Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Craters of the Moon: A well-kept winter secret

Park offers skiing, snowshoeing and expansive vistas

Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service A National Park Service ranger leads a group of students on an educational snowshoe walk last January. As part of the Craters of the Moon SnowSchool program, students learn how the park’s wildlife adapts to cold and snowy weather.

Seventy miles south of Ketchum and 25 miles east of Carey resides one of Idaho's most overlooked winter recreation areas: Craters of the Moon National Monument.

"We're a well-kept secret," said monument spokesman Ted Stout. "It's never what you would call crowded out here during the winter months."

The park is well known for its distinctive landscape—750,000 acres of volcanic rock in tubes, craters and lava fields. But the loop road through the park closes to motorized traffic in the winter, transformed by groomers and volunteer staff into a seven-mile Nordic skiing and snowshoe trail through its center.

"Basically, the only way to get into the park is to ski or snowshoe," Stout said.

Stout said the most popular of the monument's winter activities is the Winter Snowshoe Adventure—a five-hour trek through over a roughly four-mile trail along the Loop Road and the edge of the North Crater. Snowshoers climb Paisley Cone, one of the park's dormant volcanoes, named after the park's first superintendent.

"There's quite a spectacular view from there," Stout said. "It kind of looks like cookies-and-cream ice cream out here. You can see the rocks sticking up through the frosting of the snow."

Stout said that originally, the park staff wasn't sure how popular the ranger-guided excursion would be.

"Initially, we thought people would want a shorter walk," he said. "But they have to drive so far to get here, they enjoy the day-long affair."

Though the park's visitor center will provide snowshoes for those who have signed up for the adventure, Stout said trekkers will need to bring lunch, a pad to sit on "and cookies for the ranger, of course."

The adventure takes place from 9:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Saturdays from Jan. 15 until Feb. 26. Reservations are required, but the shorter 1.5-mile snowshoe walks at 1 p.m. on Sundays are open to drop-ins.

More adventurous winter recreationists can follow this trail independently throughout the week, or follow the seven-mile Loop Road through the park.

The road is groomed for skiers once a week, Stout said, and conditions are better than they used to be.

"[Grooming] has actually improved dramatically over the past couple of years," he said. "It's been much more consistent."

Stout added that even though Craters does not get as much snow as the north Wood River Valley, there is a "more-than-adequate" base for recreationists. The only caveat for Wood River Valley residents might be that, as part of the national park system, Craters of the Moon does not allow dogs on trails.

The park does welcome children and families, both through its Snow School program and on the Sunday snowshoe walks. The Snow School allows teachers from local schools to bring students on ranger walks to learn about how wildlife adapts to winter.

Stout said the school is often a student's first exposure to snowshoeing.

"It's surprising the number of kids in Idaho who have never been on snowshoes before," he said. "They have a great time out there, and we love doing it as well."

Stout said the program was increasing in popularity until schools started incurring budget cuts. Transportation is the most expensive part of the field trip, as there are no fees to use the trails and the monument does not charge for guided walks. Some funding from the monument is available to help teachers defray transportation costs.

Stout said the Sunday snowshoe walks are also ideal for kids over the age of 8. Snowshoes are provided, and he said rangers are more than willing to talk about winter ecology and point out the various animal tracks in the area.

"There are a surprising number of critters out there," he said, including rabbits, foxes, coyotes, weasels and squirrels.

The Snow School started about five years ago and the monument has been conducting the Winter Snowshoe adventure for about 10 years, but, Stout said, many area residents still don't know the extent of the park's winter offerings.

"A lot of people are just surprised to find out we're still open this time of year," he said. "We encourage people to come and check us out."

Katherine Wutz:

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