If you've ever envied the astronauts who have had a close-up look at the moon, you can get an idea of what they experienced by journeying only as far as Idaho. Here, in the southern part of the state, are landscapes similar to those on the moon.
The dominant feature of the area is the scabrous, lava-covered Snake River Plain. Extending 300 miles east to west and 60 miles across at its widest point, the plain forms an oval roughly bounded by the towns of Idaho Falls and Pocatello on the east, Twin Falls to the southwest, and Arco on the north.
Here, between 15 million and 25 million years ago, molten basalt magma rose from the interior of the Earth. But instead of erupting from volcanoes, it welled up through cracks on the Earth's surface. The liquid basalt spread across the land to form the plain. In places, the layer of basalt is 100 feet thick.
On Earth, this type of basalt formation exists in very few places, but on the moon, they are common. You can see them without a telescope: They are the round black spots visible on a full moon. The composition of the basalt from both Earth and moon is identical, as proven by moon rocks brought back by the astronauts.
Other moonscapes may be seen at Craters of the Moon National Monument, 18 miles west of Arco on the northern edge of the plain.
Here is a truly other-worldly place. The landscape is almost totally black because much of the area is carpeted with cinders. What isn't is covered with black lava.
It appears to be devoid of vegetation except for a few scrubby pines struggling to survive in the ropy lava flows that snake across the land, but more than 300 species of plants live here. If you visit the monument in the spring, you'll see wildflowers blooming among the cinders, their colors intense, almost fluorescent, against the dark background.
You can climb cinder cones (some formed as recently as 2,000 years ago) and explore lava-tube caves floored with ice that never melts. A word of caution: Wear sturdy shoes, because lava formations can be sharp.
If you are traveling in a recreational vehicle, you can stay in the campground at the monument. You will never have stayed in another campground like it. On moonless nights, it's sometimes difficult to distinguish where the sky ends and the black land begins. The eerie stillness of the early morning hours may be broken by the wailing of kit foxes and coyotes.
An ice cave larger than any found at Craters of the Moon is nearby on the western edge of the plain, a few miles north of the town of Shoshone. The year-round temperature in the Shoshone Indian Ice Caves varies between 18 and 28 degrees Fahrenheit, even when hot summer temperatures prevail outside.
A guided tour, three-quarters of a mile in length, is given every 30 minutes. Be sure to bring a coat.
If you like to fish, you will have to forget the activity while at Craters of the Moon or anywhere else on the Snake River Plain because there are no streams.
Lava flows are riddled with fractures and underlying porous spaces, so any surface water quickly drains away.
You can see the result of the underground drainage by visiting the Thousand Springs area a short distance west of Twin Falls. Water that may have traveled underground for more than 150 miles reappears here as waterfalls, but not conventional waterfalls that drop from the top of a cliff.
Here, the water issues forth from points many feet down from the top on the side of the cliff. While there are not truly a thousand of them, there is a good number, frothing while as they spill from the emerald green, moss-covered cliff.
On the way to Thousand Springs, approaching Twin Falls from the north, the highway runs through the relatively flat lava beds of the Snake River Plain. Suddenly, just outside the city, without any warning, you find yourself on a bridge spanning the 486-feet-deep Snake River Gorge.
The bridge is built on a series of arches and has no overhead structures that can be seen as you approach, so it's startling to find that the land has fallen abruptly away and you are on a bridge.
Avail yourself of the parking areas and pedestrian walkways to inspect and marvel at this astounding chasm and the mighty Snake River, which appears as a tiny stream below.
Shoshone Falls, also known as "The Niagara of the West," where the Snake River takes a 212-foot plunge, is five miles east of Twin Falls. Although much of the water is diverted for irrigation in the summer, it's well worth seeing, especially in the spring when it's a thunderous cascade.
For more information, contact: Idaho Division of Tourism Development, 700 W. State St., Department C, Boise, Idaho 83720, or phone (800) 635-7820 or (208) 334-2470.