Peaks To Craters Scenic Byway

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Timeless Geologic Disruptions

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Millions of years ago, Idaho lay at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, anchored by a land mass resting on the North American Plate. That plate began clashing with the Pacific Plate, lying at the bottom of the ocean, driving it deep into the earth’s crust. Molten magma began shooting up from chambers created as the plate was buried, cooling into craggy crystallized granite rocks. More magma coming up through a crack in the plate became linear mountain ranges thrusting skyward, with liquid rock exploding through the mountain peaks. Shoshone living in the area some 12,000 years ago, witnessed this geologic disruption every 3,000 years. Together, these dynamic geologic events created the landscapes you will witness as you explore the Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway in southeastern Idaho. On the route, Craters of the Moon, one of the youngest volcanic areas in the region, is expected to erupt again within the next 1,000 years, coming behind the last geologic events that occurred about 2,100 years ago. Because the volcanic rock at Craters is so young, domes, cinder cones, shields, lava flows, lava tubes, spatter ramparts, and pressure ridges cover the earth. Not only did the geologic events create a landscape in some place that looks like it could have fallen off the moon, but the same eruptions of molten rock also deposited precious and useful minerals still mined in the area. The two phenomena together created a story that intertwines the geologic landscape, one that you will not encounter anywhere else in the United States, with mining heritage, ghost towns, and other elements of the rugged west. As you drive the 140-mile drive through ever-changing landscapes, you can stop to explore mining towns like Mackay, Arco, Challis, Bonanza, and Bay Horse, quaint places where residents live a timeless Western lifestyle that has not changed much in a couple of centuries.

A Billion Years in the Making

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A billion years ago, Mother Nature began work on the maze of steep ridges, deep valleys, jagged skyline profiles, twisted and tortured volcanic rocks, and the many mountain ranges thrusting skyward that now make up the landscape in south-central Idaho. It was an exciting time in the geologic world as the continents as we know them were formed. About 900 million years ago, before the geologic plates began sliding on the earth’s surface, Australia was separated from Idaho only by a narrow seaway. The Pacific Rim Ring of Fire volcanoes began forming as Australia slipped away. Slices of volcanic rocks were pushed onto the Continental Shelf (now Idaho’s edge). About 300 million years ago, deep-water rocks were placed on top of the slices in a mountain-building event as the volcanoes erupted. Eroded, folded, and faulted landscapes kept pushing eastward as what is now Washington and Oregon began forming offshore. Thick piles of sediment were thrust over Idaho, forming the Salmon River arch, some of the oldest rocks in the state. Challis volcanoes created calderas, and Yellowstone volcanoes cut a river plain through the region.  Rivers scoured canyons, and small mountain glaciers trimmed the tops of the highest peaks. Welcome to South Central Idaho, where Mother Nature’s handiwork is still fully displayed. Craters of the Moon brings you back millions of years when the volcanoes were exploding, and recent earthquakes in the region foretell that the geologic disruptions are not completely finished.  They have rendered a landscape in the entire region that is rich and varied, and the precious metals and minerals that came along with the turmoil have kept the economy going in the region for centuries.