Arizona is known all over the world for its impressive landscapes, including deserts, canyons, and unique rock formations. One of the state's true hidden gems is the Lava Tubes just outside of the city of Flagstaff. In an area that is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and lush forests, the thought of finding lava-forged tunnels beneath the surface of the earth might sound strange, but that's exactly what makes this little wonder one of Arizona's most special and impressive sites to visit.

1. Getting to the Lava Tubes in Flagstaff

Getting to the Lava Tubes in Flagstaff
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The Lava Tubes, also known as the Lava River Caves, are located in the Arizona's Coconino National Forest. The entrance can be found approximately 14 miles (23km) outside Flagstaff, so it's only a short drive from the city to the caves.

Managed by the United States Forest Service, the Lava Tunnels are open all year long but are sometimes inaccessible due to adverse weather conditions in the area that can lead to the surrounding dirt roads becoming muddy and impossible to drive along, meaning that they are usually closed through the winter months and any potential visitors will have to hike or ski to the entrance instead.

Getting to the caves is very simple, with visitors simply needing to follow Highway 180 north up to mile marker 230. From there, turn left onto Forest Road 245 and follow it for a little while before turning left again onto Forest Road 171, which will lead you directly to the parking lot for the Flagstaff Lava Tubes.

2. Visiting the Flagstaff Lava Tubes

Visiting the Flagstaff Lava Tubes
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The Flagstaff Lava Tubes are a 700,000 year old rock formation, created when lava flowed out through a volcanic vent and hardened over time, creating a unique cave system for people to explore. It's a real natural marvel and the only example of a navigable lava tube in this part of America.

Naturally, anyone with an interest in geology or natural science will adore exploring this formation, as will any outdoor enthusiasts. Families also like to investigate the Flagstaff Lava Tubes too and the cave runs for less than a mile, so you don't need to be too physically fit to see the whole thing. It's also just one long cave, so there's no chance of you getting lost or accidentally taking a wrong turn anywhere.

Little unique lava rock formations can be found all along the passageway and it can be truly breathtaking to walk through the lava tubes and simply admire this unique feat of nature. If you do decide to visit, however, be sure to respect the area and avoid leaving any litter behind or defacing the walls. Graffiti has been an issue at the Flagstaff Lava Tubes but it’s vital for visitors to try and preserve the area for future generations.

3. Important Information

Important Information
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First of all, it's important to note that the lava tubes are unstaffed and have no admission fees or ticket-based entry. All you have to do is walk right up and head inside, but it's important to be prepared. This means you should bring your own equipment for safety and practicality reasons. For example, visitors are recommended to come equipped with multiple light sources, like flash lights, lanterns, or glow sticks.

It's very dark inside the caves and the rock floors can be extremely slippery and uneven. It's easy to fall over and get yourself lost in the dark, so it's always smart to have light sources nearby. In case one of those light sources breaks or runs out of battery or gets lost somehow, it's smart to have a couple of backups as well. You definitely won't want to be down in the lava tunnels without any light to guide you. Since the floors can be so slippery, it’s also a good idea to wear a good pair of hiking boots with firm grips to cut down your risk of having a fall or accident.

The temperature in the caves tends to stay between 35 and 45°F all year long, even during the hot summer months, so another way to be prepared for your lava tunnel trek is to dress appropriately. You may want to wear warm summer clothes on the way there, but be sure to pack jackets and additional layers for when you actually descend into the tunnels. If there has been any rain or snow in the area recently, the lava tubes will also be quite damp, so this is another reason to cover up and dress warmly.

Attraction Spotlight: Wupatki National Monument

Nestled between the Painted Desert and highlands of northern-central Arizona near Flagstaff, the Wupatki National Monument is a U.S. National Monument administered by the National Park Service. A landscape of legacies made up of red-rock outcroppings and dotted with ancient pueblos; the Wupatki National Monument features a variety of buildings and structures preserves dozens of ancestral Puebloan villages and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Wupatki National Monument features several settlement sites scattered around the area that were built by the ancient Pueblo people, including the Kayenta Anasazi, Cohonina, and Sinagua peoples. First inhabited around 500 AD, Wupatki (meaning ‘tall house’ in the Hopi language) is an ancient pueblo dwelling built by the Sinagua with over 100 rooms, a community room, and a ball court. The residence also features secondary buildings such as two kiva-like structures.

There was a significant influx of people to the area after the eruption of the Sunset Crater between 1040 and 1100, which blanketed the area in volcanic ash and improving agricultural productivity. Archaeological surveys show that an estimated 2000 immigrants, mainly Anasazi and Sinagua Indians, lived in the area during the 12th and 13th centuries, growing crops of maize and squash in the dry, arid landscapes. The Indians constructed dwellings from thin, flat blocks of the local Moenkopi sandstone with each settlement containing original buildings with multiple rooms.

In the early 13th century all the settlements were abandoned, and even though they are empty and abandoned today, stories of the famous landscape have been passed down through various local tribes, such as the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni peoples to enrich their personal understanding of their clan history. Visitors to the site can take a journey back in time by exploring items excavated from the site in the mid-1800s such as many different varieties of pottery.

The Wupatki National Monument features more than 800 identified ruins spread around the area, five of which are open to the public, namely the Wupatki, Wukoki, Lomaki, Citadel and Nalakihu settlements.

The Wupatki Pueblo is a three-story structure with over 100 rooms that was once home to more than 300 people. Built on the edge of a small plateau with magnificent views over the Painted Desert, the ruins are reached by a short, paved trail beginning at the Visitor Center. The Wupatki Pueblo also features a circular community room, a masonry ballpark, and a natural blowhole.

