Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is one of three national monuments near Flagstaff Arizona. We alternated our site-seeing between the Grand Canyon and other local spots while stayingin Williams, Arizona. While they can’t inspire the same kind of awestruck wonder the canyon can, they have the fine quality of being varied short adventures of which you can consume many in one outing.
We were disappointed that you could no longer actually view the crater at the rim. On seeing the hike needed to do so, Hitch was relieved because his back was aching from last night’s poor sleep. The old rim trail was closed due the erosion caused by people scrambling up the steep loose terrain. None the less there was plenty to see on the gentle one-mile hike at its base. While the eruption was a good 900 years ago, Sunset Crater is the youngest in a string of volcanoes in the San Francisco volcanic field. The lava fields surrounding Sunset Crater is striking evidence of this catastrophic event. Bonito field extends nearly two miles Northwest from the crater, and to the Northeast, Kana-a Lava Flow Feild stretches nearly six miles from the base.
As we walked, the smell of Ponderosa pine filled the air with a fresh scent all through the hike of the Lava Flow Trail. We frequently spied little lizards skittering about on sharp rock in a frantic attempt to escape our approach. Beyond the trail and deeper into the lava field, we saw old gas vents and splatter cones frozen in time. Sunset crater summit appears to have a red dusting near the peak, apparently caused by the red oxidized iron which fell during the final legs of its eruption.
There is another trail nearby the Lave Flow Trail which leads to Lenox Crater which does let you walk the rim of this smaller volcano. It’s a strenuous 1-mile hike and we decide to skip it to save Hitch’s back.
Wupatki National Monument
Next, we drove to Wupatki (Wuh-paht-kee) National Monument which is rich in Native American ruins. Along the drive, you can see broad vistas of desert grasslands, mesas, buttes, and volcanic hills which strongly contrast with the San Francisco Peaks in the far distance. Beyond the yellow hues of grasslands, and sitting hazily on the horizon, is the Painted Desert dressed in pinks, whites, and pale oranges.
Just behind the Visitor Center, we took a self-guided tour of the 800-year-old pueblo of Wupatki. For its time, it was the tallest, largest, and perhaps the richest and most influential pueblo around. Roughly 100 people called Wutpatki their home while several thousand more lived within a day’s walk. Built in one of the lowest, warmest, and driest places on the Colorado Plateau, one could understand why it was a good place to call home. Most of the pueblo consist of reconstructed walls assembled by 1920s archaeologists, but there are few untouched rubble heaps preserved should future scientists need to discover more. They even had a ball court similar to the ones found in Mesoamerican and the Hohokam Site of Casa Grande. Of the reconstructions, the blowhole is the most curious. It’s easy to miss the Blowhole amid the amazing ruins that surround them. Most people walk right past it since it looks like a square bench. This blowhole is a crevice in the earth’s crust and creates the impression that it’s capable of breathing. The hole connects to an earth crack to an underground passage formed by an earthquake, and because it’s an underground enclosed airspace with only one passage, the hole reacts to the barometric pressure above ground. When the air is light and warm above, the cold air from below blows out like a wind, but when the air gets heavy and moist, the direction reverses and the air sucks down. No one knows if the ancient peoples who built the Wupatki complex used the blowhole, but today their Hopi descendants call it “Yaaponsta” (the Wind Spirit).
Our next stop was Citadel and Nalakihu (Nah-lah-kee-hoo) Pueblos. The pueblos here are also reconstructions, but the star of the show at this site is Citadel, which sits atop a hill and commands a fabulous 360 view of the local grasslands and mesas, and distant mountains and desert. Nearby is the impressive Citadel sinkhole, created by acidic rainwater seeping through cracks in the surface of the ground. This rainwater eventually dissolved the limestone below the surface causing anything above it to collapse.
We climbed down from Citadel Pueblo and made our way to Lomaki (Lo-mah-kee) Pueblo. The trail to Lomaki and Box Canyon Pueblos was blissfully peaceful. Late in the afternoon and away from crowds, we had fun exploring the ruins and taking silly pano photographs. At this site, the Sinagua inhabitants used the canyon to grow crops inside the box canyon, by planting the crops against the walls where they were watered from runoff.
The ancient people who built the ruins at Wupatki, Nalakihu and Lomaki only lived there for 150 years and by 1225 CE the sites were abandoned. Archologists think that the ash from local volcanos (maybe even Sunset Crater Volcano herself) may have enriched the soil for farming, and changed the climate such that precipitation was more plentiful. Then the evironment changed again such that people had to migrate out of the area since it could no longer support crops.
The third national monument that we didn’t have time to visit was Walnut Canyon, which boasts stoic and ancient cliff dwellings set in remarkable geological formations.
I really enjoyed the short outings to these overlooked national monuments. The natural history and visual vistas of Sunset Crater gave an interesting background perspective when visiting the ruins of Wupatki. Amid the red Moenkopi sandstone reconstructions and rubble, are pockets of places where you can mediate on the scenery and on the history of this facinating land.