Epic 1920 Trek Across Craters Of The Moon National Monument Is Being Retraced This Week

Robert W. Limbert filming bear tracks in the lava fields in 1920. Photo Courtesy of Boise State University Library, Special Collections.

Nearly a century ago, the dramatic landscape now included in Craters of the Moon National Monument was virtually unknown to all but a few hardy adventurers. One of them, Robert Limbert, hiked across the area in 1920, and his photos and articles are credited with spurring creation of the Monument in 1924. This week, a small group of hikers is recreating Limbert's historic trek, and sharing their progress via social media.

Robert Limbert (1885-1933) was a man of many interests: naturalist, writer, photographer, adventurer, hunting and fishing guide, and Idaho tourism booster. In 1918, he began exploring a rugged section of southern Idaho known as the Great Rift, an area he later described as "shunned by even the most venturesome travelers—a land supposedly barren of vegetation, destitute of water, devoid of animal life, and lacking in scenic interest."

Limbert was able to see beyond the apparent emptiness of this rugged landscape and wrote, "Although almost totally unknown at present, this section is destined some day to attract tourists from all America..."

Exploring the Lava Fields in 1920

To confirm his belief in the area's potential, Limbert set out in May of 1920 to explore the lava fields in more detail. Accompanied by a friend, Walter Cole, and a "camp dog," an Airedale terrier named Teddy, he followed the area's vast lava fields from south to north.

The trip took 17 days, with both men "packing on our backs bedding, an aluminum cook outfit, a 5 x 7 camera and tripod, binoculars, and supplies, sufficient for two weeks, making a total pack each of 55 pounds." Limbert wrote later that taking Teddy the camp dog proved to be "a mistake, for after three day's travel his feet were worn raw and bleeding. In some places it was necessary to carry him or sit and wait while he picked his way across."

Limbert later published an account of his adventures in a 1924 edition of National Geographic magazine. According to today's park website, "This article highlighted this little known region and ultimately led to the creation of Craters of the Moon National Monument by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924."

A Wilderness "First" for the National Park System

Nearly fifty years after the establishment of the original Monument, Limbert's faith in the extraordinary qualities of the area were further confirmed when Congress designated the northern portion of the Great Rift as the Craters of the Moon National Wilderness Area. Along with a similar designation at Petrified Forest National Park on that same day, this was the first official wilderness in a unit of the National Park System. Since that time, most of the other lava fields along the Great Rift have also been recommended to Congress for wilderness designation, and in 2000, these Wilderness Study Areas were included within the boundaries of an expanded National Monument.

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This group is retracing Limbert's trek across what is now Craters of the Moon National Monument. Photo from the park's Facebook page.

This week, a small group of modern explorers is recreating Limbert's trek, and are traversing the Great Rift. The terrain will be the same, but there will certainly be some differences in the technology available for their use.

"On the 1920 expedition Limbert lugged his heavy camera with him and attempted to communicate with the outside world with a large signal fire," a park spokesperson notes. "In 2014 the terrain is just as challenging, but the cameras will be considerably lighter and the group will make use of modern technology to share the experience with a wider audience."

This Week's Trek Has Some Definite Goals

The current trek shares some similar hopes and goals with its historical counterpart. By hiking the length of the Great Rift, the group hopes to bring attention to the proposed wilderness areas (Bear Den Butte, Great Rift, Little Deer, and Raven's Eye) along the route, and showcase the first designated National Park Service wilderness area at Craters of the Moon.

Six individuals, including Dan Buckley, the Superintendent of Craters National Monument, set out on April 11 for their 60+ mile hike through the Craters wilderness area. Others making the trip include botanist Mike Mancuso of Mancuso Botanical Services in Boise; Brian Bean of Lava Lake Ranch near Carey; Allie Konkowski, an intern at the monument with the Student Conservation Association; Ted Stout, the park's Chief of Interpretation & Education; and Craig Wolfrom, a photographer based in the Wood River Valley.

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The technology may be different for this week's hikers, but the terrain is basically unchanged from 1920. NPS photo from park's Facebook page.

The first several days of their trip have been reported to be successful; thus far they've recorded 15 new caves along with two newly-discovered archeaological sites. Members also reported "every imaginable form of Idaho weather thus far, including sun, rain, snow...and a bit of wind," with that last comment apparently a tongue-in-cheek reference to the "brisk" breezes than can occur in the area.

No Signal Fires Needed in 2014

Communications between this group and rest of the world are considerably different from Limbert's signal fires in 1920. The hikers have checked in by radio and text message occasionally where reception allows, and they also have a SPOT device that uses GPS to provide their location several times daily.

Like to see some additional photos and details? You can follow the progress of their trip on the park's Facebook page. A crew from the Outdoor Idaho TV program also spend some time with the hikers last weekend, and gathered some footage to be included in a show planned for the coming fall, "50 Years of Wilderness."

Modern-Day Visitors Will Find the Lava Beds Largely Unchanged Since Limbert's Time

You'll find more information about Robert Limbert's interesting life on the park website, including a copy of his 1924 article in National Geographic and a link to a short, downloadable book, Idaho's "Two-Gun" Bob Limbert. A large collection of Limbert's documents, articles and photos are also housed at Boise State University, and an impressive sampling of that material is available for viewing on-line from the Albertsons Library Digital Collection.

Thanks to protection of the area via Calvin Coolidge's Presidential Proclamation in 1924, most of Limbert's 1924 description of the area is still accurate today:

"The 'Valley of the Moon' lies in a region literally combed with underground caves and passages, bewildering in their immensity, mystifying in their variety of strange formations, where there are natural bridges as yet unknown to geographers, where bear tracks hundreds of years old may be traced for miles across cinder flats. Here are craters of dormant volcanoes half a mile wide and seemingly bottomless, huge cups in which the five-story Owyhee hotel might be placed to resemble a lone sugar loaf in a huge bowl. Here are strange ice caves with stalactites and ice-encrusted walls, caves that contain as much ice in the middle of August as they do in the winter."

Like to experience this area for yourself? You'll find details to help plan a visit on the park website.

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