Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Volcano destinations often conjure up images of fiery lava spewing high into the air over palm trees on a tropical island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. This is because most of the volcanic eruptions in recent history have occurred in the Pacific ring of fire. A exception was the Mount Saint Helens volcanic explosion back in the 1980s, which was an event that acted as a reminder of how wild the western American states can be.

There are several large volcanic fields out west that have been dormant for many centuries and the most famous has been the Yellowstone Caldera, which many fringe theorists claim is way overdue for another catastrophic event. The word “overdue” is actually is meaningless in real volcanic field studies, because this sensationalized terminology was basically a Hollywood entertainment invention. It takes a long term series of events for the conditions to be just right for a volcanic field to become active. Deep underground magma plumes do not happen overnight, so in this modern age there is rarely such a thing as a surprise volcanic eruption. This is a good thing, because the early warning signs usually provide enough time to evacuate the area. Ignoring the warning signs is where disastrous trouble begins, as the story of old Pompeii explains so well.

The Sunset Crater Volcano in northern Arizona is a prime example of a recently active volcanic eruption that provided early warning signs that gave to local people enough time to move out of harm’s way. The Sunset Crater Volcano erupted almost 1,000 years ago during a time when several ancient builder cultures occupied the Desert Southwest region. Locally, the Sinagua People occupied the mountainous region near the Grand Canyon, as can be seen in the nearby cliff dwelling pueblos in the Walnut Canyon National Monument. The ancient Pueblo People ancestors also lived in this region and they too were famous for being great builders. Both of these ancient cultures has extensive organized agricultural practices, so they were very in tune with the environment around them. When the warning signs occurred prior to the Sunset Crater Volcano eruption, the local people that lived around the mountains near Flagstaff moved to an outlying area near the Grand Canyon that is now known as Wupatki National Monument. In this area a big pueblo building complex was eventually constructed that housed several thousand people. The small volcanic cinders that rained down in this area actually were a blessing, because the thin layer of cinders capped the fertile soil below, which enabled more productive desert dry farming agricultural techniques.

After the big volcanic eruptions finally subsided at Sunset Crater nearly a millennia ago, the Sunset Crater Volcano has been quiet ever since. There are many volcanic mounds in this volcanic field, as can be seen from Grand Falls, but none of the baby volcanoes have shown signs of life either. Nobody really knows when this volcanic field will become active again, so until then, the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument will be a safe place to visit, so those who suffer from volcanophobia will have nothing to fear!

Visiting the Sunset Crater Volcano is like getting a chance to tour two picturesque National Monuments for the price of one! The admission price for Sunset Crater Volcano also includes admission to the neighboring Wupatki National Monument and the same applies to vice versa. A visitor can enter these National Monuments at the access road on Highway 89 near Flagstaff or at the Wupatki entrance gate. Both of these monuments can be explored in one long day, but most visitors prefer to take their time, so camping in the area is a good option. While there is no camping in Wupatki, campsites can be found in the Sunset Crater National Monument and in the surrounding Coconino National Forest. It is best to just forget about the Grand Canyon camping option, because reservations have to be made way in advance. There are BLM boondocking options in the area too, which are nice for those who stick to a tight budget.

I used to work in the Grand Canyon, so I have been to Sunset Crater Volcano several times. The photos for this article were taken during winter, spring and summer seasons, so as can be seen, the conditions can range from icy cold with snow to hot sweaty summer weather up high on this local volcano mountain. Late spring and summer are the best times of year for touring Sunset Crater Volcano and the nights will be comfortably cool, so it is easy to see why camping on site is the best choice!

There are a couple of cinder cones next to the Sunset Crater Volcano that were active during the main eruption period. Some of the cones spewed rusty brown color cinders, but most of the cinders were gray or black. The main lava flow areas are jet black in color and the lava flows cover many square miles. There is not much volcanic tuft around, so by standards, the Sunset Crater Volcanic event was a fairly clean eruption that did not have billowing volcanic ash. However, the small cinders certainly did rain down and some of the cinder piles are as high as mountains!

There are no known lava tubes in this volcanic site and the main attraction is the vast jet black lava fields. There are several hiking trails that go to points of interest in the lava fields that are well worth checking out. Some of the longer trails lead to picturesque rock outcrop areas in the surrounding mountain pine forests, so hiking here can be as relaxing as can be. Hiking on the Sunset Crater Volcano itself is prohibited, because this dramatically increases the rate of erosion on the loose volcanic soil. For this reason, the big Sunset Crater Volcano is for your eyes only and it is quite a majestic sight to see!


Author: wildwestdestinations

I worked as a chef in remote resorts and National Parks, which provided the time to explore western travel destinations. I have a BA Degree in Culinary Management with high honors and currently I am working on a Masters Degree in Adult Education. My food and travel blog writing began as a means to generate income during college and now photo journalism has become my lifestyle.

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