Though not the brightest nor the most astonishing memory, I keep thinking about one day of our American Southwest vacation: the day we visited two very different craters, walked among lava flows and cinder hills, and saw ruins of ancient Native American dwellings just as the dusk approached. Arizona’s Meteor Crater, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, and the Wupatki National Monument are all three worth a detour as you travel through Northern Arizona between the Grand Canyon and Bryce or Zion.
Why can’t I stop thinking about that day? It unfolded slowly and quietly. There was something in the air. Things simply came together just right.
Our day began in Flagstaff, Arizona, a much-needed stopover between our Grand Canyon adventures and the rest of the trip. I was impressed with Flagstaff: Not only is it the picture-perfect American smalltown, but it has a vibrant community where interesting things happen–like the discovery of Pluto at the Lowell Observatory, or planetary mapping and astronaut training at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, all accessible and welcoming to visitors.
It probably also helped that we stayed at one of Flagstaff’s most fetching institutions, the Weatherford Hotel. Opened in 1900, this was the town’s first luxury establishment as Flagstaff evolved from a dusty Wild West settlement into a thriving logging, ranching, and railroad hub. Rooms here are small and modest, but comfortable. They have character and a ghost story or two. On the night we arrived, I enjoyed sipping delicious local beer in the hotel’s third-floor bar, the Zane Grey Ballroom, watching the town light up for the evening through the bar’s grand stained glass windows. There is another bar, that one with live music, and a restaurant on the first floor, both of which were a bit too loud for our mood that evening (there isn’t an elevator).
In the morning, we headed to Flagstaff’s Visitors’ Center, housed in the old railroad station and facing historic Route 66 (here is a handy self-guided walking tour exploring the town’s intimate connection to the Mother Road). The Center’s staff helped us choose the main attractions on our way from Flagstaff to Page, our next destination, and there were many useful booklets and free handouts to browse. I wish I had paid attention to these 5 self-guided tours on the town’s website before our trip.
Properly caffeinated at Flagstaff Coffee Company, the best coffee we had in Arizona (the entrance to this tiny cafe is not actually on Route 66 but in an alley just off it, near its sister Flagstaff Brewing Company), we headed to our first stop: the Meteor Crater, a 35-mile drive from Flagstaff. It was out of our way, and cost $16 per person–somewhat steep for “a hole in the ground,” some people complained–but I’ve never seen a meteor crater before. “Oh, why not?” we thought.
On the way to the crater, you pass through flat and desolate land that somehow supports free range grazing. Upon a closer look, I noticed the rocks: different colors of them mixed together, different geological eras all jumbled up and out of sync.
We arrived by noon, just in time for the 10-minute film about the crater, shown twice an hour, followed by a guided walk along the northwest quarter of the rim, offered once an hour. To protect the scientific integrity of the rim, visitors are not allowed to walk all around the crater or descend to its floor. One could opt to stay in the air-conditioned viewing area, but I wanted to walk, and I like when docents tell me stories. We had an entertaining, knowledgeable guide (he also starred in the movie we just saw). As we traced the rim, he stopped at several vistas and talked about various aspects of this very impressive “hole in the ground.”
Now 550 feet deep (if the Washington Monument stood at the crater’s base, its tip would be at eye level as you stand on the rim) and over 4,000 feet wide, this chasm was created in several dramatic seconds 50,000 years ago when a mostly iron meteorite–likely no larger than 150 feet in diameter–crashed into earth at 40,000 miles per hour (more trivia you’ll hear: If you boarded a plane in New York and traveled at that velocity to Los Angeles, you’d reach your destination in 4 minutes).
Despite millennia of rainfall and strong winds, the crater’s rim still rises over 150 feet above the surrounding plain. As the meteorite disintegrated upon impact, it forced out over 175 million tons of sandstone and limestone, which spread for over a mile around, and unearthed ancient rock layers–gray Coconino sandstone, petrified dunes from a vast desert of long ago (about 260 million years old); yellow sandstone and dolomite, left here by the creeping ocean; cream, coarse rocks of the Kaibab formation, still clutching fossils of undersea creatures (250 million years old); and reddish-brown Moenkopi sandstone, deposited by retreating shallow waters (240 million years old). Photographs really do not do this place justice:
It is unknown if Native Americans ever explored the crater. The first recorded mention of it dates back to an army scout’s report in 1871, when it was assumed that this feature was volcanic in origin. People didn’t think then that something so large could be formed by a rock falling out of the sky: “If a meteorite did this, then, surely, it’d have to be as big as this crater, so where are its remnants?” argued the leading geologists of the time.
