There’s something special about volcanoes. Each once I’ve visited has left me reeling and feeling. Maybe it’s the power that’s left there, the imprint of destruction left on the earth, the memory of chaos. Whatever it is, I always feel it and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument was no exception.
Sunset Crater is the youngest volcano in the San Francisco volcanic field. It likely erupted around 1085 A.D., more than 900 years ago, and vastly changed the landscape. Sunset Crater, a 1,000 foot high cinder cone, took the place of open meadows and forests. Cinders and ash blanketed more than 800 square miles and extensive lava flows extended away from the crater. The local Sinagua people abandoned their settlements and headed for safer lands, like Walnut Canyon or Wupatki, which today operates in close conjunction with Sunset Crater National Monument.
In looking at the landscape, I thought about these people, about what they must have thought and felt before the volcanic explosion, when the ground first started shaking. We know a lot about these things now, about the science of the earth, about volcanoes, but they knew, too, I think, what it meant when the earthquakes started. Still though, I can only imagine what it must have been like to behold a land so vastly changed.
All these years later, and it still feels recent. Yes, there’s a national park surrounded by a national forest there now, with a road through it and a visitor center and trails to hike and scenic pull-offs. And there are trees and plants and animals, too, but part of the earth is still scorched, still bearing the marks of a catastrophic event that happened more than 900 years ago.
I don’t usually do a lot of research before visiting a park. I want to learn when I’m there, want to gather advice and information from the rangers or volunteers I talk to. So going in, I was mostly blind. I figured there was a volcano. But beyond that, I knew mostly nothing. I was still reeling from the change I’d experienced coming to Flagstaff from Tucson and hitting Sunset Crater made the constant even more vibrant.
So, I went to the visitor center, got a cancellation in my passport, grabbed a park map and asked the ranger what to do. He pointed me down the road, suggested a few hikes and sent me on my way.
In 1928, a film company wanted to detonate a bunch of explosives on the side of Sunset Crater to create an avalanche for a movie called Avalanche. People were very much not okay with this plan and, after public outcry, President Herbert Hoover created Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
At a little more than 3,000 acres, the park itself is not huge. Nearly half of it is the Bonita Lava Flow and almost a quarter of it is Sunset Crater. Today, it is surrounded on all four sides by Coconino National Forest and there’s a 34-mile scenic loop that winds through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument up to Wupatki National Monument, leading you through ponderosa pine forests in the beginning and then dropping 2,000 feet in elevation to scenery dotted by red rocks and painted deserts.
At just 15 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. Route 89, visiting the park is easy. If you read through the exhibits at the visitor center and hike one (or more) of the park’s trails, you’re looking at a visit of 1-3 hours, depending on how fast you’re moving and how often you stop for photos. Trails range in length from a quarter mile to 3.5 miles and no backcountry hiking is allowed in order to protect the ecological and archeological integrity of the park.
The trails of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument are open from sunrise to sunset every day, while the scenic drive is open day and night, every day of the year. The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each and every day, except for Christmas.
Admission is $20 and allows entry into both Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument for seven full days from the date of purchase. Admission is free with an America the Beautiful annual pass, which costs $80 and offers entry into more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Free America the Beautiful passes are also available for current U.S. military members and their dependents.