Hell’s Acre

Published: April 6th 2012
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Tetons' backsideTetons' backsideTetons' backside

The much less phtographed west side of the Teton Range
Today, I pushed out of Wyoming and into Idaho.

The first obstacle is Teton Pass.

A high mountain pass across the southern end of the Teton Range, it is the only way to cross the mountains by road.

It drove like a miniature version of the Big Horn Mountains, a steep climb with lots of views followed by an equally steep drop.

The other side held a wide farming valley, noted mostly for its view of the backside of the Teton Range.

The peaks are much less dramatic on this end, although Grand Teton is clearly visible.

From here, the road weaved through river valleys, more hills, and farms filled with yellow alfalfa plants rippling in the breeze.

Eventually, it reached an overlook of a wide valley with mountains shimmering in the heat miles away.

I had reached the Snake Plateau, famous for its potatoes.

Craters of the Moon

Once across the river, the land dramatically changed.

The rolling hills were now covered in a foot of black crud.

Rough cracked rocks were all over the place.

The land looked like it had been destroyed.

Amber waves of grainAmber waves of grainAmber waves of grain

Alfalfa plants rippling in the breeze in eastern Idaho
trees poked up here and there, and they were the only vegetation.

The black rocks are the remains of an ancient lava flow which erupted from a rift hundreds of miles north eight million years ago.

The rift was created by the same hot spot that later created Yellowstone.

A sign called the area, “Hell’s Half Acre”.

I want to know more about that lava, so I turned northwest.

The drive goes through empty rangeland.

It was as empty as north central Wyoming (see The Sacred Tower).

Piles of black rocks appear on the roadside.

Buttes stick out of the flat brush lands on occasion.

Like the earlier drive, signs warn about lack of gas stations and other services for long distances.

Mountains on the distant horizon slowly grew closer as I drove.

Eventually, a sign welcomed people to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.

The US Government set up this lab in the 1940s to research atomic power.

Needless to say, the main complex is a rather secure place these days.

The only publicly accessible portion is the world’s first atomic power plant, EB1.

I did not have
Hell's Half AcreHell's Half AcreHell's Half Acre

The basalt lava flow known as Hell's Half Acre
time to visit, but it was visible from the highway, a low concrete box surrounded by endless scrub.

Finally, the road passes through the town of Arco, which still proudly proclaims “the first city lit by atomic power”.

After Arco, the landscape changed.

Hills and valleys appeared on the side of the road.

These were unlike anything I had seen before, all black and broken and rutted.

Near the center of those hills I finally reached the reason I had come out so far, the Craters of the Moon.

It is the center of the volcanic rift.

The landscape out here is weird.

The official park procure describes it that way.

Virtually all soil is volcanic rock and ash.

The rock comes in two main varieties, hard crumbly cinders and long ropy strands.

The type depends on how quickly the lava cooled.

Both have names in Hawaiian, since lava was first extensively studied there.

The smooth ropey lava is ‘pahoehoe’, and the crumbly version is ‘aa’ (the sound many people make when they accidently step on it!)

Plants grow wherever they can, mostly in cracks

Ropey pahoehoe lava along a Craters of the Moon nature trail
where soil collects.

Big rocks sit in the fields in spots, parts of the volcano that split off and floated down the lava flow.

A park road runs through the lava fields.

Several nature trails lead away from the road to different features.

All of them have displays talking about the natural history, the different types of lava, and how things survive out here.

They also mention to stay on the trail, because anything which does live out here lives a precarious existence.

The biggest highlights in the park are the ash mound and the splatter cones.

The ash mound looks like, and basically is, a giant black sand dune.

As ash blew out of a volcano, the wind carried it away and built up the mound.

The dune is huge.

A faint trail leads up to the top.

Climbing it was just like climbing a sand dune (see Sand and Wind), and about as steep.

The top gives a huge view of the surrounding area.

The lava field covers most of the immediate area, with the Bitterroot Mountains on the northern edge
Ash moundAsh moundAsh mound

A huge ash mound in Craters of the Moon. Look at the people near the top of the photo to see the huge size.
and plains stretching to the south.

From here those buttes I passed along the way are now obviously eroded lava cones.

Splatter cones are basically miniature volcanoes.

Most of them formed when giant globs of lava hit the ground and exploded, hence the name.

