Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument | Flagstaff AZ

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Setting up our house in the middle of a lava field was a pretty unique experience. With Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument just north of us, giant cinder cones dominated our views to the North and East. The tallest mountains in Arizona were to the west. We couldn’t ask for better views! On top of that, astronauts used to train in craters blown into the volcanic landscape just a mile away. Click below for our adventures in and around Flagstaff, AZ:

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Sunset Crater was granted its National Monument status in 1930 by President Herbert Hoover. Interestingly enough, only two years earlier a movie company wanted to blow it up with TNT. However, there was so much public outcry over the idea that it actually helped it to gain its status.

About 1000 years ago the landscape here was very different. Eruptions levelled the forests and caused entire villages to abandon their homes. Many didn’t return for hundreds of years. Despite social media rumors from 2015, the volcano is considered permanently extinct.

Sunset Crater

Unfortunately you cannot climb Sunset Crater itself. Because the landscape is so easily scarred by hikers, the NPS was forced to close the trail to the top in 1973. Alternatively, you can take the Lenox Crater Trail next to it. We’d highly recommend this one. The views are great and its not terribly long at 1.6 miles. Another, longer option, is to hike the 9.6 mile trail up O’Leary Peak. We’re told this is one of the best views you can get into Sunset Crater itself.

Cinder Lake Crater Field

In July of 1967, about 15,000lbs of explosives were used to create hundreds of test craters! Since that wasn’t enough, the government went back in October with another 30,000lbs of explosives to make a few more. Next, these crater fields were used to test lunar rovers for the Apollo missions.

Joking aside, there was actually a pretty impressive amount of work that went into creating these. The goal was to perfectly recreate a section of the moon. There’s even a 60’s era video available explaining it all!

The best part is that you can still explore this whole area yourself. Crater field 2 is in a large open area that is part of the Cinder Hills OHV park. Erosion has taken it’s toll over the years, so they’re not as deep as they once were. However, they’re still just as fascinating! Parts of the 1st crater field are behind fences.

Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff

The story of the Flagstaff area’s contributions to the Apollo program wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Lowell Observatory. After all, it was here that they mapped the part of the moon that was recreated at Cinder Lake.

Considering the fact that it was built way back in 1894, Lunar research is not its only claim to fame. One of the many telescopes at the Lowell Observatory was used to discover Pluto! That happened in 1930 and they have since expanded to three locations with various sizes of telescopes. Flagstaff actually uses special outdoor lighting across the city to preserve its dark skies in support of the observatory.

Because of the pandemic, if you want to visit, you have to make a reservation. Unfortunately, we didn’t plan far enough in advance to get one. We will just have to put it on the list for next time…

Where to Stay

The easy, short answer is Cinder Hills OHV Area. It’s free and it’s huge! Be advised that it can get a little busy on the weekends with all of the off-road vehicles. However, the trick is to park as far off the road as you can get. The views are amazing and parking on a lava field is a really unique camping experience

There are plenty of campgrounds in town if you are looking for full-hookups. Like any RV park, I’d pay attention to the reviews before booking.

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Pinnable image of Sunset Crater, Crater Field, Route 66, Lowell Observatory
Pinnable image of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
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