Having lived in Arizona for over 30 years, Chuck and his wife enjoy the great outdoors of the American Southwest.
There's More to Arizona Than the Grand Canyon
While the Grand Canyon is a world-famous Arizona tourist destination, the state has many more equally beautiful, historic and spectacular sites for both residents and visitors. One such place is Sedona, a city built in the midst of red rock buttes and hills, spectacular mountains and deserts, numerous ancient Indian ruins long-abandoned but still standing.
While many other places in the world have equally beautiful and spectacular sites, Arizona has one unique site that is easily accessible and not found anywhere else in the world. Well, there are a few other places where such sites can be found, but the nearest ones matching Arizona’s site are on the Moon, which (so far) is only accessible to astronauts.
Meteor Crater National Landmark Arizona
The site I am referring to is Meteor Crater National Landmark—a well-preserved meteor crater just like the ones that can be seen on the moon without the aid of a telescope. This crater was formed when a giant meteorite collided with the earth some 50,000 years ago.
While this was not the first or even the only time a large meteor collided with the earth, this one happened to hit the high desert plateau just east of present-day Flagstaff, Arizona, where the remote location and dry desert climate combined with almost no human activity has left the crater little changed since that original impact.
A few years ago when my wife’s brother, Igor, visited the U.S. for the first time, we spent 10 days showing him around California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. The two things he most wanted to see were Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. We showed him those sites and more, and the three of us had a great time.
While in the Flagstaff area, I suggested we visit the Meteor Crater National Landmark, which is about 43 miles east of Flagstaff on Interstate 40. While it is known officially as a National Landmark, it is privately owned so national park passes cannot be used. Meteor Crater is open daily from 8:00am to 5:00pm.
I forgot what we paid when we visited in 2012 with my brother-in-law, but according to their website (meteorcrater.com) current 2021 prices are:
- $ 20 adult (ages 13 to 59)
- $11 Junior (children aged 6–12)
- $18 seniors (ages 60 and up)
- children under 6 are free
Note: Tickets purchased at the gate appear to be $2 more in each of the above classes.
Touring the Meteor Crater
While the meteor itself is the big draw, the site also has a museum showcasing pieces of this meteor and exhibits showing its discovery and preservation. As I recall, we visited the Discovery Center and Space Museum first.
Traveling at 26,000 miles per hour before suddenly colliding with the rocky plateau resulted in the meteor shattering into thousands of pieces that scattered over a large area. Some of the larger chunks are now displayed in the museum along with photos and exhibits depicting the history of the crater and museum. There are also other exhibits, including pictures and information about other, much smaller meteors (about the size of a baseball) that have landed near homes.
One exhibit told the story of a 6-pound (2.7-kilogram) meteor that crashed through the roof and living room ceiling of a home in Wethersfield, Connecticut, in 1982. It bounced around a bit, damaging some furniture before coming to a stop on the dining room table. Fortunately no one was in the home at the time. A smaller 0.6-pound (0.3-kilogram) went through the roof of another house about 2 miles away in the same town in 1971, again with no one home at the time.
The Site of the Apollo's Training Missions
Because the meteor crater and surrounding landscape is the closest thing on earth to the lunar surface, NASA used it as one of their training sites for the Apollo missions to the moon. There are numerous exhibits and artifacts from this training, including a training capsule just like the capsule that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon and back. The one on display was used in the astronaut training on the grounds of the Meteor Crater.
Since the meteor crater and area surrounding it in Arizona are moon-like to an extent, the Apollo astronauts spent considerable time training at Meteor Crater National Landmark and there are many exhibits dealing with the Apollo training and mission.
Discovery of the Crater
People have been living and traveling through this lightly populated part of Northern Arizona for thousands of years, and some may have seen the crater. However, unless a person climbed to the top of the rim and looked down into the crater, it appeared to be just another hill on the otherwise flat plateau between the mountains. Even if a person climbed on top of the rim and looked down on it, they probably assumed it was just a small, dry lake.
