Sunset Crater & Wupatki National Monument

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Wupatki National Monument

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Route 66 aficionados enjoy following as much pavement as is left along the historic road.  And those passing through Arizona have plenty of miles to see.  Winona, Seligman, Holbrook, Winslow, Kingman, Flagstaff, and more.  But while getting your kicks on Route 66 you might overlook another amazing drive outside of Flagstaff.  Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments.

Lomaki Ruin Site, within Wupatki National Monument.
Lomaki Ruin Site, within Wupatki National Monument.

Only a short ride north and east of Flagstaff lies a currently dormant volcanic dome known as Sunset Crater.  So close to civilization, yet often overlooked by visitors to the area, Sunset Crater and Wupatki make an excellent day trip to two of Arizona’s National Monuments.  North of Sunset Crater, Wupatki offers visitors a walk through some amazing ruins only a few short miles from the volcano that errupted not as long ago as you might think!

As you visit both National Monuments you will notice a distinct feature that always seems to be present.  The San Francisco Peaks seems to dominate the landscape everywhere you go.  Flagstaff is only a few miles away, and the peaks serve as a great reference point as you visit the monuments.  As Arizona’s highest point, Humphreys at over 12,000 feet dominates views throughout Northern Arizona, and can be seen from as far away as Prescott, AZ.

Sunset Crater

Sunset Crater National Monument
A gnarled piece of wood along the path below Sunset Crater

Many visitors to the Flagstaff area might not realize what an intensely volcanic area it is.  But they only need to travel a short distance to Sunset Crater for the concept to sink in rather quickly.  Volcanic cinders, lava flows frozen in time, and some intensely colorful ground cover clues visitors in pretty fast.

This be where volcanoes lie!

Over 900 years ago the volcanic fields were still active.  The lava flows along Lava Flow Trail provide visitors with an up close view of how the lava spread from the Sunset Crater cone.  And looking up from the loop trail beneath Sunset Crater provides visitors with a view of a classic cinder cone.

It’s interesting to note, during the winter months in the Flagstaff area cinders are used instead of sand or salt on the snowbound roads.  The cinder colors go from red to black in the area, and might surprise visitors from other cold climates at first.

Sunset Crater Lava Flow
A lava flow frozen in time at Sunset Crater

Wupatki national monument

Wupatki National Monument is located a short distance north of Sunset Crater.  Why the two locations are considered to be different National Monuments is beyond this author’s understanding.  When you’re visiting one you’re right next to the other.  With that in mind, you might as well make a full day out of it and visit both locations.

Wukoki Ruin Site
Wukoki Ruin Site

Wupatki offers several amazing ruin sites to visit.  The main location, located at a park office within the monument itself, holds an incredible structure that will amaze first time visitors.  Walking through the park office and following the path around the main house of Wupatki you will wonder how many people lived in the large dwelling, and if they ever conceptualized Home Owner Associations….

The park tour and information at the visitors’ office are worth your time, so make sure not to skip on past them.  But beyond the main park there’s plenty to see.  Several other ruins are spread across the land, and some extra driving and walking will be involved.  But you’ll have plenty of time.  Combining Sunset Crater and Wupatki into a single day trip is not only possible, it’s how this author has visited both locations several times.

On the edge of the Painted Desert
On the edge of the Painted Desert

The villages of Wupatki, now in ruin, were built between 1100 and 1250 A.D.  After the eruption of Sunset Crater, many were forced to relocate for a time, but then they returned and reaped the benefits of the new fertile soil created by the volcano.  It was after this return that the Wupatki Pueblo (located at the monument’s visitor center) was built, and it housed anywhere from 80 to 100 people.

Visiting the other ruins near the Wupatki Pueblo, only a short distance, shows visitors what a thriving community must have been built around the pueblo.  Archaeologists believe that a community of thousands lived within a day’s walk of Wupatki!  Lomaki, Wukoki, Citadel, and Nalkihu are all available to explore as well, and each location is well worth a visit.

Things To Do While Visiting

Entering from the south, visitors will find a visitor center with programs and information on the Monument.  The displays are very interesting, and you will learn about both Sunset Crater, and the people who lived in its shadow.  Programs are conducted throughout the year, and before heading into the park you should pay a visit.

The Sunset Crater view area makes for a nice short walk below the dome.  The hiking is not strenuous, and is accessible to most any visitor.  The loop trail below the dome is relatively short, and walks you along the lava flows and black ground covering beneath the crater.  It’s very scenic to be sure!

Black Cinder Field below Sunset Crater
Black Cinder Field below Sunset Crater

There are additional hiking trails in the park, and you can learn more about them if you pickup a brochure from the Sunset Crater Visitors Center.  Some of these trails offer more of a challenge, although the scenic views along the paths are somewhat lacking.

As you make your way north into Wupatki you will find several pull offs to smaller ruin sites.  Each site is well worth a visit, and the hikes in are also relatively short and accessible to most.  If you pop into each ruin location, by the end of your day you will have walked only a few short miles!  With so much to see at each ruin site though, the entire visit (Sunset and Wupatki) can easily take up a full day.

The road that rolls through Sunset Crater and Wupatki is an enjoyable drive.  With moderate speed limits, and a well maintained road, this location makes a perfect place for cyclists to visit.  From Bonito Campground to Wupatki you’re looking at a 30 mile one way trip.  Making a full day out of the trip will allow you to see everything these National Monuments have to offer, and provides riders with rolling hills and wonderful scenery for the entire ride.  Be sure to bring plenty of water, as the distance between the visitor centers does not offer anywhere to refill your Camelbacks.

Getting There And Accomodations

The turnoff to Sunset Crater National Monument is a short drive out of Flagstaff going north to Page, AZ (about 12 miles north out of Flagstaff).  As you leave Flagstaff Route 89 curves around the San Francisco Peaks, rising as you go.  Off to your right you will see the crater site, and then you will pass road signs directing you to Sunset Crater.  Entering from the south will bring you into Sunset Crater National Monument, the pay station, and then the visitors center.

The Peaks from Lomaki
The Peaks from Lomaki

Prior to getting into the park, visitors will also find a Forest Service Campground, Bonito Campground.  This campground is perfect if you plan on exploring the area for more than a day.  The campground is open from May through October (weather dependent), it’s $20 per night, and there are no hookups, but they can accommodate most any travel trailer, RV, or tent camper.

Of course, there are campgrounds located in Flagstaff as well.  If you’re in need of hookups you might consider staying in town, and taking a day trip into Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monument.  There is a nice KOA on the edge of Flagstaff that serves as a great base camp if you plan on visiting Flagstaff as well (noted on the map below).

There really aren’t any major boondocking opportunities in this area.  As you head north toward Page you enter Reservation Land, so BLM and Forest Service sites are lacking.  For the best value and accessibility, we’d recommend Bonito Campground.

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