Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is a great place to see the lingering effects of volcanic activity in northern Arizona. It’s one of three monuments in the area, and one of two on a scenic loop drive off of US 89. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument offers several hiking trails, including one that takes you to the top of a small volcanic cone.
I spent a cloudy morning in Sedona, and I knew more storms were on the way, so I wasn’t in any hurry to get to the Grand Canyon. Instead, I decided to take a detour, and drive towards the only somewhat-clear sky I could see. Those small patches of blue sky were hanging over Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, and its sister, Wupatki, northeast of Flagstaff.
Sunset Crater is home to an impressive field of lava rock, known as the Bonito Lava Flow, as well as several volcanic cones. At the visitor center, I asked for a recommendation. The ranger suggested the Lava Flow Trail.
Lava Flow Trail can be easy, or moderate. A paved, wheelchair-friendly path takes you out to a viewpoint of Sunset Crater, and the surrounding lava field. For a greater challenge, you can step off the easy trail and dip down into the jagged volcanic rock.
The unpaved portion of the trail leads to some interesting viewpoints…
… and some interesting, gnarled tree stumps.
You’ll also see some small lava tubes and caves that took shape as the molten rock poured over the area. In case you’re wondering, Sunset Crater probably started erupting sometime during the 11th century–about a thousand years ago, and continued for about 200 years.
During a visit to Sunset Crater back in 2005, I decided to tackle a different trail. This one takes you straight up the side of Lenox Crater – a cone that’s smaller than the park’s namesake volcano. At the time, I remember hating my idea to hike this trail. At just one mile, round-trip, it seemed easy. The only problem is, it was a half-mile straight up a gravely path, where the ground slid below your feet on every step. The photo above shows what you’ll see if you climb Lenox Crater — a nice view of Humphreys Peak, the highest mountain in Arizona.
You’re not allowed to hike to the top of Sunset Crater. That trail was closed in 1973, after the park determined that hikers were causing too much erosion.
As you head towards Sunset Crater’s eastern exit along the loop road, you’ll circle around the base of Sunset Crater. At this point, you’re so close to it, you can’t properly photograph it. Just before leaving the park, turn off at the Cinder Hills Overlook, for a better view of the big volcano.
Once you’ve seen everything at Sunset Crater, I’d suggest you continue on the loop road, up to Wupatki National Monument, where the landscape transforms into open desert, and several ancient Native American dwellings are on display.
The Bottom Line
Of course, the Grand Canyon and Sedona are going to be the biggest natural attractions in this area. If you have some time in between, Sunset Crater provides some very different scenery. When combined with Wupatki, you have a nice half-day distraction from the other destinations. Add the third monument in the area, Walnut Canyon, and you can make it a full day.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is located northeast of Flagstaff on US 89. From I-40, take exit 201 and head north for about 12 miles, then watch for a right turn. The loop road to Sunset Crater, and later Wupatki National Monument, begins here. Sunset Crater is about 4 miles from the turnoff, and Wupatki is about 16 miles further, via the loop.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Flagstaff to Sunset Crater ….
… Sunset Crater to Wupatki…
… and Wupatki back to US 89 and Flagstaff: