Sunset Crater National Monument: Lenox Crater


Flagstaff has perhaps the world’s most famous National Park as a neighbor: the Grand Canyon.  But there are other areas nearby which are also cared for by the park service.  I decided to visit one of them, Sunset Crater, before dropping down into Sedona.

Sunset Crater National Monument is located north of Flagstaff on US 89.  The turnoff to the park is well signed, along with its neighbor, Wupatki National Monument.

After stopping at the visitor’s center, the first attraction you come upon is the Lenox Crater Trail.  It’s a short, but lung- and leg-straining climb up the outside of the crater.  Not only is the path steep, but it’s made mostly of a fine volcanic gravel, which is just about as fun to trudge through as deep snow or sand.

The above photo shows you what you will see when you make it to the top.  In the foreground is the crater itself, and in the background, Flagstaff’s landmark (and Arizona’s highest point) Mount Humphrey.

I’m pretty sure the winds that knocked down this tree were just as strong as the winds I experienced at the top of the crater.  The howling gales are forced upward by the crater’s inner slope, so they’re almost undetectable until you reach the edge, and they knock you over.

Add to the breeze the chilly temperatures at this elevation, and my exhaustion from climbing the steep trail, and I couldn’t leave fast enough.  I snapped a few pictures and headed back downhill to the parking area.

From your parking spot, you’ll be able to view the Bonito Lava Flow, which covers much of the ground on this side of the park.  A trail departs from another parking lot, just down the road.

After just a few miles, you’re on the other side of the park.  Turn off at the Cinder Hills Overlook for the best view of the park’s namesake Sunset Crater (it’s the steep-walled mountain you just drove around).

Many of the volcanic areas in Sunset Crater National Monument are ecologically fragile, so hiking isn’t permitted.  This includes Sunset Crater itself.

So that’s about all Sunset Crater has to offer.  If you have time, you can continue up the road a short distance toWupatki National Monument, where you’ll find a large, 800 year old pueblo, which was probably home to as many as 100 people.  The road then loops back to US 89.  I chose to return the way I came, back to US 89, then south, headed for Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona.  On a later trip, I made the entire loop through Wupatki.  You can read about it here.

Note: This trip was first published in 2005.

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