→ Like a vast Zen garden, these lava flows simplify the landscape to bare elements: black volcanic earth, azure sky, an occasional upstart shrub eking out a life among the otherworldly rocks. Inky lava displays red, yellow, and green lichens, sometimes even a startling blue varnish that makes stones resemble dragon scales. You feel like an alien here—especially if you venture off the monument’s few trails. “You see no evidence that anything passed before you—no firepits, no trash, no footprints or game trails,” says photographer Craig Wolfrom, who’s logged some 80 off-trail miles in the Craters’ backcountry. But heat radiating off the rocks and very scarce water sources make multiday travel hellish in any month but April, when lingering snow can quench hikers’ thirst. And solid navigation skills are a must: Dayhikers have died of exposure after getting lost amidst the cinder cones and lava caves.
DO IT Tilted, abrasive rocks call for a freestanding tent with a compact footprint, a ground cloth, a puncture-proof foam sleeping pad, and mid-height, sticky-soled approach shoes. Pick up a free backcountry permit from the entrance station or visitor center, then drive to the Tree Molds trailhead to start this three-night, 30-mile out-and-back to Blacktail Butte, on the edge of a no-man’s-land.
Day one’s 4 miles follow the Wilderness Trail past cinder cones and lava trees to Echo Crater (camp in the shelter of its limber pines, just west of potholes that often hold water in spring). Rise early and top off your bottles for a stout second day: The trail peters out after a mile, leaving you to chart your own course for 5 miles though dense sagebrush and pahoehoe lava to Vermilion Chasm. Camp in this pine-filled valley and gaze down into the Great Rift (the fissure that emitted the lava you stand on): This 100-foot-wide crack in the ground is lined with towering stacks of volcanic rock on both sides. Next day, dayhike south 5 miles to Blacktail Butte, which shelters splatter cones and an improbably lush valley within its slickrock walls, then return to camp at Vermilion. Hike all the way out on day four. Info nps.gov/crmo