They look like black cones of twisted aa rocks.

Despite their appearance, most of the rocks are thin and easily damaged.

Two very steep trails lead to the top of different cones.

In the center are thin and very deep caves, which contain ice year round.

One probably wonders about the source of a name as strange as the landscape.

Early explorer Limbert Cole gave the area its name in a 1924 National Geographic (WARNING: pdf) article.

He saw a barren landscape filled with smooth rope-like rocks, alternating with crater like hills, which he thought looked like the surface of the moon through a telescope.

He was more right than not; the dark parts of the moon are mostly basalt lava flows.

To complete the surreal connection, some Apollo astronauts used the area for training in the early 1960s.
Splatter conesSplatter conesSplatter cones

Two spatter cones in Craters of the Moon, created when huge globs of lava hit the ground and exploded.

Shoshone Falls and Snake River Canyon

After the Craters of the Moon, I decided to head south.

Some of all that rain and snow in the Rockies (see Frontier Legends) had to drain into the Snake River.

It gave me the chance to see a rare treat.

Some internet research showed my guess was right.

I drove across mile after mile of farmland, every bit as dull as the drives across the Midwest earlier.

A sweet treat was the rainbows seen in the sprayers at the right angle.

Just when I was getting really bored I reached a part of the Snake Plateau called the Magic Valley.

When the light is right, it really does look like magic, glowing in the sunlight with mountains in the background.

Unfortunately, I then reached the sprawl of Twin Falls.

This city is not magic at all.

The scenic highlight, which is thankfully a good one, is a deep gorge of the Snake River on the north side of town.

It was carved by a huge flood when the ice dam holding back Lake Bonneville in what
Magic ValleyMagic ValleyMagic Valley

Yet another double rainbow above the Magic Valley in south central Idaho
is now Utah collapsed during the last ice age (a remnant of that lake still exists, the Great Salt Lake).

The Perrine Bridge runs across the gorge just north of town, the third highest in the United States.

The view is impressive, but I wanted something even more impressive.

The gorge ends at a huge waterfall called Shoshone Falls.

When early explorers discovered the waterfall, it was the largest by volume in the west.

The Snake River dropped over a steep and wide ledge.

The waterfall is half the width of Niagara Falls and a fourth higher, so it got the nickname “the Niagara of the West”.

Insults piled up soon afterward.

Farmers diverted water flow for agriculture.

Local businessmen built a diversion dam for power directly above the falls, drying it up half the year.

The final blow was a series of flood control and irrigation reservoirs built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930s, which shut down the waterfall completely except at the height of spring snowmelt.

One of the west’s grandest sights became a moist ledge.

With all the rain, I
Perrine Bridge and Snake River CanyonPerrine Bridge and Snake River CanyonPerrine Bridge and Snake River Canyon

The Perrine Bridge over the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho
figured the Army Corps had been forced to open its dams on the Snake, just as they had done on the Missouri so the waterfall would be running.

I found a newspaper story indicating this was the case.

The waterfall, in fact, was about 80%!o(MISSING)f the normal spring snowmelt level.

Seen like this, it’s impressive.

The Snake first splits into multiple channels and cascades through a series of rocky islands.

The water then merges for the final pour over a curved ledge.

The drop is wide and deep, fully earning the accolades thrown at it.

The waterfall is a special sight, marred only by the obvious water diversion dam directly above it.

Finding the waterfall is a pain.

It is located in a county park at the far end of Twin Falls.

It has only one entrance road which does not connect to any major roads in the city.

Those roads which do reach it are poorly marked.

I ultimately had to download directions from Google maps to find the place.

The park then has one last insult, a parking charge!

Outside of spring, be sure to enquire
Shoshone FallsShoshone FallsShoshone Falls

Shoshone Falls, the Niagra of the West, in Twin Falls Idaho. Look at the houses in the upper left to get the huge scale. The rarity of this view in the middle of July can not be overstated.
about the water level before passing through the gate, because the view may not be worth the cost.

After the waterfall, I had a long drive across the rest of Idaho.

Much of it was at night, and more thunderstorms were in the area.

Storms at night are a thrilling sight, with lightning strikes lighting up the sky.

They are also scary has heck, wondering whether I would get where I was going before they got to me.

I did make it, but not by much.


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