Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon - Hiking Idaho


Air pockets trapped under lava flow create Buffalo Caves at Craters of the Moon in Idaho, USA.



The continuation of the Broken Top Loop Trail, from Marker # 7, is guided by posts across the lava crust to the entrance for Buffalo Caves.  These under-surface lava tubes are accessible at Marker # 8.


Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA


The relatively inconspicuous main entrance to Buffalo Caves is near Big Cinder Butte which has a thriving aspen tree forest on the north facing side of the formidable and distinctive volcano.  Nearby are excellent examples of lava toes which form at the edge of the crust when hot lava oozes out from underneath.


Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA


A permit, available at the Interpretive Center, is required to enter any cave in Craters of the Moon National Monument.  Everyone is screened by questionnaire to reduce the spread of White-nose Syndrome to protect bats.  The permit must be left visible in the vehicle. 

If the vehicle remains in the parking area after closing, someone will be looking for the occupants.  Buffalo Caves are the only subterranean lava tubes we will be able to access today.

The next spur road on the 7 mile, one-way loop road is unfortunately closed for trail maintenance. At that location, there are better caves to explore.  They are Dewdrop Cave, Boy Scout Cave, Beauty Cave and Indian Tunnel

Backpacks are left at the entrance for the short scramble, with headlamps, into the lava tube.


Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA


Buffalo Caves are part of the lava tube system of the Broken Top flow.  Crusts of cooling lava form over rivers of hot, flowing lava.  The lava river beneath the crust becomes insulated from cooling air allowing the hot lava to continue to flow.  Eventually the molten lava drains away, evacuates the space and leaves an open lava tube or cave.


Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA


The height of the lava tube varies.  There are several squeezes off to the sides and some of these can be explored with varying degrees of success.  Sharp rock is an issue.  One section of the cave is taped off due to a ceiling collapse.  It is unusual to explore a cave with a relatively flat floor.


Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA


Exit is achieved through a squeeze into a different location followed by a scramble into a large cavern at the other end of the Buffalo Cave structure.  This is just too much fun!


Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA Buffalo Caves - Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, USA


Time is taken for food and much needed beverage nourishment outside and above Buffalo Caves before completing the Broken Top Loop Trail which is an outstanding educational and recreational experience within a broad range of terrain and features. 

Back at the trail-head is the adjacent trail to Tree Molds.







A section of the Buffalo Caves was sealed off due to collapse while we were exploring. I am sure the structures are monitored carefully and frequently. Any cave presents hazards and risk can be reduced with proper gear and common sense. The risk in the wilderness is manageable like any other. Personally I suspect the risk of crossing the street or driving in a major city is a greater risk than knowledgeable activity in a cave, and people drive and cross streets every day. It is a matter of perception. I have observed that many people learn to do what they need to do to satisfy basic needs and are reluctant to embrace recreational experiences that require additional knowledge, gear and training to reduce risk. This has improved over the past few decades as education, information and access improve. Younger people today are more likely to be adventuresome. In my personal experience, the effort easily justifies the reward but I know it is not for everyone. The secret, I believe, is to find, pursue and embrace at least one passion in life. With reference to the Washington glacier hiking event to which you refer I would like to point out it was a one time occurrence. After 50 years I believe it is time to reveal I did that on purpose ;-) to teach you and Allan the importance of the heaviest person breaking trail across snow-covered glacial plains and the absolute need to have everyone roped together for safety and rescue. Thanks for your comment, Bill. Looking forward to hiking with you again.

When I first started reading your Buffalo Caves post, I was thinking about the possibility of collapse. Not a good place to be when this happens. I'm assuming this does not happen very frequently. Kind of like, not much chance of falling through a glacier! You probably know where I'm going with this. Couldn't help it. Great pictures in the caves.

We enjoyed our brief excursion into Craters of the Moon. I would have liked to get into the lava tubes at Indian Tunnel. I have not done much hiking in Colorado. I have a great love for the American Southwest and I hope I will have a chance to hike in Colorado for a few months within the next year or two. So much to do and so little time. Thanks for your comment, Leigh and I hope you are getting settled in. Enjoyed your photos of Calgary colour.

Cave photography can be challenging. Often the space is constricted and it is difficult to get far enough away from anything for a decent photo. Conversely, some underground caverns can be so large, it is impossible to generate enough light to capture the image. Interestingly, some claustrophobic people are comfortable in caves. The total darkness eliminates all concept of spacial restriction. I am familiar with the Giant Crystal Caves in Mexico. I believe public access in recent years has been substantially, if not totally, restricted. Guargantua is a huge cave complex in the Crowsnest Pass, high on Mt. Ptolemy. It is a technically challenging cave. I am not aware of crystal structures in Gargantua but the primary entrance can be mistaken as a frost pocket. Access is difficult. A guided tour is available from Canmore Caverns. Thank you for your comment and I am glad you are vicariously enjoying some of our hikes.

It was a good experience. Next time I would go in with a rock helmet. Thanks for commenting, Laurel.

You've done so many great hikes lately in places I've just seen on the map. This one looks very interesting with some dramatic volcanic formations. Since I lived in Colorado for almost 10 years I can also highly recommend the hiking there. It's where I got turned on to it in a big way. Mid October would be about as late as you'd want to hike at least at the higher elevations. Look forward to reading about your other hikes.

Hello Barry. I have just signed on for your regular e-mails. They make my day. I am able to go along these hikes knowing I can never do so in real life. The caves especially are a fantastic experience due to your excellent photography - an inspiration for my stone carving sculptures as well I reckon. (ie the lava toes) it is wonderful of you to share these experiences and write so eloquently about them. People who are claustrophobic might want to visit caves but simply cannot due to their condition. There is a cave full of the most amazing crystals in Mexico I believe which is a childhood dream. The crystals in the geode come to life. I think there are crystal caves near Coleman Alberta in the pyramid mountains but they may be too close to the top for easy access. I wonder if you know of those. Thanks. Sandy

This looks like so much fun, I would love to go hiking/scrambling in lava tubes!

While these caves at Craters of the Moon National Monument are rather modest, there are huge and complex structures in other places around the world, notably the Hawaiian Islands. I have not hiked in Iceland but I suspect huge lava tubes can be found there as well. The air temperature during our half day visit to Craters of the Moon was hot. It was a welcome relief to roam around in the cool air of Buffalo Caves. Thanks for your comment, Charlie. The cool caves were cool. My inner child enjoyed the discovery.

So cool :) I did not think you could make caves that way.