This post may contain affiliate links.
As National Monuments go, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is a standout.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is a small, understated gem of a park just outside Flagstaff Arizona. It preserves a tiny portion of the hundreds of extinct volcanoes within the San Francisco Volcanic Field.
Sunset Crater volcano itself is one of the youngest, with its eruption only around 900 years ago.
It’s fascinating to me to think that it hasn’t even been 1,000 years since a massive eruption occurred here, leaving huge cinder cones and 3,000 acres of lava fields where there was once forest. It’s a geologic infant!
Here’s a fun fact: When Sunset Crater Volcano erupted, it created a curtain of fire 850 feet tall! For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is only 305 feet tall. People could see and hear it for hundreds of miles. What must they have thought?!!
There’s a great story about how the park came to be… seriously, it’s movie-worthy. And hey, it involves a movie! The staff at the visitor center will tell it better, but I’ll give it a go:
Back in the early 1900’s, a Hollywood film company wanted to blast one side of the crater to bring on a landslide for a Zane Grey silent movie it was filming called Avalanche. Side bar: Apparently (and quite unfortunately) there are no longer copies of that movie in existence.
The locals were outraged at this proposal to blow up their treasured volcano! They successfully lobbied to stop the explosion, which led to President Hoover creating the National Monument in 1930 with the help of a little thing called the Antiquities Act.
And just like that, Sunset Crater was protected forever.
Though let’s be clear, there was a little snafu with keeping it protected. Historically, you could hike to the top of Sunset Crater, but due to damage from hikers and people exploring the volcano, the National Park Service had to close the trail to the top of the volcano back in 1973. So NOW it’s fully protected.
Even though climbing to the crater isn’t an option, the 1-mile Lava Flow Trail has some good crater views before the trail shoots down into the lava field.
The lava fields themselves are a sight to see. It’s incredible to think this was all flowing lava not all that long ago (geologically speaking).
When you visit, make sure you also put the Lava’s Edge Trail on your radar. It’s 3.4 miles out and back, but even if you just do the first bit (starting at the A’a trailhead) you’ll have spectacular views as you walk along the edge of the Bonito Lava Flow field which, in my book, is the most impressive thing in the park. Back when the eruption occurred, magma oozed from beneath the cone and into this valley. The result is a huge two-square-mile field of jagged black volcanic chunks and, sprinkled on its edges, small cinders that crunch as you walk along.
All the trails in the park are short, with the most strenuous being the 1.6 mile Lenox Crater Trail. Its sweat-inducing 300-ft climb will certainly give you a taste of what it’s like to hike up a cinder cone.
We especially appreciated the National Park Service’s recognition of the native people by sharing their beliefs and history both in the interpretive signs along the trails and in the visitor center displays.
RVers Good To Know:
There is a lovely US Forest Service campground at the entrance to the park called Bonito Campground which makes a great base camp while visiting, though it’s only open seasonally. There are no hook-ups, it’s first-come-first-serve, and you need to be under 42′.
The RV parking area at the main trailhead seemed to have plenty of room; there was lots of space left while we were there hiking.
And if you go, don’t forget to continue up the road to the nearby & equally as amazing Wupatki National Monument! If you hurry you can knock both out in a day, but if you’re like us and like to take your time, stay at the campground a night so you can fully enjoy both monuments. They’re so very different!
If you’ve been to Sunset Crater we would love to hear about it! Leave your comments below!
Safe and healthy travels, all!
Stef (and James, Mel, and Parky!)