As you drive Northeast from Flagstaff, Arizona, on route 89 towards the Grand Canyon, you come across one of the most unusual landscapes you can imagine. Black lava hills are scattered by the road as you arrive to a loop towards Sunset Crater National Monument.
Take the road, even if you plan on going farther North, and stop at the Crater. If you like to camp and you have your gear with you, stay overnight in the campground at the Bonito Lava flow. Otherwise, take the scenic loop road, and you’ll end up back on 89 later on. Whether you have time to stop and walk some of the trails, or just drive through the park, you get a chance to enjoy a truly unforgettable place.
Part of the now dormant San Francisco Volcanic Filed, Sunset Crater is the youngest volcano on the whole Colorado Plateau. It last erupted sometime between 1040-1100, living devastation in its trail. As the hot lava cooled, and turned black, it left some of the most wild rock formations, as well as black pebbles and sand.
Perhaps the real draw to see this area is to witness of how nature can rebuild itself. If you walk on the trail, on black lava sand, you see some of the most delicate flowers growing from it, and even some majestic proud and tall ponderosa pines. The lava dome itself is spectacular, called Sunset Crater because of the display of colors on it, especially at sunset.
Stop at the visitor center to learn about the site, then head over to the Lava Flow Trail to take a walk through time. You have a choice of a shorter or a slightly longer trail. Some of it is paved, but to really enjoy it, take a few extra minutes to walk through the sand, stop at a lava tube and the lava cave, experience the cold air rushing out from it, enjoy the beauty of vegetation returning to the area after less than a millennium.
I you have extra time, and really want to climb into a volcano cone, stop at the foot of Lennox Crater. Since it is not permitted to climb on Sunset Crater, due to erosion caused by years of people walking up to it, the is your best choice. Lennox Crater has a well developed trail going up to the to its top, with beautiful views of the Sn Francisco Peak on one side, and Sunset Crater on the other. Once on top, you can go down into the cone, to experience the feeling of being inside a volcano. There are trees around you, birds and wild life, but it is still a wild experience walking up or running down the lava sand.
Back in the car, continue on the loop, and you come across a few ancient ruins. They are worth the stop, even if just for a few minutes. The largest one is Wupatki National Monument, with its own visitor center, and a short trail that leads through the ruins of an ancient village. Walk through the “Tall House”, which once had 100 room, sit in the kiva-like structure, and visit the ball court, to learn about the way ancient people lived in this area before and after Sunset Crater erupted.
Both Sunset Crater and Wupatki are part of the National Park system, so if you have a Yearly Pass, you can use it to enter both, in addition to all other National Parks in the nation, for a full year. Since this year marks the centennial anniversary of the National Parks Service, it might be fitting to visit these as well, especially if you are already headed for the Grand Canyon. If you have a fourth grader or same age (10 years old) child, your family can get the Child Pass, which will enable you to visit any of the National Parks for free. It does expire on August 31st though, so use it during this summer break.
Emese Fromm is a writer/translator whose work has appeared in publications like Parachute by Mapquest, Travel Thru History, Travellady, Skipping Stones, InTravel Magazines, among others. She specializes in travel, but writes about a variety of topics.