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June 2017 — Expedition to Mordor
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It started while I was looking at the posts in the Northwest chapter of the Expedition Portal Forum. “Ghcoe” posted an invitation to join an expedition to the Land of Mordor. Those of you who are Lord of the Rings fans will remember that Mordor was a land broken by volcanic lava flows and earthquakes. The rock was dark and sharp. The earth crisscrossed with fractures making travel across the land difficult. How could I resist.

In the North America the Land of Mordor is located in Idaho between Twin Falls and Pocatello and a bit north. The area is more commonly known as Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve . Ann and I camped at Craters of the Moon several years ago on our way back from a trip to Jackson, WY. I enjoyed the area and wanted to go back. This trip came at the right time as it corresponded with the time when Ann would be away attending Chatcolab .

Wapi Lava Flow

Wapi Lava Flow — Photo Galley

The geological background of the area is unique. The hot spot that currently sits under Yellowstone National Park is thought to have been located under Craters of the Moon about 10 to 11 million years ago. It is thought that the area around Craters of the Moon looked much like Yellowstone does today. The hot spot is always in the same place. It is the North American Plate that changes positions as it migrates to the southwest over the hot spot. There are 60 distinct lava flows that cover the area. The oldest is over 15,100 years old. The youngest is 2,100 years old. There are also 25 volcanic cones in the area. The Monument covers about 620 square miles.

Wednesday morning I headed east on Interstate 84 headed for Glenn's Ferry, ID. I84 follows part of the route taken by the pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail. The Trail would become a common theme throughout the trip. Three Island Crossing State Park, in Glenn's Ferry, is a nice place to camp on the Snake River. The site of the park is where the pioneers forded the river. In 1869 Gus Glenn built a ferry a couple of miles up stream of the ford giving the pioneers an easier way to cross the river and giving the town its name.

Malad River Narrows

Malad River Narrows — Photo Galley

I met up with six members of our group the next morning. From Glenn's Ferry we headed west on back roads to the narrows of the Malad River. The fast flowing river drops through a narrow channel in the bedrock before widening out again. While there we found lots of broken and empty fresh water clam shells. The river otters that live on the river enjoy them.


Wildflowers — Photo Galley

We stopped in Shoshone (the e is silent) before heading to Kimama where we met up with our guide, Randy, and another member of the group. After introductions and orientation we started north towards Craters of the Moon along gravel and dirt roads. Dust clouds followed our vehicles like ghostly shadows as we drove past a desert landscape covered with green grass, sagebrush blooming wildflowers and blooming cactus. The June grass and other grasses had not yet turned brown from the summer heat. The wildflowers and green grass were a nice visual contrast to the dust kicked up by our vehicles.

One thing about the area that surprised me is that there are no streams, springs or natural ponds in the entire Craters of the Moon area. Rain will collect in the low areas for short periods of time turning the roads slick with mud before it evaporates or soaks into the soil. The ground is so porous that rain just soaks into the soil and goes down into the aquifer. Ranchers that lease grazing rights need to haul water for livestock, mostly cattle, or drill wells to get water for their stock. We saw lots of cattle. Most were standing and eating grass but some were running. Running cattle are a funny sight.

We continued to work our way north and then east through the sage brush past Piss Ant Butte. Some maps edit the name and list it as Ant Butte. We then stopped at a huge oblong depression called Snowdrift Crater. The floor of the crater is covered in grass. We were surprised to see a grove of young trees growing in one area of near the craters edge. They were just below the rim. We figured that there must be a water seep in the area that sustains them during the hot dry summer.

Crossing Grassy Lava Flow

Crossing Grassy Lava Flow — Photo Galley

After the crater we turned south an followed the edge of the 7,300 year old Grassy Lava Flow for several miles. We crossed the flow on a very rough lava rock road to get to our campground for the night. We all parked in the grass as close as we could to the flow so that it would act as a windbreak.

Once we got setup Randy showed us where there was an Indian trail that led across the flow we just drove over. There are places where the trail is clearly visible and easy to follow. Other places it seemed to disappear and we had to search for it. Once we found it again we could easily see it. It was almost like it was playing hide and seek with us. The only way to tell the trail from the surrounding lava rocks was by looking for areas where the lava was just small rocks that were packed together instead of large ones that were loose and scattered around.

That night it was to windy for a fire so after dinner we sat around talking about the days adventures, our past trips, and camping experiences as we got to know each other better.

Friday morning dawned sunny, clear, and windy. Before breaking camp we saw a rock marmot, also know as a rock chuck, looking at us from the lava. Marmots live in the lava and come down to eat the grass and farm crops. They are considered varmints in Idaho because of the crop damage that they cause.

