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Meteor Crater in Northern Arizona: Outer Space Phenomena, NASA, and Aliens

Sal Santiago writes about travel, minimalism, philosophy, and living an alternative lifestyle.

Meteor Crater site with observation deck and telescopes.

Meteor Crater site with observation deck and telescopes.

Meteor Crater in Arizona's Desert

I'd wager to say not many people know there is a giant Meteor Crater site in northern Arizona. I came across it by accident while heading out to do some day hiking and exploring Walnut Canyon. The site lies about 45 miles east of Flagstaff.

The Lowdown on the Crater

About 50,000 years ago, a massive meteor slammed into the earth. The meteor was composed of iron-nickel and scientists estimate it was about 150 feet wide and weighed several thousand tons. It is thought that it hit the earth with a force 150 times greater than an atomic bomb. The crater is 550 feet deep and almost one mile wide.

People around here tell a joke that goes something like, the impact of the meteor was so massive, it's amazing it didn't wipe out the Visitor Center. Anyhow, the crater seems to be a well-kept secret.

Meteor Crater lies about 45 miles east of Flagstaff.

Meteor Crater lies about 45 miles east of Flagstaff.

A Sunny July Day

I visited on a hot day in mid-July, with daytime temps reaching the upper 90s. The kind of day where it's best to limit yourself to short hikes and staying out of the sun. There is a short walking trail along one side of the crater, with observation points along the route.

A sky filled with puffy clouds provided some shade and relief in the summer heat as I made my way around the grounds. It is extremely difficult to paint a picture and attempt to describe the size of the site. It is something you really need to see in person.

How Big Is It?

To give some sense of the size, here is a quote from the visitor center brochure: "The Crater is large enough for 20 football games to be played simultaneously on its floor, while more than two million people could watch from the side slopes."

To give you another visual, it is deep enough that a 60 story building would fit on the floor of the crater, with the top rising to eye level.

NASA astronauts trained at the crater site in the 1960s.

NASA astronauts trained at the crater site in the 1960s.

The Site of Impact

There is an indoor observation deck as well if you would prefer to stay inside with air-conditioning. Inside the building, there is a museum and a theater. The theater shows a short movie with re-creations of the impact and commentary by scientists and historians. The museum offers displays and information on the many impact sites around the world.

On the second story entrance grounds, there is a NASA space capsule and the statue of an astronaut. This is to commemorate the collaboration with NASA. In the 1960s, astronauts trained at the crater site. It was thought that the terrain, 550 feet with sloping sides, offered conditions similar to the lunar landscape and would be perfect for training purposes.

Another interesting fact about this site: it was the first Meteor Crater site to be studied in depth by scientists. There are more than 250 impact sites scattered around the globe, with one of the largest being in Siberia.

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Meteor Crater under the big Arizona sky.

Meteor Crater under the big Arizona sky.

Where Is It Now?

The largest fragment that remained of the meteor is also kept on display here. It is roughly the size of a small boulder, a couple of feet wide and a couple across.

What happened to the 150 foot meteor? Is this really all that is left? The violence of the impact and the powerful shock waves radiated out for several miles, vaporizing much of the surrounding territory. The iron-nickel meteorite itself was mostly vaporized and shattered into microscopic fragments, scattered in the terrain for several miles around.

A walking path along the crater rim.

A walking path along the crater rim.

The Visitor Center and Little Grey Beings

One of my favorite features on the visitor center grounds is just outside the gift shop: a statue of a small alien. Surely there are little grey beings wandering around these parts in northern Arizona? The meteor came from outer space, and as much as we've learned, it is still somewhat of a mystery.

We can let our imaginations roam and wonder about extraterrestrial life out in the vast reaches of space. Anyhow, it is a fun touch of the museum, and makes for good souvenir photos with the alien.

Surely there are small grey beings wandering around the Southwest?

Surely there are small grey beings wandering around the Southwest?

Of the many impact sites around the globe, erosion has taken a toll. Not only is this site the first to be studied in depth, it is also the most well-preserved. If you are visiting the many great natural places throughout Arizona, this one could be added to your list. It makes for a fun day trip, with the museum offering a great deal of interesting information on the history of the site, meteor impacts worldwide, as well as NASA.

In 1968 Meteor Crater was designated a National Landmark. Though privately owned, the site is treated as a public trust, with contributions to science and education through grants and scholarships.

Little grey beings

Little grey beings

I recommend the short hike along the crater rim to fully take in and appreciate the site, and the vast high plains of Northern Arizona, which stretch out for miles in every direction.

We can imagine what this area appeared like 50,000 years ago, when a streak of light appeared in the sky, growing larger and approaching at 26,000 miles per hour.

The land is flat around here, and stretches out as far as the eye can see. A beautiful landscape of golden-brown grass, shimmering in the summer sun, with massive tufts of cloud creeping over the horizon.

As I made my way around the grounds outside, a light breeze whistled faintly across the plains, adding kind of a mysterious effect.

Who knows what else is out there moving across the vast empty plains of the Southwest? The landscape out here definitely makes you wonder.

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