As the COVID-19 shutdown continues into fall, it brought to mind a more free summer of 2019, before masks, business closures and other restrictions that have filled the last six months.

A highlight of last summer was a trip 11 hours east, Yellowstone National Park the destination.

I had a week off, so my daughter Madison and I loaded up camping supplies on a scorching July day and headed towards Idaho and, eventually, Wyoming and the oldest national park in the country.

Along the way, memories of a similar trip with my dad and brothers came to mind.

I was around 10, and we ended up camping at Craters of the Moon National Monument, halfway between Boise and Yellowstone.

My main memory from that trip was an abundance of chipmunks popping up around our camp amid the flows of lava formations that comprise Craters of the Moon.

So on the way to Yellowstone, I figured we had to take some time and explore the unique geology, biology and botany of the national monument.

Madi, 13 at the time, didn’t seem to care much about the opportunity, but I wanted to provide her as many experiences away from her screen as possible, so we took a left off Interstate 84 on the way to Idaho Falls, and headed north.

After passing through the beauty of central Idaho, we started passing huge fields of black lava before reaching Craters of the Moon’s visitors center and the road through the national preserve.

We initially bypassed the visitors center, and quickly found ourselves at the campground where my family had camped so many years before.

I certainly couldn’t identify the site we’d camped in, but we stopped and enjoyed the many chipmunks scampering around the area, just as they had when I was 10.

A loop through the national monument provides stops at trails that wind through lava formations, some 12-15-million years old, with the last coming about 2,000 years ago.

Lichens break down the lava into soil particles that allow for some foliage among the harsh environment. Only about 5% of cinder cones, and 15% of the entire monument, are able to sustain plants.

We took hikes along several different trails, exploring the cinder crags along the North Crater Flow Trail and making other stops on the loop.

Interpretive signs informed readers about each area, and soon Madi had left her technology behind and was exploring a landscape she’d never before seen.

An avid collector of any type of flowers, I did have to restrain Madi from picking the colorful little blooms along the trails. Not allowed in the national monument, I explained.

We came across the Inferno Cone, which appears to be a high sand dune, but is actually comprised of pulverized lava.

A trail leads to the top of the cone and a viewpoint of the entire monument and preserve.

And Madi wanted to climb up there and take a look!

After a water break, we ended up at the Devil’s Orchard, where lava had transported cinder cone fragments that were left after an eruption. The half-mile trail wound through clusters of gnarled trees, thus the “orchard” in the name.

There were still many areas to explore, but we needed to be in Idaho Falls for the night and headed to the visitors center.

Again, Madi’s interest was piqued by the displays on the history of Craters of the Moon.

While there, we were informed the highway to Idaho Falls may be closed due to a wildfire.

After a long day of exploring lava fields and formations, we took a chance and hit the highway.

We saw the wildfire moving in from the north, but made it to Idaho Falls, ready for our final destination, Yellowstone, the next day.

But that’s a story for another day.

Bret Rankin can be reached at or 509-526-8316.

Bret Rankin graduated from Western Washington University, and after reporting and editing at several newspapers in western Washington, he joined the Union-Bulletin in 1999 as a sports reporter/copy editor. He has been sports editor since 2010.