Sunset Crater National Monument

A Journey through Time

by Emese Fromm

As I walked through the lava flow at Sunset Crater National Monument, I remembered the first time we had come here. Surrounded by sharp black rocks, I had felt like I left Earth and found myself on another planet. It was over twenty years ago, on my first vacation with my present-day husband (then just a new boyfriend).

I grew up in Romania, and he grew up in New Jersey; and together we decided to go for a vacation to Arizona, to the Wild West. It was an old-time fantasy of mine – I had learned English watching old Western movies. They were the only things on television that were in another language, and I wanted to watch anything other than communist propaganda back then.

Getting ready for our trip, we had both bought beautiful, real leather cowboy boots. We thought that's what Arizonans wore on a regular basis. Did we feel foolish when we landed in Phoenix!

The cowboy boots did come in handy when we decided to walk on the lava flow though, the one just off the parking lot across from the Visitor Center. We wanted to put them on for a photo on top of this surreal landscape. We were lucky we did. I had no idea how sharp lava thousands of years old could be. It cut right through the leather. The boots protected my feet. It was the one and only good use of them.

The trail from Sunset Crater to Lenox Crater on the lava bed.

We fell in love with the place right then and there. Sunset Crater was one the reasons we moved here a few months after that original vacation, along with many other wonderful natural features of the Desert Southwest. It's one of the first places we bring all of our out-of-state visitors, and it's our favorite camping spot, where we take our kids every summer. We never miss stopping here when we take a trip into Northern Arizona.

I've always admired how nature can rebuild itself, even after the most devastating catastrophe. Maybe that's the real draw in visiting this area: you walk in this black lava and see the most fragile flowers grow from it, and pine trees that offer shade as they mature. Walking through the lava flow year after year, I've become a witness to a forest reborn, and to nature's enduring survival.

Hiking to the summit of Sunset Crater isn't permitted, so we headed to the guided Lava Flow Trail. Sometimes we've stopped at the Visitor Center, but we didn't feel the need to do it this time. It was fun to take the kids in there when they were younger; they learned about geology, earthquakes, and volcanoes there. This time, we were with only our girls, and they didn’t ask us to stop. We just wanted to experience nature.

The hike started out easy; it remains that way for those who choose to take just the smaller, paved loop. However, we headed right to the bridge and the metal stairs that took us through the longer loop into the lava flow. We walked on lava sand, pebbles crunching under our feet. We looked at the beautiful crater and talked about its history.


A young pine tree growing in the lava bed.

It erupted about 900 years ago, changing the surrounding landscape and the lives of people in the area. I could only imagine the hot lava scorching, burning to ashes everything in its path. It took less than a millennium for life to return. Some of the most beautiful flowers, pine trees, small bushes, and numerous animals are at home here.

We reached the most shaded area of the trail, and stopped to take in our surroundings. Mature ponderosa pines cast shadows here, making this the most enjoyable part of the route. The path follows a wooden fence on this side, but as we left the area, we lost the shade just when it started to ascend. We tried to wait for a cloud before heading back into the sun. Fortunately, a small one came by and we continued our walk.

On the other side of the small hill, we walked by sharp rock formations, and finally got to the entrance to the lava tube that we were waiting for. It gave us an opportunity to stop and cool down. The cold air rushing out of it was a welcome change from the heat of the desert. The entrance to the ice cave beneath has collapsed over the years, so it's closed, but the girls were able to stand by it and cool down before continuing on the trail.

In the open field of lava sand, we stopped to admire the Sunset Crater penstemon, a beautiful, delicate flower that doesn't grow anywhere else on the planet. This lovely, fire-adapted flower grows in openings between Ponderosa pines in and around Sunset Crater. About eighteen inches tall, it normally flowers between April and August, though we’ve seen it later in the year, up to October at times.

Before leaving the trail, we sat on a shaded bench to admire the cinder cone volcano. Then, we headed over to hike into another cinder cone volcano, Lenox Crater.

The trail that connects this area with Lenox Crater was new, so we decided to try it. As I walked on this wide, well-maintained trail in the lava sand, I remembered the first time I hiked up this crater. No trail was leading up to it back then, though the area wasn’t closed to climbing, so my twenty-five-year old self agreed to climb it.

My then-boyfriend-now-husband and I were camping at the Bonito campground, soon after we had become residents of Arizona. It was a Fourth of July weekend and we took the opportunity to enjoy the area. Looking at Lenox Crater across the street from the campground, we had thought it would be fun to climb it. It was allowed, after all, if you wanted to try it.

Storm clouds might bring rain to the Sunset Crater area.

It was bright and sunny when we started, with no clouds in the sky. We decided to just walk straight up to it on the lava sand. It wasn’t enough that we were climbing, the black sand mixed with pebbles made it even more difficult. But we were young and happy to be in this surreal environment, so we enjoyed it.

When we were about halfway up, suddenly, without warning, the sky grew very dark. Within minutes, it started to rain huge raindrops, that shortly turned into hail. We were only wearing shorts and t-shirts, and we were freezing. However, I remember laughing through it, enjoying the absolute wildness of it. This storm really came out of nowhere. To make things more interesting, the area was deserted, and very open, with tall ponderosa pines scattered around, far and few between. Since a lot of lightning accompanied the rain initially, we hadn't wanted to stand under these tall trees. So, we got soaked, frozen, but laughed through it the whole time. As suddenly as it had started, the hail stopped, and soon the sun was shining again, as if nothing had happened. The sand became a darker shade of black, and it was easier to walk on. Since we were half-frozen, we decided to go back to camp and change clothes, warm up by the fire. Climbing Lenox Crater had to wait for another day.

We've climbed it often over the following years, and have enjoyed it every time, though no hail storm has caught us by surprise since.

This last time, the hike was very easy and pleasant. The trail is well marked and well-traveled now, the sand and pebbles forming an easy-to-walk path. I looked at the scattered clouds in the sky, and hoped for some rain. We could use another adventure, I felt. The trail was too easy to walk now, it had lost some of that wilderness feeling. On the other hand, it's accessible for anyone now, and we could walk in a leisurely way as we enjoyed views of Sunset Crater on one side and Katchina Peaks on the other.

On the trail towards Sunset Crater during sunset.

Once on top, we did have an opportunity for a more adventurous hike. The girls took off before we even noticed, running down into the center of the cinder cone. There was no trail, we just followed them through the lava sand. Coming up was a little harder, but we managed it both ways. Then we sat on top and enjoyed the view of the surrounding volcanic fields and mountains at sunset.

Getting There

BY AUTO

From Flagstaff, take US 89 north for 12 miles; turn right at the sign for Sunset Crater Volcano - Wupatki National Monuments. The Visitor Center is 2 miles from this junction.

TRANSPORTATION

Air
Commercial air carriers provide daily service to Flagstaff.

Bus
Continental bus service is provided to Flagstaff.

Train
Daily Amtrak service is provided to Flagstaff.

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