Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is one of three National Monuments near Flagstaff, AZ. Sunset Crater is located 12 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona, and 150 miles north of Phoenix. Located within the San Francisco Volcanic field, Sunset Crater is one of about 600 volcanoes that can be seen in the approximate 50 mile by 7 mile volcanic field. Nearly every hill and mountain that is visible in the volcanic field is a dormant volcano.
Sometime between 1,050 and 1,100 a.d., Sunset Crater experienced a series of eruptions—the only eruptions in the Southwest undoubtedly witnessed by local peoples. This brought new life back to the dormant San Francisco Volcanic Field. Spewing ash over 64,000 acres, with an ash cloud 2.5 miles high this eruption would have been fantastic to view. All plants within a 5 mile radius were obliterated. Fire shot out of the vent 850 feet into the sky, visible from many miles away. Forest fires raged, and ash and flying cinders darkened the daylight sky. Fire bombs and earthquakes rumbled. This was the last eruption in the San Francisco Volcanic Field.
Visible from the Sunset Crater lava flow are the San Francisco Peaks, named in 1629 by Franciscan missionaries in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. This was more than 200 years before the city in California was given it’s name. One legend has it that John Wesley Powell named the cinder cone Sunset Crater Volcano because the colorful cinders on it’s rim of red and yellow echo the sunsets of the Southwest.
In 1929, during the filming of the movie “Avalanche”, producers wanted to create landslide and planned to dynamite Sunset Crater. Locals were outraged and lobbied for its protection. Thus, Sunset Crater National Monument was established on May 26, 1930 by President Herbert Hoover. “Volcano” was added to the name in 1990. Today 3040 acres are protected by the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
In preparation for the first exploration of the moon by astronauts in the 1960’s, men and lunar rovers trained in the cinder fields around Sunset Crater. Due to massive erosion that was damaging the cinder cone, hiking is no longer allowed to the top of Sunset Crater.
Geologists are fairly certain of another eruption in the San Francisco Volcanic Field, and suspect it will occur on it’s eastern edge, the youngest area of the field. While no date can be predicted, it should be soon; at least in geologic time.
A visit to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is a great experience for all. And just down the road is Wupatki National Monument, a wonderful Sinagua ruin. Don’t miss these National Monuments on your trip to the Southwest!
Visit this National Monument’s National Park Service website.
Photo courtesy of NPS.