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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (NPS)
- Wupatki National Monument (NPS)
- Bonito Campground (USFS)