Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: Lava Flow Trail

Did you know that Arizona has three active volcanic fields? One of them is the San Francisco volcanic field and this field has one precious place that you should visit if you ever make a trip over to the city of Flagstaff: Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument! But, first off, who even knew or thought about Arizona having volcanoes?! 

Fortunately, for this beautiful state and as one person who commented on an Instagram photo of mine, “Arizona is a geologist’s wet dream.” That, I cannot agree more…Heck yeah, it is! Sunset Crater is an incredible example of how any geology-loving person could learn to love it. At the Sunset Crater National Monument, during this pandemic, there was one open trail that is explorable to see the volcano up close: the Lava Flow Trail. Despite the Visitor Center being closed, you can still grant yourself access to here.

We checked out this trail once the rain stopped in a spontaneous family road trip to Flagstaff (we live 2 hours away from the city!) and I was hoping the rain and coldness would go away. I prayed and there it was… we got to arrive in warmer weather with just cloudiness to see Sunset Crater, just one of the many places I have in my Arizona Bucket List. Prior to this, we went to downtown Flagstaff to grab some Thai food and then go to Buffalo Park to eat it while it was just drizzling.

I must note though, there’s something about the cloudy weather then that put the place in perspective. I don’t know if it added to the dramatic feels of the real story behind this place where destruction (the eruption) happened, but life grew back here and the volcanic landscape showcases its beauty that remained from that destruction. This place is unreal to experience and my photos and experiences may not even do it justice.

The drive to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is also very scenic and beautiful and you’ll also start to see some of the lava flow peeking through trees from the drive there.

Watch me explore this place!

Some History on Sunset Crater

Sunset Crater is a 1,000 feet cinder cone volcano. An eruption occurred here at Sunset Crater about 950-1000 years ago (or sometime around 1085 CE) and during that time, Native people (ancestors of the Pueblo) were living alongside the volcano, but they already had their bags packed and what they were experiencing, the tremors and intensity, was enough to give them warning of what was to come. Many of them had lost their homes and potential farmland, which 64,000 acres of it was covered by volcanic ash when Sunset Crater erupted. Many Native Americans now consider this place a sacred landscape.

Fun fact: Sunset Crater is still considered to be active, but it may not erupt again until 1000-5000 years later. So, I think we will be safe for now… and if that is wrong and we face it sooner, well, maybe it’s worth exploring this place now while it’s still intact with evidence of history from this older eruption!

Facts about Sunset Crater

*According to National Park Service.

Height: 1,000 feet
Elevation at summit: 8,029 feet
Diameter at base: 1 mile
Diameter at top: 2,250 feet
Depth of crater: 300 feet
Extruded material: about 1 billion tons
Extent of ashfall: about 800 square miles

Lava Flow Trail

The trail is exactly like its name and it consists of a lava flow that spewed out about 1 billion tons. You can get here by going along Highway 89 and Route 545.

Here are the stats of this trail:

Distance: 0.8 miles
Elevation gain: 72 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Route type: Loop

So as you can see, the Lava Flow Trail is relatively very short and you won’t tire yourself. It features walkways that are mainly paved but can connect to rough volcanic terrain, so wearing sneakers would be your safe bet.

As soon as you walk through the trail, you will find some white benches laid out, this is most likely due to how some tours are held for people, and you’ll discover the rich red-colored soil. You will also get to see trees with twisted roots and trunks. (It’s awesome!) 

You will come across a bridge and under it is a great view of the lava flow, showing you the crevices and texture of what looks like now hard sharp rocks. You can see the fissure breakage that occurred within the middle of the flow, giving you an idea of how the flow may have occurred during this eruption.

These blackened volcanic rocks are almost similar to coral reefs. They are also very sharp, so be careful when you get close to them!

When you turn around as you’re heading upwards north in the trail, you can see the San Francisco Peaks mountains. It’s a beautiful sight to see the surrounding forests afar in those mountains filled with these Ponderosa pines.

You will find a few plaque boards displayed throughout the trail, giving you an opportunity to read about the history of what happened here.

As you see Sunset Crater and head closer to it, you will take notice of the multitude of colors shown from dark gray (that appears purple), red, and brown reflecting from the volcano. There is an overlook that you can stop by on this trail that will give you a closer look at Sunset Crater.

Below that overlook, you can see yet another dramatic flow with a more prominent crack.

Succulents Growing in Volcanic Ash?

Besides the twisted funky looking trees around here, the volcanic rocks, the colors of the crater, what I found interesting too were the plant life that grows here. For 400 years, there was no plant life but it returned about just 500 years ago. It’s incredible how life can just regrow from destruction! 

One of those plants that have been growing around Sunset Crater are succulents, which are the same plants you’ve probably seen commonly potted in small pots usually being sold at plant shops. These beautiful and perfectly shaped plants surprised me when I saw they were all over these volcanic fields.

The soil is rich in these lava fields so I can see how they’re able to survive and grow in an environment like this. Also, with lava, there are more holes in the stone which makes a great bed for moisture to penetrate and hold that moisture in for the succulents, and then it’s enough to also keep these plants high and dry.⁣ 

Even before Sunset Crater erupted, there was fertile soil around the area but it had been covered by lava and cinders. However, new soil is forming again but it’s a slow process with the process being that, according to this National Park Service page on Sunset Crater, “Weathered particles and bits of organic matter must accumulate between cinders for any plants to germinate, survive, and successfully reproduce.”

It’s really astonishing! And they are all very much grown different from one another.

Find a Place To Stay in Flagstaff

If you decide you’d like to check out Sunset Crater National Monument and any other attractions in this amazing pine tree-filled northern city of Flagstaff, check out some options for where you should book below.

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