While researching day trips from Williams, Arizona – our lodging location while visiting the Grand Canyon – I came across Sunset Crater National Monument. As we drove into the park not really knowing what to expect, the car soon filled with excitement pointing out the huge cinder cone we were driving past. Little did we know there are actually 600 volcanoes in the San Francisco Volcanic Fields!
(A cinder cone is essentially the “hole” in the top of the volcano. It’s created by an explosion of lava and is covered by volcanic ash, or cinder.)
We were only 2 weeks into our 9000 mile road trip when we visited Sunset Crater. I was very picky about what made it onto our “extra” things to see and do list because we were going such a far distance. When you’re traveling that kind of distance you have to realize that you just can’t see everything so the most unique things automatically floated to the top of our bucket list.
Walking through fields of volcanoes definitely fit the category of “unique”! These Sunset Crater vinyl stickers were an AWESOME souvenir from our trip! We also climbed around the top of the largest meteor crater in the USA!
Although small, the visitor’s center has interesting exhibits about volcanoes as well as a seismograph monitoring earthquake activities around the world. There are nice picnic tables outside which make a great spot to stop for lunch or dinner!
Sunset Crater is a National Park that you essentially drive straight through and go back out the way you came in unless you are also driving to Wupatki National Monument (which I recommend if you have the time!). (Wupatki is the area that was inhabited before the volcano erupted in 1089.)
Be forewarned that phone reception there is nonexistent once you get near the park. And I do recommend stopping in the visitor’s center to use the restroom (and of course learn more about the park!) before hitting the trails as there are no bathrooms near the trails. It is a pretty dry (and hot!) area so make sure you bring plenty of water.
You’ll be hiking in some pretty steep elevations for some of the trails so this might not be the best area for hiking if you have some physical limitations. You can absolutely just stay in the car and drive a scenic loop. Our entire extended family hiked this together including grandparents and 10 children – so it’s definitely doable for kids! The views are just breathtaking!
At the base of Sunset Crater there is a mile long interpretive trail loop that leads you through the Bonito Lava Flow. This is the trail that we took as we had a lot to squeeze in one day! There is also a longer trail on Lenox Crater (300 feet tall!), 1.6 miles round trip, that you can take to the top (and inside!) of a volcanic crater! It offers some stunning views and is definitely an experience you don’t want to miss!
You can tell just by driving through the park the vast landscape is wildly different than what you’re used to seeing! The ground is covered with lava flows and cinder deposits – it’s an amazing sight to see and one rarely found in the United States. It’s also amazing to note the nature and wildlife that has thrived in the area despite its harsh conditions.
The hiking paths essentially look like black sand and while I typically wear flip flops everywhere, this is one place I do recommend wearing good sturdy shoes! The volcanic materials is shifty under your feet, very dusty, and deceptive to walk on! It reminded me of trying to walk across a sandy beach.
*Just a tip – for those who don’t know this volcanic rock and be extremely abrasive and if you fall on it can cut you up worse than falling on a regular rocky path so be careful – especially with children. Think of it like a really bad road rash. This 3D diorama is a great way to help kids understand volcanoes!
Sunset Crater National Monument became a national monument in 1930 so it’s been around quite a while even though we had never heard of it until I started researching things to do near Flagstaff, Arizona. The park itself is just 3,040 acres so relatively small compared to many National Parks.
Check out these AWESOME volcanic topography coasters on Etsy!
Can you camp at Sunset Crater National Monument?
If you’re looking for local camping the closest is the Bonito Campground, although Flagstaff isn’t far away. Like in the park, cell phone coverage is nonexistent at Bonito as well so make all of your calls and plans before entering the area.
Is Sunset Crater still active?
Thankfully, Sunset Crater is considered extinct and is not expected to erupt again. The area is safe for camping and exploring.
Why is it called Sunset Crater?
If you look up towards the top of the craters, you’ll notice unique red-brown patches in color. These are formed by sulphur and oxidized iron. John Wesley Powell, the first modern-day explorer of the area (1887) said that these unique colors looked like a sunset covering the volcanic cones and named it Sunset Peak.
How much does it cost to see Sunset Crater?
The admission to Sunset Crater also includes Wupatki National Monument and is roughly $20-25 per vehicle.