Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument consists of 3,000 acres of protected land located within Coconino National Forest. Situated between Flagstaff, Arizona—which is only about 20 minutes to the southwest—and Wupatki National Monument—found just 10 minutes to the northeast—Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument contains some of Northern Arizona’s most unique stretches of terrain. As a result of all the volcanic activity that has taken place in the region, this area is defined by sparse vegetation, incredible rock formations, and unforgettable layers of hardened lava.
Sunset Crater History and Background Information
Northern Arizona is home to the San Francisco Volcanic Field, a nearly 2,000-square-mile area that contains approximately 600 volcanoes. One of the most well-known of the volcanoes in this area—and in fact, in terms of age, the youngest, too—is Sunset Crater. Scientists have been able to narrow the date of Sunset Crater’s most recent massive eruption to around 1085. This eruption devastated the local wildlife, so much so that it took hundreds of years just for plant life to return to the region. Today, the surrounding environment still bears the imprint of this significant event, making it an important object of study for scientists even now.
Sunset Crater became Sunset Crater National Monument in 1930, when Herbert Hoover declared it (and its surroundings) to be under the protection of the National Park Service. In large part, this decision was made to protect the area’s unique geological formations from damage and destruction at the hands of land speculators and various other parties with less than honorable intentions for the area. In 1990 the name was adapted slightly, changed to the form we know it as today: Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
What’s at Sunset Crater Volcano
Broadly speaking, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is home to four major attractions: Sunset Crater, Lenox Crater, Bonito Lava Flows, and Cinder Hills Overlook. A small Visitor Center, operated by the United States Forest Service, makes a good place to begin; there you’ll find a museum, bookstore, restrooms, picnic tables, and a campground, as well as be able to speak with a park ranger if you need to.
While Sunset Crater gets the most attention, just west of it you’ll find Lenox Crater, an impressive geological formation in its own right; Lenox Crater is surrounded by a number of hiking trails, including a quite steep path that’ll take you right to the summit (where you’ll have spectacular views of the surrounding area). Nearby you’ll also find the Bonito Lava Flows. The volcanic deposits you’ll encounter here are well-worth seeing, as these rugged, jagged formations are unforgettable sights; for most visitors, they’re probably actually best viewed from the National Monument’s scenic road, as the only hiking through the region is of the difficult, off-trail variety. Finally, Cinder Hills Overlook, found just east of Sunset Crater, offers up breathtaking vistas in the direction of such landmarks as the Painted Desert, and is well worth the time and effort.
There are a variety of additional attractions to be found not far from Sunset Crater National Monument. Most prominently, Grand Canyon National Park is just an hour or so northwest, but other popular spots nearby include Riordan Mansion State Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Museum of Northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument, and Lowell Observatory, among many others.
Tips for Visiting Sunset Crater Volcano
- Many of the roads you’ll encounter within Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument are quite narrow, rugged, and/or unpaved. Thus, you’ll want to make sure to have a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle at your disposal as you travel through this area.
- The Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument Visitor Center is open daily between the hours of 9:00am and 5:00pm, every day of the year except Christmas.
- Due to its high elevation, most portions of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument get quite cold at night, regardless of the time of year. To accommodate these sorts of fluctuations in temperature, wearing multiple layers is a good idea—and you’ll certainly want to be checking the weather forecasts regularly throughout your visit, as conditions on the ground can change quickly here.
- There is an entrance fee for all vehicles carrying visitors into Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, and it varies depending on the type of vehicle in question—you’ll want to check the National Park Service website in advance of your visit for specifics. The entrance fee also covers admission into nearby Wupatki National Monument, and vice versa, which is a great thing to keep in mind as you’re planning your trip.
- However, there are occasionally “Fee Free Days” sponsored by the National Park Service, special dates when all entrance fees into Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument are waived. If you’re interested in planning your visit around such a date, you’ll want to check the National Park Service website for specific details.