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Sunset Crater: Pictures of a Volcanic National Monument in Arizona

Arizona is a fabulous state filled with beauty and natural wonders. Amazing canyons (Grand!), mountains, and desert scenery await visitors.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

North of Flagstaff is the magnificent Grand Canyon, which people from all over the world visit to see and experience in different ways. But few people know that about 15 miles north of Flagstaff off of U.S. Highway 89 North is the national monument of Sunset Crater, which was established in 1930 by President Herbert Hoover.

This nearby (and comparatively little-known) national monument gets much less love than the Grand Canyon, but it is certainly worth a visit.

Except for the fact that the lava flows and ashes are no longer incendiary, one could almost think that this volcanic eruption happened just a few years ago, though it actually took place sometime between the years of 1080 to 1150 from all accounts.

Surreal Landscape

A part of the so-called San Francisco volcanic field of volcanoes, this surreal landscape is in the north-central part of Arizona. Snow-capped San Francisco mountain peaks offer a dramatic backdrop to the blackened area around Sunset Crater.

One can gaze up at the 1,120 foot (340 meters) high cone of ash and lava strewed landscape.

Look at the ash and volcanic debris right by the side of the road at this national monument.

Look at the ash and volcanic debris right by the side of the road at this national monument.

The Naming of This Crater

How did Sunset Crater get its name?

Because of the minerals that came spewing out from deep inside the earth when this most recent eruption of the San Francisco volcanic field took place, the top of this mountain of ashes and cinders seems to glow. It has a perpetual look, such as what the glancing rays of the sun might illuminate as it retires for the night sky to take its place.

Colors from the Sunset Crater volcanic debris in the foreground with San Francisco peaks in the background.

Colors from the Sunset Crater volcanic debris in the foreground with San Francisco peaks in the background.


This area of the protected national monument encompasses 3,040 acres of land. The Coconino National Forest surrounds Sunset Crater. One drives through lush wooded areas filled with ponderosa pine trees and other evergreen types of shrubs and trees before coming upon this stark landscape. The face of the earth instantly changed when this volcanic eruption took place centuries ago.

Before that occurrence, Sinagua Indians lived, farmed, and hunted in this part of Arizona. They evacuated for a time until they gradually migrated back sometime later when they learned that the fertile volcanic ash provided proper nutrients for their crops.

Most of their crop production was done utilizing methods of irrigation, as Arizona has a dry climate with little rainfall. The primary sources of water, in addition to mountain streams and lakes, is the mighty Colorado River. There are also tributaries of that river that run through the state.

Today human-made dams have created several other lakes in addition to the naturally occurring ones. The lakes provide not only water but also electric power for the people residing in Arizona.

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Yours truly at this national monument

Yours truly at this national monument

Cinder Cone Volcano

Sunset Crater volcano is of the type classified as a cinder cone volcano. Imagine a tall conical-shaped hill with a bowl-shaped concave depression at the top. That would be the appearance if one were gazing directly down at the topographic summit of Sunset Crater.

When the volcano erupted, spewing volcanic bits of superheated magma into the air, this pyroclastic explosion captured gases that were mixed into the resulting rocks, cinders, and tiny bits of ash.

The ash dust can remain suspended in the air for some time. The ash darkens the skies causing airplane flight disruptions in service due to clogging of the engines, thereby causing malfunctions. The eruptions from the volcano in Iceland in 2010 grounded many trans-Atlantic flights and others, causing world-wide headaches for business and vacation travelers.

Of course, during the time of this volcanic eruption, airplanes did not yet exist.

My hubby at this national monument

My hubby at this national monument


For many years tourists could ascend to the peak of Sunset Crater, but due to erosive action from the many footprints, climbing to the top is no longer allowed.

Lava also flowed from breaks in the volcanic sides. One can hike along a one-mile (1.6 km) trail viewing the substantial Bonito Lava Flow, which decimated trees in its path.

Lava Tube

Tourists used to be able to walk in a lava tube at Sunset Crater, which has also been closed due to a partial collapse.

Lava tubes are similar to a pipe or tunnel with a hard outer core transporting water through the center. In this case, the outer edges were once molten magma, which eventually hardened, forming a roof and then sides. Finally, as the magma quits flowing, the bottom of the tube also solidifies.

These cave-like lava tubes can be various sizes and are often quite large. My husband and I got to walk through a portion of the Thurston Lava Tube when in Hawaii.

Changing Landscape Over Time

The lava flows and rocks, cinders, and ash from this volcanic eruption covered an area of over 800 square miles. Ever so slowly, vegetation is taking hold and reclaiming some of this landscape. It will probably take many centuries into the future before vegetation once again covers this area as it did in the past.

Bonito Lava Flow sign and information

Bonito Lava Flow sign and information

Bucket List Site

If you want to look at the effects of a past volcanic eruption up close and personal, then put Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona, on your bucket list. As you can tell from the photos and videos included in this post, it offers quite the dramatic landscape!

The visitor center has exhibits, and one can learn much about the forces of Mother Nature in this locale.

If you wish to see a nearby site, the Wupatki National Monument is just 15 miles down the road.

For entrance fees and information about one-time, annual, or lifetime passes, click on the source link at the bottom of this page.

Photo of this national landmark site

Photo of this national landmark site

Temperatures in Arizona

Arizona has been visited three times by my husband and me while on vacation to that warm and sunny state after some company-related meetings in the Phoenix area. We chose to head out in different directions each time to see more of what Arizona contains by way of natural wonders.

Arizona receives the most days on average of sunshine in all of the U.S. states. The temperatures can be sizzling in the southwestern part of Arizona in the summertime averaging between 80 degrees to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit but cools off to around 40+ degrees to almost 70 degrees in January of each year.

In the northern part of the state near Flagstaff, where elevations are much higher, it can be quite cold in January. It averages in the teens to 40+ degrees or so warming up in summer to highs around 80 degrees Fahrenheit on average.

We would be heading north after the meeting on this particular trip, and it was the month of February. So we knew ahead of time that we would need some coats or jackets to wear over our clothing to stay warm and comfortable.


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.

© 2011 Peggy Woods

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