Walking near Sunset Crater Volcano, you can't help but think you're on another planet. The black dunes of the cinder cone and the massive lava flow seem otherworldly.
Just outside Flagstaff, three strange and beautiful national monuments tell the story of northern Arizona's vast volcanic field and its effect on the area's ancient civilizations. Pack a picnic and spend a day exploring Sunset Crater Volcano, Wupatki, and Walnut Canyon National Monuments.
At Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, a 1-mile trail loops past the 1,000-foot-tall cinder cone and through the jagged forms of the lava flow. A trail guide pamphlet explains geology terms such as spatter cones. You can climb Lenox Crater, a small cinder cone, and tour the visitor center's geology exhibits.
Just north of Sunset Crater, Wupatki National Monument protects the remains of several masonry pueblos. The pueblos were built on mesas by the Sinaguan people, who farmed and traded here in the 12th and 13th centuries and who may have been driven out by the volcano's first rumblings. A trail by the visitor center passes the vestiges of the largest pueblo as well as a ball court where ceremonial games were played. Check out the nearby blowhole, a small opening above a fissure from which cool air is released. Some believe that overheated ballplayers used it as a primitive fan.
Some of the Sinaguan people moved south to a steep canyon area, where they built cliff dwellings. At Walnut Canyon National Monument, a mile-long trail out the back door of the visitor center leads you past 25 of approximately 300 cliff-dwelling sites. If that trail's 240 steps are daunting, take the easier rim trail to peer at the dwellings through tall Ponderosa pines.
WHERE: Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is 12 miles north of Flagstaff via U.S. 89 and Forest Road 545. Wupatki National Monument is 26 miles north of Sunset Crater on F.R. 545. Walnut Canyon National Monument is 10 miles east of Flagstaff via Interstate 40 and Walnut Canyon Rd. (exit 204).
FYI: Call ahead for ranger programs and hikes.
COST: $3 entry fee covers Sunset Crater and Wupatki; separate $3 fee for Walnut Canyon.
CONTACT: Sunset Crater: (928) 526-0502. Wupatki: (928) 679-2365. Walnut Canyon: (928) 526-3367.