After breaking camp we drove back across the lava field and stopped at another Indian trail that was not a clear as the previous one. Right next to where I stopped there was a small plant, with pretty white flowers, growing out of the lava. We continued south and then east along the edge of the Monument to the site of the Brigham Point Trappers Cabin. The cabin was burned down in the 1990’s by vandals. Now there is just a bit of foundation and some metal roof panels left. The cabin was nestled between two lava mounds that rise about 50 feet above the desert floor.

Bear Trap Cave

Bear Trap Cave — Photo Galley

Next we stopped at Bear Trap Cave. The cave is actually part of a lava tube that extends for about 15 miles. While there we came across several rattlesnakes curled up in the sun. We gave them lots of space. These were the only snakes we saw on the trip.

After touring the cave we we headed across The Great Rift. The Rift is a 52 mile long section of the earths crust that is split open. We stopped at several places where the cracks in the earth varied from several hundred feet long to just a few feet. We measured one that was over nine feet deep. There are others that we did not see that are several hundred feet deep.

We camped that night at Wapi Park. The park is adjacent to the 2,200 year old Wapi Lava Flow. There are no designated campsite or facilities at the park. It looked like we were the first campers to use it in a while. After setting up camp part of the group hiked across the lava to Pillar Butte. While part of the group went on the hike the rest of us took naps. One of the parks features is a large depression in the ground that has a nice fire pit with benches around it. After dinner we all sat around a camp fire, telling stories and relaxing.

Lava folds

Lava folds — Photo Galley

Saturday morning was sunny and warm with little wind. While most of the group enjoyed a morning campfire I hiked out on the lava to enjoy the views and take some photographs. Throughout the trip I was constantly amazed to see wild flowers of all sizes and colors growing out of cracks in the lava. To me the flowers and grassed on the lave show the area is slowly transforming from a barren landscape to a more hospitable one.

From Wapi Park we headed north and then east to Aberdeen for fuel. Then it was north and then west to the 7,550 foot tall Big Southern Butte. On the way we stopped just short of a fence and cattle guard for what I thought was a stretch break. While it was a break the area we stopped at is also part of the Oregon Trail. Randy told us that originally the trail went south of the Craters of the Moon. The Native Americans in the Snake River area got tired of the pioneers and started causing trouble. The thing to remember is that the pioneers reached this area in August. They were hot, tired and irritable. I can understand why the Native Americans did not want to be near them. To resolve the issue the trail bosses rerouted the Oregon Trail north up the east side of Big Southern Butte and then west across the north side of Craters of the Moon to avoid the Native Americans.

While we were stopped Randy pointed out a pile of lava rocks that was about 24 inches wide about 60 inches long and 12 inches high. He thinks it is the grave site of someone that died on the Oregon Trail. It is about the right size and he said that there are no other lava rock piles in the area.

View from the top of Big Southern Butte

View from the top of Big Southern Butte — Photo Galley

We then continued along the dirt track on our way to Big Southern Butte. The butte is estimated to be 300,000 years old. The five mile long road to the top of the butte is a very rough and narrow track that winds its way up the mountain to the summit. As we neared the last switchback we came across a large partially melted snow drift. We shoveled about two feet of snow from the edge of the drift to allow us to pass by it. The butte rises 2,500 feet above the desert floor and has a beautiful view of the Snake River Plain from the top. We estimated that we could see at least 100 miles in all directions. We could see the Sublett Mountains to the south, the Hadleys to the north, the Pioneer or Smokeys to the west and the Caribous to the east. While there we found ourselves looking down on a flock of ravens as they soared on the thermal currents. The butte has two peaks. The taller one has a small parking area and overlook as well as radio towers and a large fireplace that could have been used as a signal fire. The other is grassy and is used as a launching point by expert hang gliders. The butte use to be covered in trees. A fire in the 20s or 30s burned them all. The fire could be seen for miles.


Sunset — Photo Galley

After coming down the mountain we found a wild place to camp. As we were setting up we started finding small, less than 1/2 inch diameter, pieces of obsidian. Randy said that there is no natural occurring obsidian in the area. We think that we may have camped on a spot that was used by Native Americans or prehistoric people. Those people may have brought the obsidian to the site to trade or that they were repairing or making tools, arrow heads or spear points. There was quite a bit of it laying around.

Sunday morning we broke camp for the last time and headed to east to Atomic City, the first city in the world to be powered by nuclear power. From there we turned west and stopped at the Monument headquarters and gift shop. After touring the center and purchasing some shirts for the grandsons it was time for goodbyes and to head home.

The trip to the Land of Mordor was everything I hoped it would be even thought there were quite a few areas we did not get to see. I hope to go back again to explore more of the area next year.

Total miles driven 1,467
Pavement miles 1,219
Dirt miles 248
Total gallons of fuel 103
Miles per gallon 14.3

Past Travels
Singing Canyon

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Beach at Conception Bay

Baja California Mexico



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Barrancas del Cobre

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Summer Lake Hot Springs

Summer Lake Hot Springs

Twin Rocks

Twin Rocks