Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Arizona closed last spring after a wildfire burned more than 60 percent of the 3,000-acre monument. Now, after another wildfire, Sunset Crater Volcano has mostly reopened to visitors.
Notably, the FS545/Sunset Crater Loop Road is now open, as are the Lava Flow and A’a Trails, according to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. That said, the visitor center, Lenox Crater, Lava’s Edge Trail, and the Cinder Hills Overlook are still closed.
An Enormous Seismic Event
“A thousand years ago, the ground was torn open, and lava erupted into the sky, forever changing the landscape and the lives of the people who lived here,” according to the National Park Service. “A thousand years later, trees and flowers grow among the rocks, and people visit the lava flow to see and remember the most recent volcanic eruption in Arizona.
Here’s how it happened.
First, a series of earthquakes shook the area now known as Sunset Crater Volcano, which is about a 30-minute drive from Flagstaff. After days, or even weeks, of earthquakes, a nearly 6- mile-long fissure in the ground opened and lava then erupted in heights estimated to be 850 feet or more.
As the lava cooled, it fell back to the ground as small rocks known as cinders. Larger pieces of cooled lava are known as lava bombs. As the cinders and lava bombs piled up around the main source of the eruption, they formed the 1,000-foot-high Sunset Crater cinder cone.
Even more lava then spilled out across the area, forming the Bonito and Kana’a lava flows. In total, nearly 900 square miles were covered with lava and ash.
Over time, soil began to form again, and plants began to grow in the area. Today, visitors at Sunset Crater Volcano see ponderosa pines, juniper, rabbitbrush, and a few other plants growing in the lava areas.
A Damaging Wildfire
Last April, the Tunnel Fire burned through much of the 3,000-acre monument, and yet, amazingly, it left a patchwork of burned and unburned plants and trees.
“Miraculously, the visitor center, and the small housing area behind it, is entirely intact, and nobody quite knows how that worked out, because, given the intensity and the magnitude of the fire, it was generally understood that wouldn’t happen,” said Richard Ullmann, chief of visitor services for the Flagstaff Area National Monuments, according to Knau Arizona Public Radio.
Now, while some areas of the monument remain closed, most have reopened, Ullmann explains.
One main concern is the resulting number of fire-damaged trees that are structurally weak and therefore pose a safety issue for hikers, Ullmann continues, according to Arizona Republic.
What’s more, the Lenox Crater Trail was marked using logs, however, those logs were burned in the fire. Consequently, the trail is now largely unmarked, posing another safety concern.
Finally, while the visitor center wasn’t damaged by the fire, it is still closed due to staffing shortages, explained Ullmann. He expects it to reopen in late September.
Know Before You Go
Since Sunset Crater Volcano sits at around 7,000 feet in elevation, the weather can change quickly, and as the National Park Service notes, there often isn’t much warning that conditions will change. If you are planning to visit Sunset Crater Volcano, the National Park Service recommends checking monument conditions in advance, dressing in layers to stay comfortable, “and keeping an eye on the sky.”
You can learn more about current alerts and conditions at Sunset Crater Volcano here.
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