Sunset Crater Volcano
When the the Sinagua people who had lived in this area for more than 500 years first heard and felt the rumblings of a volcano coming to life between 1040 and 1100, they were probably startled and fearful. Fortunately, this type of volcano gave them plenty of warning to abandon their homes in the Wupatki Basin before the major eruptions occurred over the next few years.
When they did return, these ancient farmers built a diverse culture in the shadow of the volcano's cinder cone that amazes visitors 700 years later. They abandoned the area permanently by 1250 , and centuries later the Hopi and the Navajo arrived. Today, Sunset Crater is still regarded as a holy place by the Hopi who believe that the friendly Kana spirit lives here and that a wind god, Yaponcha, inhabits a fissure at the base of the cinder cone.
For more information on the Natives Peoples of this area, see Wupatki National Monument.
Exploration & Settlement
Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves, seeking an overland route from Santa Fe to California in 1851, was the first Euro-American to arrive in the area.
John Wesley Powell, who had navigated the Grand Canyon in 1869, returned to this area in 1885 as head of the U.S. Geological Survey to explore the San Francisco volcanic field and Sunset Crater. He is credited with naming the crater, which he described as follows:
"A portion of the cone is of bright reddish cinders, while the adjacent rocks are of black basalt. The contrast in the colors is so great that on viewing the mountain from a distance the red cinders seem to be on fire. From this circumstance, the cone has been named Sunset Peak . . . which seems to glow with a light of its own."
In 1928, local citizens learned that a film company planned to dynamite the slopes of the cinder cone to create a landslide for a movie. Their protests prompted President Herbert Hoover to protect Sunset Crater and the surrounding 3,100 acres as a National Monument in 1930.
The Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument region differs considerably in elevation, climate, geology, plant and animal life. Because of the changes in elevation and precipitation, many distinct ecological zones are represented.
Plants & Animals
The brittle aa lava (similar to that in Hawaiian volcanoes) and the deep volcanic cinders at Sunset do not seem a hospitable habitat for animals and plants, but many species thrive here. At higher elevations among the Ponderosa Pine, Stellar Bluejays and Abert's Squirrels are prevalent.
At lower elevations among the Pinyon Pine, One-seeded Juniper and various grasses, which provide habitat for Jackrabbits, Fence Lizards and Pronghorn Antelope, are common. Wax Currant and Apache Plume are also common; Pink Penstemmon grows exclusively in the San Francisco volcanic field surrounding Sunset Crater.
Sunset Crater Volcano is the youngest of more than 600 volcanoes of the San Francisco volcanic field in north-central Arizona. San Francisco Peaks, the high mountains 8 miles west, dominate the field and are regarded as sacred by the Navajo and Hopi peoples of today.
The cones and lava flows, which cover about 2,000 square miles of the southwestern Colorado Plateau, resulted from several million years of volcanic activity. These powerful forces changed the landscape dramatically beginning around 1040 AD.
Sunset Crater is a colorful volcanic cone composed of lava fragments called cinders. It was created when molten rock spewed from a crack in the ground, high into the air, solidified, then fell back as cinders or ash. Over the next 200 years, the heavier debris accumulated around the vent creating the 1,000-foot cone. During this period, these eruptions spewed volcanic ash , the lightest and smallest of the particles, over an 800 square mile area of northern Arizona .
As spectacular as the original eruptions were, two subsequent lava flows also occurred:
Kana-a Lava Flow flowed to the northeast for seven miles in and is the oldest lava flo.
Bonito Flow The younger of the two flows occurred three stages. The Lava Flow Trail passes through a portion of this flow.
The processes that created the crater and lava flows also created a geologic wonderland at its base.
- As new gas vents opened suddenly, small spatter cones and fumaroles sprouted from the ground.
- Moving lava developed a crust on the surface where it cooled, and lava caves were formed where the hotter material underneath drained away.
- Partially cooled lava, pushing through the cracks like toothpaste from a tube, solidified into wedge-shaped squeeze-ups, grooved from scraping against the harder rock.
The final eruptions of Sunset Crater around 1250 spewed forth lava containing red oxidized iron, which fell back as brilliant red cinders upon the about the summit. This gave the rim the appearance of a permanent "sunset" so bright that the cone appears to glow, as John Wesley Powell noted more than a century ago.
Sunset Crater Vital Statistics
- Height: 1,000 feet
- Diameter at Base: 1 mile
- Diameter at Top: 2,250 feet
- Weight: 1/2 billion tons
- Depth of Crater: 300 feet
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