The Wukoki Pueblo is built on an isolated block of sandstone and a unique structure in the park. Visible for miles across the flat terrain, the Wukoki Pueblo centered around a square, three-story tower with intricately-constructed rooms of deep-red brick off the side that seamlessly merge with the underlying Moenkopi rock.

Built on the edge of a shallow, vertical-walled canyon, the Lomaki Pueblo is reached by a short trail and boasts breathtaking views of the snow-capped the the San Francisco Peaks to the west. The pueblo’s buildings rest on horizontal, thin-layered strata of the local Moenkopi sandstone littered with fallen boulders that seamlessly merge with the crumbling masonry walls of the pueblo.

The Citadel and Nalakihu Pueblos are small, partly restored pueblos with views over the surrounding hillsides enclosed by flat walls.

Doney Mountain Trail

The Doney Mountain Trail begins at the Doney Mountain Picnic Area and winds around the extinct volcano whose smooth, barren hillside slopes are composed of red and black ash. Named after an early explorer and excavator of Indian artifacts, the Doney Mountain Trail passes the remains of a single-room lava-block dwelling with beautiful views of the San Francisco Peaks and the Little Colorado River valley.

The Wupatki National Monument offers guided field trips for visitors, ranger-guided programs for youth and students, or ranger-guided curriculum-based programs for all ages. The Park also participates in a special Junior Ranger Program, which features a variety of age-group-specific activities.

The Wupatki National Monument is located at 25137 N Wupatki Loop Road in Flagstaff and is open to the public every day from sunrise to sunset. The Wupatki National Monument has a variety of trails which lead to settlements such as the Box Canyon, Nalakihu, Citadel and Lomaki Pueblos, as well as the Wupatki and Wukoki settlements. Styled after a traditional Navajo dwelling called a Hogan, the Wupatki Visitor Center features a museum and restroom facilities and offers activities for Junior Rangers.

25137 N Wupatki Loop Rd, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, Phone: 928-679-2365

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Attraction Spotlight: Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Sunset Crater Volcano is a National Monument in Flagstaff, Arizona in the Coconino National Forest. The geological formation is the result of a volcanic explosion in the year 1085. The sunset name comes from the red coloring of iron cinders around the rim of the crater, which oxidized toward the end of the eruption, combined with the yellow and white coloring of adjacent stone.

The park’s Visitor Center is open year-round and offers exhibits on the history of the volcano, its explosion and the resulting changes to the landscape. An interactive exhibit on seismology includes a working seismograph. A Natural History exhibit displays lifelike models of the plants and animals that can be found throughout the park. Visitor Center facilities include a bookstore, restrooms and picnic area.

The park offers a small network of hiking trails. Hikes from the Visitor Center include the Lava Flow Trail, an easy, 1-mile trail that incorporates a quarter mile wheelchair accessible loop. The Lenox Crater Trail is a steep, 1-mile uphill climb while the Aa Flow Trail is a short curvy hike along the lava flow allowing for an up-close look at Basalt formations. The Cinder Hills Overlook is accessible by car and offers views of Sunset Crater Volcano and cinder cones in the area. For those seeking a greater challenge, a 7-mile Forest Service trail leads to O’Leary Peak in the Coconino National Forest. To protect the sensitive geological formations, backcountry hiking is not allowed.

A 34-mile scenic loop drive connects Sunset Crater National Monument to its sister park to the north, Wupatki National Monument. The drive traverses 2,000 feet of elevation, beginning high in the Ponderosa Pine forests of Sunset Crater, and heading downward towards the painted desert and red rocks of Wupatki.

Flagstaff is the world’s first International Dark Sky City, and Sunset Crater is an International Night Sky Park making it a prime area for stargazing. Two short-lived wildflower species grow only in the area of the San Francisco Volcanic Field and are well adapted to fire, which assists in spreading the plants’ seeds. Rare wildlife in the area includes the northern goshawk, which is most often seen among large stands of Ponderosa Pine surrounded by forest.

History: Farming societies lived in pit houses in the Sunset Crater area for hundreds of years prior to the volcano’s eruption. Evidence indicates that the local population was aware of the pending volcanic eruption. No evidence has been found of resulting deaths, although archeologists have uncovered pit houses filled with volcanic cinders. After the eruption, the area was no longer farmable, and residents moved further to Wupatki and Walnut Canyon, where thin layers of ash enhanced the quality of the soil. In the 1800’s, ranching, mining and railroads arrived with European explorers, who marveled at the abandoned pueblos in the stark landscape. In 1928 when a movie company proposed blowing up the volcano to film a landslide, locals organized for the area’s protection. The park was created in 1930 by President Hoover, and infrastructure was put in place with the assistance of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Today, over 200,000 people visit the site annually. The Zuni and Hopi Americans, descendants of the area’s first occupants, continue to live nearby and share stories of the volcano’s eruption.

Ongoing Programs and Education: The park offers several ranger guided interpretative programs, most of which begin at the Visitor Center. Guided hikes include an easy walk along the Lava Flow trail with a 30-minute talk on the eruption of Sunset Crater, or a strenuous 45-minute hike and talk along the Lenox Crater trail on the topic of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. Amphitheater Ranger Talks are 30-minute presentations on a variety of topics, including wildlife and wildflowers, geology and the science of volcanic eruptions. Monthly star parties offer guided stargazing and astronomy talks at the Visitor Center amphitheater. The weekend program begins with solar viewing during the day, followed by the evening activities.

Past and Future Exhibits: The Roving Ranger Program is a joint effort of the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. Park rangers from both organizations lead hikes, campfire talks and presentations between May and September each year. 2017 events included interpretative Nature Walks, evening campground talks on everything from the surface of the sun, to the history of the volcano, to Native American constellation mythology, to the Abert’s squirrel, a common resident of Sunset Crater Monument.

6082 Sunset Crater Road, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, Phone: 928-526-0502

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