vistas of the lake and surrounding mountains, which were surprisingly still snow-capped in late July owing to the record snowfall the region received this past winter. The views were only somewhat marred by the seemingly endless traffic in both directions (FYI, if you’re not already aware, you could say that Lake Tahoe is *somewhat* of a popular tourist destination. On the weekend we were there, it seemed like everyone within a 2,000 mile radius also had the same idea to visit. It was crowded). However, even with the bumper-to-bumper traffic, cars were generally respectful, and gave us plenty of room to pass.
The next day, we opted to avoid dealing with traffic and ventured out for a run along the trails of Spooner Lake State Park. This Nevada park is about 8 miles to the east of Lake Tahoe, and is home to two equally picturesque lakes of its own: Spooner and Marlette. Our run took us point-to-point from one lake to the other, and back along the Marlette Lake Trail. The route climbed over 1,600 feet through rustling alpine groves and high mountain meadows – with epic mountain views the entire way.
Interested in going? Be advised that Lake Tahoe and surrounding areas are popular year-round, and can be particularly crowded on weekends and holidays. Plan in advance and make your reservations early. If you’re looking to do a hike or trip to the beach, you should also arrive early in the morning, as parking fills up quickly. (On our bike ride, we observed no less than 4 rather heated arguments over parking. Don’t be one of those guys – plan in advance.)
As for the state parks in the area: they will likely require a fee of $6 – $10. Most are dog and mountain-bike friendly, but be sure to check signs beforehand.
Finally, it’s important to note that despite being a beloved travel destination, Lake Tahoe is under threat due to development and associated pollution. Studies estimate that the clarity of the lake has decreased substantially due to pollution from stormwater runoff associated with construction. Pollution of the lake in turn affects species that depend upon it for survival, including those found in the Truckee River fed by the lake. That said, efforts by local environmental groups like Keep Tahoe Blue have made substantial gains in protecting and restoring the lake and surrounding areas.
Interested in supporting global conservation efforts? Then check out the website of our sister organization, the Alliance for International Reforestation, here!