We departed Yellowstone after a wonderful visit and headed southwest to Arco Idaho to visit a unique national monument park, and the sight of the first breeder reactor built in the USA.
We were welcomed to Craters of the Moon National Monument by these orange and pink flowers demanding to be seen amidst abundant evidence of great devastation.
Craters of the Moon is a national monument park made up of the largest group of lava fields and volcanic cones outside of Hawaii. Although not active presently like the Yellowstone Caldera it is due to erupt in about 2200 AD. Historically it has erupted on schedule every 2000 yrs for the last 15,000 yrs.
Note the tiny white patches of wildflowers in front of the lava rocks – spreading phylox or stickseed. Dwarf Monkeyflower, Dwarf Buckwheat and Silver leafed Phacelia make up the bulk of the blossoming plants in the park.
It is a place you must see in person to really appreciate its beauty – all shapes of lava and cinder formations dotted with white, yellow and pink spring wildflowers bursting forth in full bloom and deftly twisted deciduous and pine trees – defying low nutrient volcanic soil and flourishing. We were very lucky to witness the annual wildflower bloom and reveled in the tiny blasts of color as we toured the park.
Above is another close up of some wildflowers that seemed quite at home in the bed of multicolored cinder soil. all the plants seemed very resilient and able to thrive throughout the park.
Given that Kilauea was still erupting in Hawaii at this time – it was cool to see the similar types of lava formations that resulted when magma became lava as it poured through both ground crevices and volcanic cones during eruptions thousands of years ago.
We got to walk up alongside several old volcanic cones and look down into them – pretty weird to think they were capable of such destructive force and fireworks. The landscape is covered with cinder and ash from these previous explosions, allowing a firsthand look at what happens when this fiery material cools over a period of time.
The National Park Visitor Center has a great display portraying the park’s relationship to the surrounding volcanic activity – past and present in both Idaho and Wyoming and it does a great job explaining all the different types of rocks, plants and animals that call this extraordinary place home. Be sure to stop before you go into the park in order to be better informed when touring the Park’s interior. Remember to stay on the walkways and do not walk on the lava or cinder areas as you could be destroying new growth or habitat.
There is also a campground near the entrance – only RVs, campers and tent enthusiasts may use it as it is relatively compact. Funny to imagine staying overnight within a dormant volcano field – there is likely little or no ambient light so the night sky and its stars would be magnificent! It is one of the official Dark Sky Park’s with special programming by rangers for visitors after dark.
The old gray trees – some of which continue to grow – were the result of a fungi parasite the doesn’t actually kill the tree but causes the twists in its branches – early ranger intercession was to kill and cut many of them down but it was later determined there was no harm by the parasite. We found these shapes remarkable and stunning – we took a lot of pictures of them. We loved the contrast of the gray and silver entwined trunks against the cinder fields and smaller green growth.
Below another view of a cinder field coming alive with wildflowers in their spring colors.
Craters of the Moon Park was also used as an training area for the astronauts preparing for Apollo 13 moon walks – because the terrain resembles the landscape on the Moon it helped scientists prepare the men for what to expect.
Don’t miss this amazing stop along Highway 20 just outside of the tiny city of Arco ID.
This remarkable first breeder reactor is a national historic monument and a great stop along the same highway 20. Take the time to have a guided tour – the guides do a great job explaining how a breeder reactor works to produce energy as well as the history of this particular project.
Although there are none currently operating in the USA, many scientists (including my father)believed that this form of nuclear energy production is safer, cleaner and more efficient than the currently operating reactors. Once you understand that the process used to make energy actually breeds new fuel you appreciate the rationale for the “breeder” type process. Both France and Germany have built these breeder reactor plants and they have reported no problems.
above is the first generator power by nuclear power and capable of lighting four incandescent bulbs for its first effort. The reactor remained active and safe until it was taken off line in the early 70s. America lost its appetite for nuclear power after the accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in the late twentieth century and by the 21st their fate was sealed. Energy politics may have played a part as well – big oil and coal fought hard to stop their future development too.
Above is the center part of the reactor’s control room.
The area where this breeder reactor is located is within the expansive Idaho National Laboratories – scientific research facilities which continues to conduct important nuclear research and development. More nuclear reactors have been built there than anywhere in the world. Not all remain productive – most are for specific experiments and research rather than energy production.
This was one of the nuclear fuel rods transport systems.
Opened in the late 1940s the INL or the Laboratories occupy almost two million acres in Southwestern Idaho and are the area’s major employer, offering good jobs at their facilities. The decision to locate the huge facility in this part of Idaho was based on the low numbers of humans – farming was abandoned decades ago – and little wildlife as well as its remoteness.
In addition to the nuclear research an area of almost 1000 acres was set aside as a important sagebrush preserve – scientific studies are conducted there help us understand the impact of climate change on our environment. At a rest stop along interstate 20 you can check the current weather – temperature, humidity as well as the area’s atmospheric radiation content. A first for us!!
Pronghorn (a deer /antelope type mammal that runs up to 35 mph and eats sagebrush) are seen frequently in the preserve as are rabbits and smaller rodents – although very forbidding in appearance there is life in this desolate sagebrush prairie.
Following this visit, we stopped at the world famous “Pickle Place” for a lunch of Atomic Burgers and fried pickles – good food at the only place decent stop in town.
We departed Arco for a short stay in the oil town of Billings, Montana followed by the coal town named Butte.