A shepherd discovered an odd rock, a small fragment of the meteorite, inside the crater in 1886, but it was iron, not silver, as he’d hoped, so the hole continued in obscurity until a Philadelphia lawyer and mining engineer Daniel Moreau Barringer heard about the meteor hypothesis and fixated on finding vast iron deposits below the crater floor. Theodore Roosevelt approved Barringer’s mining claim, and the Philadelphian spent the rest of his life and a good chunk of his fortune on trying to both prove the crater’s impact origin and find that iron. Scientific writings still refer to this crater as the “Barringer Crater,” although I wonder if all the unsuccessful drilling damaged the place more than centuries of harsh exposure ever could. Still, thanks in part to Barringer’s persistence, the impact origin was proven by mid-20th century, and research done here was crucial in developing criteria for identifying impact craters internationally. The Barringer Crater served as “the Rosetta stone of astrogeology” and has hosted NASA scientists and astronauts in field testing and training exercises.
Soon it was time to go. We retraced our steps back to Flagstaff and drove north to Sunset Crater, this one created by a series of volcano eruptions that began over 900 years ago and coated 800 square miles in ash and cinders, followed by lava flows that encased everything living in deep rivers of black, jagged stone. I felt transported to another planet, and, indeed, Neil Armstrong and other NASA astronauts trained here to prepare for what may await for them on the Moon.
This was another first for me: visiting a site of a relatively recent volcano eruption. Nearly every mountain around this place is volcanic in origin, and Sunset Crater Volcano is the youngest. People lived and farmed here when it erupted. What was that like? Geologist Ezequiel Ordóñez witnessed the birth of a volcano very similar to Sunset Crater near a Mexican village of Paricutin in 1943. This is how he described the experience: “Tremendous explosions were heard, ground tremors were felt frequently, and a thick high column of vapors with a great many incandescent rocks could be seen rising almost continuously from the center of a small conical mound… at times a ‘chugging’ noise like that of a starting locomotive was heard.”
For miles and miles, the ground is still covered with black cinders: wave after wave of bald, rounded hills. Patches of vegetation–delicate quaking aspens, tenacious pinyon pines, stunted ponderosas, and golden clouds of rabbitbrush flowers–cling to rock. Lichens, blobs of bright-yellow, green, and gray, cover many of the stones, a sign that life is returning here, however slowly. These unassuming growths (part algae, part fungus) are actually dissolving rock into soil.
Sunset Crater Volcano became protected land after its slopes were almost dynamited in 1928 by a Hollywood studio to film a landslide for a movie. Locals rallied, and a National Monument was born a year later. Today, visitors cannot hike up Sunset Crater or go down into the cone–lose cinders make it hard to walk, and processions of hikers and climbers scarred the mountain before the area was closed off in the 1970s. Disappointing, but I am glad that these protections are in place (I later learned that one can get a rare bird’s-eye view of the crater from a trail through the O’Leary Peak, another volcano near Flagstaff).
We enjoyed the Lava Flow Trail, a haunting 1-mile round-trip through the cinders at the base of the mountain. The park’s website also offers a virtual field trip through the flows. Animals, birds and insects apparently live there, but we didn’t see or hear anything at all. It was quiet, deafeningly quiet. We tried to see the colors that inspired John Wesley Powell, the great explorer of the American Southwest, to name this crater “Sunset”: “On viewing the mountain from a distance, the red cinders seem to be on fire… the peak seems to glow with a light of its own,” he wrote. I got a little overwhelmed by the oddity of this place, though, and my mind wondered.
We drove on. The landscape gradually changed. Cinder hills gave way to fields of golden grass, writhing in the wind, black rocks peeking out here and there underneath.
Then, rough bushes appeared, and the area got hilly again. On one of the hills, not far from the road, we saw a whole herd of pronghorn antelopes. They looked at us with as much curiosity as we looked at them, then gracefully scaled the hill. We now entered the territory of the Wupatki National Monument.
Several Native American ruins, remnants of sophisticated farming settlements and meeting places for travelers from different tribes, lie here in solitude, abandoned for over 800 years. In dwindling light, we visited two of them, both bearing Hopi names: Wukoki Pueblo, bright-orange and small but defiant against black rocks underneath, and Wupatki, the largest and, with its 100 chambers, the most complex pueblo in the park.
We walked through the ruins, led by printed guides explaining each site’s archeological significance, history, and likely function. The surrounding landscape seemed empty, yet archeologists found signs of ancient Native American tribes all over this area. Before land became too dry and inhospitable, agriculture and trade among many far-flung cultures flourished here, in the shadow of Sunset Crater and, to the west, the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks.
At over 16,300 feet, the San Francisco Peaks are the highest in Arizona. They are sacred to the Navajo, the Hopi, and other Native tribes in this area. Their summits are now protected as part of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area, named after the Hopi gods who, the legend goes, spend part of the year there. Together with the San Francisco Peaks, Sunset Crater Volcano is part of the San Francisco volcano field, listed among 35 sites in the US most likely to erupt. At least it’s toward the end of the list.
Darkness was quickly approaching now, and our tiny green rental hurried to Page, where the pure magic of Owl, Rattlesnake, and Antelope Canyons waited for us the next morning.
A stunning sunset over this surreal, lonely place saw us off.