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The Land Where Kids Can Be Hercules - Sunset Crater Volcano

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“I’m Hercules! I can pick up this boulder!”

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The squeal of excitement is carried on the wind across the lava flow from below the vantage point. The crispy sound of the pumice trail is underfoot, mixed with laughter and giggles. The black stone rises on both sides of the path punctuated by white and yellow wildflowers.

“Hold that, I’m taking your picture.” The mother can be heard. The source of the joy can’t yet be seen in the meandering course deep in the Bonito lava flow. We’re in Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, less than five minutes from the roar of traffic on U.S. 89, where it’s still a divided highway north of 15 minutes north of Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s just an hour shy of the east entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park.

The boy, probably about 12 years old, was holding a beagle-size rock over his head without effort. Lava is filled with air, making the stone one of the lightest for its size. His mother kept trying to get into position to snap the photo with her cell phone.

“Mom, I can do that too,” exclaimed his younger sister. She was holding a black rock about the size of a cat while dancing from foot-to-foot.

“Okay!” laughed mom, “It’s your turn.”

Walking on a path of Wheat Chex would sound about the same as the trail as we continued our return to the overlook and parking area overlooking the river of dried lava. This would not be our last experience on the American the Beautiful road trip as we headed towards the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula from the deserts of Arizona.

Put the American West on your bucket list

It was the first day of the trip, and the decision to drop in on Sunset Crater Volcano was one of those, “Ever been there? Let’s check it out” decisions. The Coconino County Road 345, Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop Road, is well-marked and an easy drive from U.S. 89. Definitely, this is a stop that should be on the list of anyone headed for Grand Canyon or Lake Power National Recreation Area.

A “surreal experience,” is what how the National Park Service describes this land of contrasts in green and black. Less than a millennia ago, Sunset Crater exploded high into the sky. Lava burst from its base and scoured the landscape. We know this not only from geologic studies, but because just 20 miles north in the pueblos of Wupatki, the ancestors of today’s Hopi peoples watched this young volcano roar into the sky. The story is part of the tribe’s mythic history and legends.

When the eruption was complete, the cone stood at 8,041 feet (2.5km), around 1,200 feet (366m) taller than the surrounding landscape. The black cinder cone is now closed to hiking, but there are viewpoints around the national monument to take in the sight. Another option, is a hike up 8,937 foot (2.5km) O’Leary Peak, allowing a view into the 400 foot deep crater at Sunset Volcano.

Across the lava flows, there are easy and moderate trails and car-accessible overlooks of cinder cones and lava flows. With some extra time, we could have taken the moderately difficult trail around the base of the volcano into a world of dramatically changing landscapes. The “newness” of the eruption showcases different stages of the earth’s regeneration—like walking through billions of years of geo-history in under 90 minutes.

Getting there: Take U.S. 89 north about 25 minutes from its Flagstaff Interstate 40 exit. Turn right on Sunset Crater road. The road loops back onto 89 at Wupatki National Monument. Lodging is nearby in Flagstaff and Coconino National Forest has a developed campground adjoining Sunset Crater’s entrance.

National Monuments Between Phoenix and Grand Canyon

Sunset Crater Volcano is one of the 100 sights making the American West beautiful. Here are numbers 2 through 7:

Agua Fria National Monument. I-17 Exits 256, 259 or Cordes Junction. 45 north of Phoenix.

Montezuma Castle National Monument. I-17 Exit 289, north of Camp Verde. 90 minutes north of Phoenix.

Tuzigoot National Monument. I-17 Exit 287, 15 minutes west on Arizona Highway 260 to Cottonwood. 90 minutes north of Phoenix.

Walnut Canyon National Monument. I-40 Exit 204. 15 minutes east of Flagstaff.

Wupatki National Monument. U.S. 89, 30 minutes north of Flagstaff.

Little Colorado River Tribal Park. 30 minutes from the Grand Canyon National Park, U.S. 89 at Arizona Highway 64, Cameron on the Navajo Nation.

America the Beautiful—Desert to Rain Forest Other Articles in the Series

Five Sights Making the American West Beautiful

Touch the Sky, Touch the Sea in Olympic National Park

Seven Monuments between Phoenix and Grand Canyon

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