Grove Karl Gilbert
In 1891, a geologist named Grove Karl Gilbert—a Senior Geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (a Federal Agency created in 1879)—stationed in the west was asked to look at and evaluate the Meteor Crater. After studying the crater, Gilbert concluded that the crater was the result of a volcanic steam explosion rather than a meteorite collision. This was a logical conclusion, as many peaks in Arizona were created by volcanic eruptions with the most recent having occurred about 1085 A.D. just outside of present-day Flagstaff.
A decade later in 1902, Daniel Barringer, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School as well as having studied geology and mineralogy at Harvard and the University of Virginia, heard about the crater and began investigating it. Barringer concluded that the crater was caused by a large meteorite colliding with the earth.
Daniel Barringer was not an employee of the U.S. Geological Service but was an entrepreneur with training in geology and mineralogy. Unlike Grove Karl Gilbert, who, after considerable study, concluded that the lack of significant amounts of iron near the crater was an indication that it was not a meteor crater (note: most meteors have a high concentration of iron), Barringer came to the opposite conclusion, reasoning that the impact was such that the iron ended up well below the crater.
A Failed Mining Venture
Barringer went so far as to form a company to find and mine the meteorite and its tons of iron. From 1902 until his death in 1929, Barringer divided his time between publishing and presenting scholarly papers supporting his theory that the crater was the result of a meteorite as well as investing over $600,000 acquiring the land containing the crater and searching for the iron.
In 1929 Barringer, nearly bankrupt from his mining venture, stopped trying to find iron in the crater possibly due to calculations by Forest Ray Moulton, a prominent astronomer, which concluded that the collision and resulting explosion was such that most of the meteorite and its iron were vaporized by the intense heat of the explosion. This explained why there were only a few chunks and pebbles found at the site.
While Barringer failed as an entrepreneur he succeeded as a scientist as he was the first to correctly identify the crater as a meteor crater. It was also the first known meteor crater on earth as most large meteorites have landed in the oceans or in remote areas where the climate was not suitable for preserving meteor craters.
Barringer’s Widow and Children Preserved the Crater as a Tourist Attraction
Daniel Barringer died of a heart attack on November 20, 1929. He was 69 years old.
Daniel Barringer had purchased the land where the crater is located, and in 1903 created the Barringer Crater Company to manage and preserve the crater. After Daniel’s death, his wife and children continued to own and run the company as a family business with Daniel Barringer’s great-grandchildren currently running the business and preserving the crater.
Why the Northern Arizona Crater Is Still Intact
The crater is 550 feet deep and almost a mile wide. The meteorite itself was about 150 feet wide and composed of mostly iron and nickel, weighing about 300,000 tons. When it hit the earth, it was traveling at a speed of about 126,000 miles per hour or 12 kilometers per second.
When the meteorite hit, Northern Arizona, like much of North America, was still covered by glaciers, so no humans were killed or injured by the collision. We can say this with certainty because while homo sapiens had evolved to their present human state some 50,000 years earlier, they were still in the process of migrating out of Africa and into Europe and Asia with their later migration across Beringia (the prehistoric landmass across the Bering Strait that connected present Siberia and Alaska.
Plant and animal life were present in the area, and those in and around the impact site were vaporized while others further away were consumed by the massive fires spawned by the meteorite’s blast. The crash itself created the 750-foot-deep crater.
When the meteorite hit, Northern Arizona was still covered with ice from the last ice age. When the ice melted, the crater filled with water and was a lake for a while. However, this area was a high desert and, with no stream or spring to replenish evaporating water from the glacier, the crater became a dry hole in the ground. During its period as a lake, some 250 feet of sediment built up at the bottom of the crater, raising its floor from its original 750 feet deep to 550 feet from the rim.
The dry desert conditions and absence of extensive human or animal activity in the area has resulted in the crater remaining intact and very similar to the craters on the moon.
This one of a kind location is well worth a visiting when in Arizona especially since it will be a few years before tourists are able to visit the craters on the moon.
- Meteor Crater Organization website
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Chuck Nugent