The youngest and most colorful cinder cone in the San Francisco volcanic field, the 1,000-foot high Sunset Crater lies about 15 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. One of about 600 volcanoes in the region, it is the only one protected as a national monument. The spectacular cinder cone’s national-monument status prevented it from getting blown up by a Hollywood film company for a scene in a movie.
Though it is the area’s most spectacular feature, Sunset Crater is not the only one worth protecting. Fields of black cinders, lava flows, and another cone surround the famous cone glowing in the colors of an Arizona sunset. The following are a few of the places worth exploring in the area.
Pro Tips: You can visit all these sites if you take the scenic loop road laid out by the National Parks Service. It’s off US 89, north of Flagstaff. Also, the weather is unpredictable here. You might start a mile-long hike in sunshine and get drenched in a sudden rain or even hail storm halfway through. This is most likely to happen in July and August, during the monsoon season. The good news is, these rain storms don’t last, and they cool down the area, making a hike more pleasant.
1. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument Visitor Center
The visitor center at Sunset Crater National Monument is a great place to learn about the surrounding volcanic field, geology, volcanoes, and earthquakes. Their hands-on exhibits make learning fun — you can even make your own earthquake. No matter when you visit, you’ll most likely see someone jumping on the pad to see how large of an earthquake they can generate.
It is also the place you can learn about all the trails through the national monument and talk to a ranger, asking all questions you can think of. And if you get there at lunchtime, just outside the visitor center, you’ll find picnic tables in the shadow of ponderosa pines.
2. Sunset Crater And The Trails Surrounding It
The cinder cone that gave the national monument its name is just up the road from the visitor center, and it becomes visible as you drive toward it. You understand why it got its name at first glimpse. The gorgeous red and orange hues on and around its summit resemble the colors of a desert sunset.
Sunset Crater formed about 900 years ago, when red-hot rocks, cinders, and ashes erupted and caused a slow-moving lava flow through the surrounding area. Once things cooled down, the new cinder cone stood 1,000 feet tall where flat land with open meadows and forests were before.
Hiking around the volcano on a land covered by black cinders, you witness nature returning to the area. Ponderosa pines and delicate flowers grow from the black ground, their bright colors in sharp contrast with their surroundings.
Two main trails showcase this dramatic landscape surrounding the crater. (The National Parks Service outlines all the surrounding trails here.)
The paved, accessible, 0.3-mile Bonito Vista Trail, offers a pleasant walk in the middle of a lava field, with gorgeous views of Sunset Crater and its surroundings.
The mile-long Lava Flow Trail offers a close-up view of different geological features of the lava bed surrounding Sunset Crater. It starts with a flight of metal stairs, but past it, you’ll find it an easy hike in the lava field. It leads through large volcanic rocks, near fissures, and past a lava cave.
You’ll find a restroom and picnic tables at the trailhead, by the parking lot.
3. Lenox Crater
The cone of Sunset Crater is off limits for hiking, but if you’d like to see what it’s like to be on top of a cinder cone, you can climb Lenox Crater. Though still covered by black cinders and lava sand, a ponderosa pine forest grows on this older crater.
The trail to the top leads under their shadow, offering gorgeous views of the surrounding volcanic fields. Climbing the 1.6-mile trail will give you a work-out, but it’s not too bad if you take it slow. Views of the Bonito Lava Flow and O’Leary Peak accompany you on the way up, then at the top you’ll see a sweeping vista of the entire area, including the San Francisco Peaks. Walking downhill on the other side, the trail offers gorgeous views of Sunset Crater. For the best experience, time your hike to start about an hour before sunset. Hiking it all will take about 1.5 hours round trip, putting you at the perfect place to see Sunset Crater glowing in the setting sun.
4. Bonito Lava Flow
Across from Lenox Crater, you can explore the Bonito Lava Flow. Two trails lead through it, showcasing its stark beauty and its geological features. Take the short and easy A’a Trail through jagged blocks of A’a basaltic lava. At 0.2 miles, this trail is an easy introduction to volcanic geology. But if you want to hike longer through the lava flow, take the 3.4-mile long Lava’s Edge Trail toward the campground and visitor center. This trail is more difficult only because it traverses areas where you walk through loose cinders and rough, sharp basalt rocks. Though a large part is exposed, some of it is pleasant in the shade of tall ponderosa pines.
5. Wupatki National Monument
Thousands of years ago, people lived in the area surrounding Sunset Crater. About 100 years after the crater erupted, people of the high desert moved to the area and built their homes and villages here. Displaced by the eruption, they moved here when they realized that the volcanic cinders created better soil for farming, and lived here between the years 1100 and 1250.
Featuring about 100 rooms and home to about 85-100 people, Wupatki Pueblo was the largest of the surrounding villages. You can walk through it on a trail starting at the Wupatki National Monument’s visitor center, about 20 minutes from Sunset Crater.
Stop at the visitor center to learn about the ruins, the people who lived here, and Native American culture. You’ll also find a small museum and a gift shop in the building.
Then walk out and take the trail through Wupatki Pueblo. Paved and accessible, the half-mile round-trip trail is easy up to the viewpoint. Past it, the trail leads down into the valley, and you’ll have some stairs to deal with, though you can avoid them by going counterclockwise.
Walk around the four-story high structure. Though you can’t enter it, the trail takes you near for a close-up look. Next, walk lower down into an above-ground kiva, an ancient community room. Past it, the trail leads farther down to a ball court. Near it, stop and enjoy the cold air rushing through a blowhole, a volcanic geological feature where air flows in and out from underground.
Through the hike, enjoy gorgeous views of the Painted Desert and the surrounding landscape.
Pro Tip: When visiting Wupatki and the surrounding ruins, be aware that the place has a deep cultural significance to the Native American tribes of today. Please don’t touch or move any artifacts you may see at the ruins or on the ground. Although these places are empty now, the Hopi believe their ancient inhabitants are still here as spiritual guardians. Members of different clans who trace their ancestry back to Wupatki return here periodically to gain a better understanding of their history.
6. Wukoki Ruins
Wukoki Pueblo is the best-preserved of the sites in Wupatki National Monument, though it has not been restored. A 0.2-mile long trail leads to the site with a three-story tower, and a few rooms you can enter. You can also explore the open area surrounding the tower, once a plaza enclosed by a semicircular wall.
The best feature of this site is the view though. It almost seems the families who built their home here in ancient times chose the location for the far-reaching views of the San Francisco Peaks and the surrounding landscape.
Wukoki Pueblo is accessible from a 2.5-mile drive off the main Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Loop. You’ll find bathrooms by the parking lot.
7. Citadel and Nalahiku Ruins
The Citadel and Nalahiku pueblos are accessible from a parking lot right off the main road. Just a few steps from the parking lot, you’ll reach the remains of Nalahiku Pueblo. It had ten rooms when occupied, and a second story with a few more. Nalahiku means “outside the village” in the Hopi language, and this site is ten miles from the principal site of Wupatki. After a short stop to see it, keep on the trail to the top of the hill, to Citadel Pueblo.
The walls of Citadel Pueblo follow the outline of the hill. Sitting on top, the pueblo is visible from afar, and offers splendid views of its surroundings, including the Painted Desert.
Be aware of the wind walking up, stronger than on the bottom of the hill. Once on top, you can walk through the remains of the rooms on top. The 0.2-mile round-trip trail is easy, even with the brief climb. From the top you’ll notice a large limestone sinkhole besides the views of the surrounding scenery.
Editor’s Note: While you’re in the area, here are a few more great day trips from Flagstaff.