The top of the cinder cone seems to glow in orange, gold, and crimson hues that become even more vibrant as the sun is setting. These colors, so vivid against the black and gray of the cone’s base, gave the volcano its name: Sunset Crater.
Part of the National Park System, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument showcases and protects one of the youngest volcanoes in the San Francisco Peaks mountain range surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona. Its beauty alone might be enough of a reason to visit it, but there are plenty of others. Here are just a few of them.
1. You’ll Learn About Geology And Volcanic Activity
Few places on Earth showcase the aftermath of volcanic activity like Sunset Crater. The monument’s namesake, the youngest crater on the Colorado Plateau at 1,000 feet tall, erupted in 1089. A little less than a millennium later, the surrounding landscape still shows the effects.
And it’s not the only cinder cone this national monument preserves. The 300-foot-tall Lenox Crater is much older, revealing a different stage of volcanic activity. Visiting the park gives you an opportunity to compare the two and learn how volcanic fields form.
But before you head out to either, stop at the visitor center to learn more. You’ll find interactive exhibits that explain volcanic activity, demonstrate earthquakes and eruptions, and give you a good understanding of the phenomenon.
2. You Can Walk Through A Lava Flow
The mile-long interpretive trail loop at the base of Sunset Crater leads you through the Bonito Lava Flow, showcasing its different features. When the volcano erupted, its cinders created the cone, but it also ejected large rocks and created lava blocks. You’ll see some of them along the trail. Other features of the trail include jagged lava rocks, including a sharp fin of basalt rock, that formed as the hot magma pushed through fissures in the already cooled surface. Stop by the collapsed ice cave, or lava tube, to feel cool air coming to the surface.
Other trails where you can see similar and even more spectacular lava formations include the Lava’s Edge Trail and the A’a Trail, named for the rough basaltic lava on it.
3. You Can Hike Up To The Bowl Of A Cinder Cone
Though you can’t climb Sunset Crater, you can walk up to the top and even inside a cinder cone when you take the trail on Lenox Crater. The 1.6-mile round trip to the top of the crater consists of a trail that’s shaded by tall ponderosa pines and features switchbacks on black sand and lava pebbles. At the top, you can see inside the bowl of the cinder cone, giving you a better understanding of how it was formed. You’ll also have a perfect view of the San Francisco Peaks and their surroundings.
4. You’ll See Nature Slowly Renewing Itself
Everywhere you look in and around Sunset Crater, you’ll see signs of nature slowly renewing itself. Though it took more than 400 years for the first plants to return to the area after the eruption, and most of the land around the volcano is still barren, you’ll see more and more vegetation as time goes by.
You’ll notice a few strands of aspens and tiny ponderosa pines surrounded by black lava rock, and in the spring, you’ll see delicate flowers. Some can only be found here, like the Sunset Crater Penstemon, its bright colors contrasting sharply with the black sand it grows out of. You’ll realize how resilient nature is, and how it returns even after the most devastating catastrophes.
Farther from the cone, you’ll walk through new ponderosa forests, and you’ll spot wildlife returning to the area.
5. It Offers Wildlife- And Bird-Watching Opportunities
The islands of vegetation in the middle of this lava-filled land provide habitats for a variety of wildlife. If you sit down long enough, you might see some of the area’s inhabitants.
You’ll notice chipmunks in the lava flow and gray Abert’s squirrels with their tassel-tipped ears around the visitor center. If you stop by the Bonito Meadow, you’ll see prairie dogs, and on early mornings or late afternoons, you might glimpse larger mammals, including mule deer, elk, and pronghorn.
Among the birds living in and around Sunset Crater, you’ll notice the large, bright blue Steller’s jays, as well as ravens, crows, hawks, golden eagles, and plenty of hummingbirds.
Pro Tip: Please do not feed the wildlife, no matter how close they get or how much they seem to beg. Interacting with humans and eating human food is bad for them.
6. You Can Camp On A Lava Flow
For the best chance to see wildlife and the night sky, camp at the Bonito Campground on the lava flow in the shadow of the ponderosa pines. Operated by the U.S. Forest Service, the campground has clean bathrooms and water as well as sites with picnic tables, fire pits, and grills. It accommodates both tents and RVs, though there are no hookups.
As you walk around the site, the black pebbles crunch under your feet, Steller’s jays and ravens sit perched on the trees above, and fast-moving chipmunks and Abert’s squirrels run around with pinecones in their mouths. Several trails start at the campground, offering hiking opportunities.
7. The Ranger-Led Programs Are Outstanding
Sometimes rangers and volunteers hold seasonal interpretive programs at the campground’s Bonito Flow Amphitheater. Topics vary, but the programs are all great opportunities to learn about the surrounding High Country of Arizona. During your visit, you might learn about volcanoes, wildlife, nature, conservation, wildfires, mudslides, ancient or modern history, or geology.
8. The Night Sky Is Gorgeous
If you stay late enough (or camp), you’ll see some of the most amazing night skies in the world. Far from light pollution, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is an International Dark Sky Park, where all the celestial bodies look clear and bright, especially on a moonless night.
You might find astronomers from Flagstaff sitting out in front of the visitor center with their telescopes. They can help you understand the incredible night sky around Sunset Crater, and they might even let you look through their telescopes. Check their schedule and try to time your visit to coincide with one of the Summer Night Sky Events hosted by the national monument.
9. It Has An Interesting Human History, Too
People lived in the Sunset Crater area long before the volcano erupted. After losing their homes and crops, they moved, leaving the ruins of their old lives behind. These ruins still stand, and you can see them as you drive past Sunset Crater toward Wupatki National Monument.
A few centuries later, nature returned, and by the 19th century, the area was attracting people again. First came the explorers, among them John Wesley Powell, who named the cinder cone when he noticed its colors. Ranchers, miners, loggers, and tourists followed, endangering the delicate ecosystem still struggling to survive.
In 1928, a movie company wanted to blow up Sunset Crater to film a landslide. Local groups intervened and pushed for protecting the cinder cone. Thanks to them, President Herbert Hoover established Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in 1930.
10. You’ll Be Supporting The National Park System
By visiting Sunset Crater, you are supporting the National Park System and helping to ensure its continued preservation for future generations. Imagine how much of a loss it would have been if the movie company had blown up the colorful cinder cone. Even people walking on it after it became a national monument caused damage, and the erosion still visible, even after the park rangers closed all trails on it in 1973.
Protecting this delicate ecosystem is ongoing work, and we can all help. Staying on designated trails, sharing the experience and spreading awareness, donating to the park, and buying something from the gift shop are ways you can contribute.
11. It’s A Great Chance To Unplug
The area in and around Sunset Crater has no cell phone service and no Internet. So when you are there, regardless of whether you’re passing through or staying the night at the campground, you have no choice but to unplug. In this age of constant electronic communication, it’s nice to be unavailable and unable to read the news; it gives you the opportunity to enjoy peaceful time in nature.
What To Know Before You Go
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, along with Wupatki National Monument, is on the scenic drive of the 35-mile loop road off U.S. Route 89 northeast of Flagstaff. Plan on taking at least 4 hours to explore the area.
Though not as hot as the surrounding desert in lower elevations, the park is still sunny and dry. If you hike, make sure you wear a hat, use sunscreen, and drink plenty of water.
The weather is unpredictable here. It is an area where you can find yourself in the middle of a thunderstorm or a hailstorm at any time, without warning. Watch the sky before setting off on even the shortest hike.