Sunset Crater Volcanic National Monument (AZ)


If a volcano were erupting in my backyard, spewing lava and ash, I might be tempted to move away. This is precisely what the ancient Puebloan peoples did when Sunset Volcano erupted in the 11th century. It has done so several times since then in a span of 50 years. The monument is a grim reminder that an eruption is likely again.

Sunset is no longer active. What remains is an almost perfect cinder cone, a thousand feet high, surrounded by enormous lava fields, which comprise the national monument. Sunset is only one of many volcanoes in proximity north of Flagstaff that is known as the San Francisco volcanic field. There is no longer a trail to the volcano rim, but one does wind through the lava field (called the Lava Flow Trail). Vegetation struggles to grow back, including stands of Ponderosa pines, a few of which have grotesquely twisted trunks from severe lack of water and high winds. Walking through any lava field is like a stroll through an alien landscape. Fortunately, the trail is developed and well-maintained.

Lava Flow Trail is an easy loop

Contorted Ponderosa pine

Apache Plume

Wupatki National Monument (AZ)


An hour north of Flagstaff lies Wupatki National Monument. From Page, it was a leisurely hour and a half drive to the entrance. There are some 800 ruins within the monument, a staggering number even if you expected a large settlement. Only a few are open to the public. The largest and most impressive, Wupatki Pueblo, is close to the visitors’ center and easily accessible by a short paved path. There are over 100 rooms in the structure, constructed of flat Moenkopi sandstone rocks that have a characteristic reddish color.

There is even a large “ball court” that anthropologists feel suggest an influence from ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.

Ball court

There are curious “blowholes” throughout Wupatki whose ancient uses remain a mystery. Scientists explain that they are openings (or “cracks”) in the surface to underground sandstone chambers, possibly caused by earthquakes or shifting, that suck air in or blow it out, depending on outside temperatures. You could say that the earth is breathing.

Wupatki is linked to Sunset Crater by a loop road off Highway 89. It is generally thought that the ancients were driven from the Sunset Crater area, some 2,000 feet higher in elevation and therefore more verdant, when the crater exploded in the 11th century, and forced to settle in the more inhospitable Wupatki area to the north.