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.
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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