The Pacific Northwest Tour: Sunset Crater and Wupatki

As a largely indy traveler, I always revel in finding groovy little destinations that aren’t overrun by crowds. I love iconic places as much as the next person but hoards of people can take the fun out of that experience.

wupatki national monument
The geological and human history at Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments are a well worth a side trip if you are in the Flagstaff area.

That’s one of the reasons I’m partial to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and its nearby sister, Wupatki National Monument. With their proximity to the Grand Canyon, these Arizona gems can be easily overlooked by those flocking to gape at the the big ditch.

I’m sure these monuments have some busy times but they certainly weren’t in the times I visited. Without marquis National Park status, I find that crowds tend to be more agreeable overall at national monuments. That’s a bonus for the off-the-beaten-path traveler.

I visited Sunset Crater about five years ago and the intriguing beauty and history here me back again this year. So after exiting Overland Expo on the Pacific Northwest Tour, I stopped through on my way to Great Sand Dunes. The rugged landscape proved just as entrancing as it did the first time.

The basics…

Both monuments are located north of Flagstaff, Arizona off of Highway 89. If you’re just passing through, the 35-mile loop makes for a nice side-trip. And, unless you’re a hard-core geology or history nut who will get completely immersed in the details of these monuments, you can reasonably complete the loop in two to four hours. That time will depend on how many side trails, overlooks, and ruins you visit as well as how long you linger in the visitor centers.

If you are looking to camp nearby, the US Forest Service operates the Bonito Campground at the entrance to Sunset Crater. I stayed there on my first visit in 2009 and was really quite nice. The campsites are situated at the edge of the Bonito lava flow so you’ll be pitching your tent on nearly 1,000-year-old lava. It just doesn’t get much cooler than that in my book. Just remember it is open seasonally so be sure to visit the USFS Bonito website for up-to-date information.

stellars jay
A Stellar’s Jay in Bonito Campground. This stark environment is home to a surprising amount of wildlife.

Sunset Crater…

In a nutshell, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is… you guessed it, a volcano. This particular one is a cinder cone named for the red and yellow oxidized cinders that erupted about 900 years ago. Here you’ll get to see a few other varieties of lava types as well as how plant-life begins to reclaim an area after being obliterated.

Believe it or not, volcanic material is quite fragile which is why you can’t climb Sunset Crater itself. But you can explore the Lenox Crater trail to experience what it’s like to walk on a cinder cone.

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At the Sunset Crater Visitor Center, there are lots of interpretive displays to help you understand what happened here. I’m not going to lie, the latent geologist in me was a little giddy.
apache plume
The Apache Plume is one of the many wildflowers that are reclaiming the land wiped clean by Sunset Crater nearly 1,000 years ago.
The trail across from the Lenox Crater access is a great place to get up close and explore. Just remember to stay on the trails. It may seem counter-intuitive but volcanic material is fragile and easily broken by visitors footsteps.
Fred and George ca. 2009 getting into discovering volcanic material on the Lenox Crater Trail.
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View from the Lenox Crater Trail.
The cycle of life continues at Sunset Crater.
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Lava flow from the base of the crater is much different than material blown out of the top. Even if you’re not a geology nut, this is really cool stuff.
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The 35-mile loop that connects Sunset Crater and Wupatki largely runs through Coconino National Forest and will help you understand this harsh and desolate environment.

Wupatki…

The volcanic eruptions of Sunset Crater sent the inhabitants on the move but they returned to recultivate the land. Eventually thousands of people inhabited the area before leaving again. Their remnants of their life here are preserved in the monument that includes the Wupatki Pueblo as well as several others.

wupatki national monument
Wupatki National Monument Visitor Center.
At the Visitor Center, you can learn how Anasazi cultures sustained themselves in the high desert.
wupatki national Monument
At Wupatki, there are displays of rock and animal artifacts set aside for touching and exploring.
wupatki pueblo
The Wupatki Pueblo is the most well-preserved of the ruins here.
wupatki national monument - val in real life
The Wupatki Pueblo is the most well-preserved of the ruins here.
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Closer view of the Wupatki pueblo.
wupatki pueblo
You can take the self-guided tour to get a better idea of life here in the 1100s.

Worth a visit…

What makes these monuments so compelling are the juxtapositions. A fascinating but catastrophic volcanic explosion that is now being reclaimed by life in a harsh desert environment. That natural process collides with human history and the story of the people who managed to live here successfully for quite some time. It’s natural history at its best.

To plan your visit be sure to get current information from the park service:

And now for your moment of green…

wupatki national monument
The high desert of Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments.

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