Congressional designation of the 43,243 acre Craters of the Moon National Wilderness Area was approved on October 23, 1970. Craters of the Moon National Monument and Petrified Forest National Park were the first units within the National Park System with designated wilderness areas. The Craters of the Moon designation encompassed more than 80% of the monument lands at that time. The wilderness area became a mandatory Class I airshed with the passage of the 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act. The Class I designation permits very limited degradation of existing air quality even if the area is well below the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
All but the north end of the wilderness is adjacent to lands inventoried by BLM as the Great Rift Wilderness Study Area in 1980 (U.S.D.I., 1980). Much of the scenic loop road developed by the NPS in the 1930s and 1950s lies in close proximity to northern edge of the wilderness area. At two points the wilderness boundary lies within 200o feet of U.S. Highway 93,20/26. As a result of the open character of the terrain, sights and sounds of traffic on the highway and loop road are perceivable from some of the northern areas of the wilderness.
Man-made facilities within the wilderness area are limited to the Wilderness and Tree Molds trails, a small concrete watering trough, and numerous rock cairns and rock rings of historic or pre-historic origin. Initially developed as a primitive wagon trail to serve pre-1924 livestock grazing on Little Prairie, the 5.1 mile Wilderness Trail later served as a primitive automobile route until 1970. At some point, perhaps as early as the 1950s, the route was closed to the public and only administrative use was permitted. The extent of construction or maintenance on the route up until 1970 is poorly documented but evidence of grading is very limited. No maintenance of the route has been documented since 1970. The trail to Echo Crater remains very distinct but south of Echo Crater the trail has faded in some areas.
The 1.5-mile Tree Molds Trail was developed prior to wilderness designation to provide access to numerous tree molds. The Tree Molds Trail is the only maintained trail listed 1996 NPS Wilderness Management Plan. A spur trail leading from the Tree Molds Trail to Great Owl Cavern was closed following wilderness designation and a large metal stairway leading into the cavern was removed.
Recreational use of the wilderness area has remained limited since designation. Fewer than 100 people a year obtain overnight camping permits for the area. Exact numbers of day users are not available but with the exception of the Tree Molds Trail that use is estimated to less than 1,000 people per year. The entire area is snow covered and inaccessible for at least 1/3 of the year. The vast majority of overnight wilderness users hike the Wilderness Trail and camp inside of Echo Crater. Stock use is restricted to day use on the Wilderness Trail. No overnight camping with stock is permitted. Actual use by stock is very limited with only 1-2 groups over the past five years.
NPS management activities have been limited to monitoring of vegetation, wildlife, and recreational impacts and fire suppression. In 2000, a fire management plan was completed which provided for management of natural fires for resource benefits under certain conditions (U.S.D.I., 2000).