Moonscapes

“The ‘Valley of the Moon’ lies in a region literally combed with underground caves and passages, bewildering in their immensity, mystifying in their variety of strange formations, where there are natural bridges as yet unknown to geographers, where bear tracks hundreds of years old may be traced for miles across cinder flats.”

~Robert Limbert

Two days in Moab was definitely not long enough, but Moab was not the main destination of our impromptu road trip. We started driving north, knowing that someday we will have to return to Utah and give it the in-depth exploration it deserves. We weren’t quite done with the beehive state yet though. I wanted to make one more stop in Salt Lake City to see the Great Salt Lake.

Antelope Island State Park was the perfect spot for a quick stop. The largest of the ten islands in the Great Salt Lake, it is easily accessible from Salt Lake City and has plenty to whether you plan for a quick stop, or a full day. We arrived at the hottest possible point of the day, and only had a few hours to spare, so after consulting the park map we made a plan.

The island is home to a wide variety of wildlife including bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, many species of birds, mule deer, and of course, a large herd of bison. Knowing this, we decided to start by driving around until we saw some wildlife, and it did not take long before a big bull bison ambled along beside our vehicle.

I don’t think I will ever get sick of seeing wild bison (from a safe distance of course – being too close to a bison would be utterly horrifying). This one was carpeted in a layer of obnoxious looking gnats, foreshadowing what was in store for us later that day.

The bison crossed the road in front of us and moved downhill toward the lake quickly. Soon he was just a brown dot in the distant amber-colored fields. In fact, he had company. Bison dotted the fields and hillsides in all directions, too far away to distinguish as anything more than amorphous blobs interrupting the monochrome landscape. Just a few hundred feet down the road, we spotted a couple of distant pronghorn antelope, also too far away to get decent pictures.

We stopped at a couple of pull-offs to admire the unique landscape. The air was thick and hazy that day, so we could barely make out mountains across the lake, which was so still it looked like a giant mirror reflecting the blue sky.

Having seen bison, antelope, and some scenic views it was time to keep moving. Next we went on a short hike on the Ladyfinger Point Trail. It was an easy walk that climbed over some rocks and gave way to a flat, salty peninsula.

Even though the hike was short and easy, the midday heat was intense so Vince and I were excited to head to the beach to take a float in the lake. The beach had bathrooms with showers, so we changed into our bathing suits and walked the blazingly hot, long expanse of white sand that led to the water’s edge.

When we finally made it to the water, we could see that it too was covered in a layer of the same gnats that had been feasting on the bison. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the Dead Sea as began to wade into the salty water. While the Dead Sea had been quick to drop off into deep water, the Salt Lake taped off gradually as we tromped through its warm water. The Dead Sea is too salty to sustain any life, but now we were in the company of many shorebirds who were clearly finding other things to eat in the lake. The Salt Lake also had a more pungent odor than the Dead Sea. When we finally made it to a deep enough spot to float, we found that it was indeed salty enough to float without trying, but not quite as bizarrely floaty as the Dead Sea had been.

Anyway, I make all these comparisons to say: if you are near Salt Lake City, take a float in the Great Salt Lake. It’s definitely fun. However, if you want a sensation unlike anything else, the Dead Sea is where its at.

Back on shore, we discovered our clothes and bags completely engulfed by gnats. Fortunately they seemed more interested in our items than they were us, and none tried to swarm us as we shook them off our shirts and started hiking.

On our way back to the beach building we passed another couple who asked us how the swim had been. My response, “Kind of gross, kind of cool,” about summed it up.

After a quick shower we were back on the road and soon we crossed into Idaho, my 34th state. We managed to reach our next park, Craters of the Moon National Monument just in time. We got one of the last sites at the Lava Flow Campground and were able to set up camp and eat a light dinner just as the sun was going down. We settled into the back of the Dodge for an early bedtime because we planned to wake up early the next morning.

This plan turned out to be great. Our day started with a quick breakfast, as the rest of the camp remained asleep. Morning sunlight cast long shadows as we broke camp and pulled onto the park’s Loop Road. Our surroundings were unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

This was a landscape that was as rich in history as it was unique beauty. Pitch-black lava formations lined the roadside as I read about the many people who had passed through this land before us. Archeological sites show that the Shoshone and Bannock tribes have had contacts with the lava fields since at least 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, which means they likely witnessed volcanic activity which took place as recently as 2,000 years ago.

Later came pioneers who had no love for the barren land, but instead saw it as on obstacle to pass through as quickly as possible. I always get a kick out of reading writings by people seeing bizarre landscapes back in the pioneer days. There is such a dramatic and visceral quality to their descriptions. For instance, Julius Caesar Merrill, a pioneer traveling through Craters of the Moon in 1864, had this to say:

“It was a desolate, dismal scenery. Up or down the valley as far as the eye could reach or across the mountains and into the dim distance the same unvarying mass of black rock. Not a shrub, bird nor insect seemed to live near it. Great must have been the relief of the volcano, powerful the emetic, that poured such a mass of black vomit.”

Well after the pioneers were gone, astronauts used Craters of the Moon as a geologic training ground, and the parks history is still forming today since it is still a potentially active volcano. Someday eruptions will shake the land once again, but the morning was almost eerily quiet during our visit.

We parked the car at Devil’s Orchard first and did the short and easy loop hike through an area of interesting volcanic rocks.

We also got to see a strange phenomenon called witches broom. This scraggly tangle of branches is caused by a tree fungus.

After Devil’s Orchard we headed to Inferno Cone. This short, but steep hike climbs up a tall hill made of volcanic scree. We were lucky enough to have the popular hike to ourselves, and we had a blast climbing up the lava rock to admire the panoramic view from the top. It was a nice clear morning so we could see mountains in the distance, and more volcanoes below us.

Next up, we hiked to the nearby Spatter Cones and Snow Cone, volcanoes that have paths so you can climb up and look inside of them. The Snow Cone even had snow inside despite the hot August weather.

After this we had time for one more hike, and we decided to do the slightly longer Tree Molds Trail. It was a beautiful walk. The morning was still cool enough to make hiking easy, and we had amazing views of lava flows almost the entire way out.

We even saw some blazing stars. These striking flowers open their blooms at night time and close back up during the day.

The tree molds themselves, which are indentations left in the lava where trees once stood, were somewhat underwhelming. At some point, lava encroached on a forested area, burning the trees, but leaving their shapes behind.

By the time we got back to the car we knew had to get back on the road even though we were having such a good time exploring Craters of the Moon. I was thoroughly surprised by how cool this park was since I hadn’t heard much about it prior to our visit. It turned out to be a truly unique experience, and I was glad we decided to spend a morning there.

We had a long drive before our next stop. We left Craters of the Moon just as a string of other cars arrived for the day. By the evening we would be setting up camp at the most exciting location of the trip, Glacier National Park.

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