Craters of the Moon National Monument | Volcano Skiing
Craters of the Moon National Monument is located in eastern Idaho. One of the largest monuments in the state, this massive expanse of lava flow offers scenes that resemble the moon more so than earthly landscapes. Even though the last eruption was 2,000 years ago, vegetation still struggles to maintain a foothold here. Generally thought of as a hot and dry park, winter provides an unique experience for the hardy souls looking for adventure.
Craters of the Moon In Winter
East Idaho is famous for windy, cold, and dry winters. Made up of scrubland, this high desert region receives little precipitation and any snow that does fall generally melts within 24 hours. This leaves the rocky lava landscape exposed most years. However, once every 5 years or so, there will be a snowstorm that dumps enough powder to turn Craters of the Moon into a winter wonderland. It takes the right mix of moisture and temperatures to cover the otherwise rocky and foreboding lava flows.
Luckily for me, in January 2021, we had the first snow storm in 5 years that opened the park up to the possibility of skiing. Not on the priority list for most backcountry skiers, Craters of the Moon’s appeal lies in the rarity of her conditions. Most years, a ski trip is impossible but when the stars align, you can squeeze a run or two in.
Skiing Craters of the Moon
The majority of the park features interesting lava flow features but is devoid of any large peaks. The only part of the park that offers skiable terrain is the northwest corner, close to the Robert Limbert visitors center. See map below:
- Big Cinder Butte 6,515′
- Sunset Cone, 6,410′
- Silent Cone, 6,357′
- Grassy Cone, 6,315′
- North crater, 6,244′
- Inferno Cone, 6,181′
- Paisley Cone, 6,107′
- Broken Top, 6,058′
From the list of the tallest cones, I chose to ski Sunset Cone. It’s the second tallest cone in the park and it’s easy to get to from Highway 26. In the winter time, accessibility trumps all other variables when it comes to skiing. The closer a feature is to the road, the better the trip is going to be
Skiing Sunset Cone, Arco, ID
After nearly 5 winters, the winter of 2021 finally provided a snowstorm large enough to ski Craters of the Moon. What was a blessing was also a curse, temperatures around 31 degrees ensured the snow was heavy and wet. Thanks to an atmospheric river from the Pacific Ocean, the landscape was covered in some of the heaviest snow I have ever skied in. The difficulty of walking through it made Sunset cone the only choice to ski. Close to the road, it’s a simple walk to the top! I followed the ridgeline the whole way. Check out my route below:
It took almost 2 hours to complete the cone but it was worth it! The heavy and wet snow made me exhausted but the climb to the top was ethereal. It is incredibly rare to explore this part of the state in such a heavy snowstorm. My knowledge of what lied beneath me – a volcano – made the whole experience that much more enjoyable. Most people visit Craters of the Moon in the summer, when the landscape shows off it’s black lava rocks. On this day, the unforgiving rocks were covered with a cold and wet blanket, and it opened up the landscape for exploration. If you ever get the chance to visit Craters of the Moon during the winter, I highly recommend it.
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