When the summer heat hits Phoenix, Arizona, most city dwellers look for reasons to get out of the city. Flagstaff is one of the preferred destinations because the elevation moderates the summer heat. An excellent site for budding geologists and anyone interested in volcanoes is Sunset Crater National Park.
Sunset Crater is a cinder cone—the remainder of one type of volcano and this one erupted about 900 years ago. The first thing visitors notice is how black everything is. Hillsides that look like they are made of the best black earth imaginable are really covered with cinders. That is because of the way this type of volcano formed. Hot magma churns around underground wanting to become gaseous. When it finally gets hot enough, it explodes. The shrapnel falls to the ground as cinders and spreads for hundreds of miles. Once the explosion and volcanic action is over, it leaves what is called a cinder cone. Here are three views of a small cinder cone and a look at the cinders. Interesting note: it is rumored that John Wesley Powell named this cinder cone Sunset Crater because of the color of the cinders at the peak. The rim of the cone is covered with red and yellow cinders, giving the impression of a sunset.
Stop at the visitor center to pick up useful pamphlets and watch an informative video about volcanoes before heading off to see the hardened lava flows. Be prepared for the view. It looks a bit like someone went out into a gigantic parking lot with an enormous rototiller and just churned it up and left it. Lava Flow Trail provides visitors with a short one-mile hike that winds around the lava flow. Look for the pamphlet that serves as your tour guide. Approximately a quarter of the trail is paved, making that portion easily accessible. It is truly amazing to see all of the vegetation that has flourished in the area. In fact, the Sunset Crater penstemon is found only on cinder deposits in the area around the San Francisco Peaks.
Sunset Crater is an experience for anyone interested in a bit of Arizona geology. Against the backdrop of the San Francisco Peaks, Arizona’s only stratovolcano, it is an educational opportunity and a pleasant opportunity to spend a leisurely day outdoors. Take a picnic lunch and after inspecting the lava flows, follow the park road to one of several picnic sites to complete your visit.
To get there: from Flagstaff, take U.S 89 north for 12 miles (19km), turn right on the Sunset Crater – Wupatki Loop road and continue 2 miles (3km) to the visitor center .The entry fee into the National Park is $5.00 per person and is good for 7 days. There is a National Forest campground right outside the entrance to the park making it handy for a weekend stay. Check the park’s website for a schedule of events that may enhance your stay.