Cool area, Cool trip.
Craters of the Moon is an interesting area during anytime of the year. But until last week I had never been in the Monument during the winter. The area is actually quite popular during the winter with its groomed trails, easy access, and free entry. (Yes FREE in the winter!) It is also home to a large concentration of volcanic buttes within a short distance from each other. The buttes offer some interesting hikes during the summer months but in the winter they can be a little more challenging, and perhaps interesting. This is why Zach and I decided to head for Craters and bag as many of the Buttes as we could in one day.
We planned to leave Boise at 6:00 am and would have except for one problem. While Zach was loading his gear into my car I noticed he didn’t load his snowshoes. When I asked him about it he realized he had left them home so we had to go back to his house and grab them which made us about 45 minutes late getting started. I’m just glad we didn’t realize he had left them home once we got to Craters. It would have ruined the trip for sure. The drive went pretty quick and at first it looked like we were going to have some bad weather but everything cleared by about the time we reached Fairfield.
When we got to the visitors center at the park the ranger showed me a map and told me about the groomed trails and areas to stay away from where the lava was particularly nasty. I told him we were planning on starting our day by climbing Big Cinder Butte
and he looked at me like I was crazy. Big Cinder is the highest volcanic formation in the park but it’s still not much of a peak. It is however in the wilderness area of the park and it is harder to access in the winter. The ranger explained that it was about 5 miles one way to the butte and that nobody goes down there during the winter. The fact that we’d have it all to ourselves made it all the more appealing.
Zach and I decided we’d start with the peaks near Big Cinder and work our way back to the visitors center bagging peaks as we went. Even though the buttes aren’t very high or difficult there was the possibility of getting six summits in one day on snowshoes so we figured that what the peaks lacked in glamour we’d make up for in quantity.
At first the sun was shining brightly overhead and as we got started is was quite warm. Being on a groomed trail made the going smooth and fast. It took us maybe 1 ½ to 2 hours to reach the end of the groomed trail 3 miles into the trip. From here we could see where we were going but there was some confusion as to which butte was named what. Seeing things a little further down the road and checking out topo soon helped to straighten things out.
Once we started down the ungroomed road leading towards our first three objectives (Big Cinder Butte, Broken Top, and Half Cone) we knew the going would be a little tougher than it had been. The ranger was right, nobody had been here except a lone skier whose tracks stopped a couple hundred yards down the road. After that we were breaking trail all day.
Broken Top was our first summit of the day as it lay between us and Big Cinder Butte. It only took about 10 minutes to get to the top and even less to get down but the view was pretty good and the snow was better on the hill than on the road.
Big Cinder Butte
After touching the top of Broken Top we started out towards Big cinder Butte. This is where the road stopped and we entered the wilderness area. Here the snow was really fluffy and it didn’t hold us up very well so breaking trail got to be pretty tiring as we started climbing. Snow conditions didn’t really improve a lot the whole day and by the end we were suffering pretty bad. Betting to the top of Big Cinder Butte took about an hour and it was worth the effort in the soft snow. The view from the top, especially of the wild country to the South and the Lost River Range to the Northeast was pretty good. It probably would have been better but by now clouds were closing in and it was starting to become a gray winter day. Getting off Big Cinder Butte was a lot of fun. Here the soft deep snow made it easy to plunge step down. In some places we were almost able to ski on our snowshoes.
Our next summit would be Half Cone, a small peak just to the East of Big Cinder. Between the two peaks we passed through a pleasant forest of rather large Limber Pines. (Yes there is a forest in Craters of the Moon!) The snow on Half Cone was really rotten and we fell through a lot but it didn’t take long to get to the top of that one either. By now we were getting tired since we had been breaking trail for a number of hours. We were also starting to notice that the only was back short of climbing Big Cinder Butte again was crossing the Buffalo Caves Lava Flow. The flow is full of cracks, holes, caves, and other obstacles which make traveling across it an ordeal. When it is covered with snow many of those dangers are either hidden or obscured so getting across it can be pretty daunting. We decided that we’d brave the flow instead of climbing again so we cautiously started across it. We did stumble into a few holes and ran into any number of dead ends but we made it through alive. It was, however, the toughest part of the trip. By now we had snowshoed about 6 miles, 3 of those miles breaking trail, and climbed three peaks and we were tired. The snow on the flow was deep and powdery so we often sunk in up to our knees and sometimes up to our waists especially if we stepped in a hole. The soft snow mixed with the difficult route finding made it a slow trip across the flow but finally we made it to some trail markers that lead us past the Buffalo Caves on the far side of the flow. By this time we had given up on climbing any other peaks that day and decided we would save the other closer peaks for next winter. After the flow we had about another mile of trail breaking around Broken Top before we reached where we had been before. There was a picnic table off the side of the road near where we had left it to climb Broken Top earlier in the day and we anxiously watched for its appearance as is symbolized the end of trail breaking. Finally after was seemed like forever we saw the table and when we got to it we cleared off some of the snow to sit down. I don’t think we had sat down all day since we left the car that morning and after breaking trail over a lava flow and three peaks we were pretty tired out. From here there was about a mile to the groomed trail and from there it would hopefully be smooth sailing.
Some Cool Clouds
It seems like our luck with snowshoes was not good this day having started off by forgetting them. A little while after leaving the picnic table my right foot sunk deep into the snow and when I pulled it out I realized that my snowshoe was not attached to it anymore! I pulled it out of the snow and saw that it had literally fallen apart and there was no way I could fix it. Zach was a little bit ahead of me and he didn’t se what had happened until I reached him at the groomed road. For the next half mile or so I limped through the snow with one snowshoe. This was a LOT of work since every step was like climbing a flight of stairs. My right foot would sink in while my left was still on top of the snow. Once I finally reached Zach I showed him what had happened and we both agreed that it could’ve been worse. If it had broken while we were crossing the lava flow it could have been disastrous, in fact I still might be there today.
Now, thoroughly exhausted, we had to trudge the last three miles back to the visitors center. Even though it was on a packed, groomed road it was still miserable and it seemed to take forever. It was getting dark and snow was beginning to fall but at least the worst was over. After 12 miles and 9 hours we made it back to the car hours after we had hoped and three peaks short of our goal.
We joked about making tee-shirts saying “I Survived the Craters Death March”, while planning our return next winter to finish off the other three closer peaks.
Although the trip turned into somewhat of an ordeal it was still a lot of fun and we got to see some country that many people don’t get to in the winter.