Just North of Flagstaff and right off Highway 89 is a hidden gem; Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Sunset Crater is the youngest of the volcanoes in the San Francisco volcanic field. The eruption that happened almost 1,000 years ago, in 1085 A.D., produced a blanket of ash covering an area of more than 810 square miles, and forced the temporary abandonment of settlements of the local Sinagua people. The volcano has since been considered extinct; however there was a 2015 scare, which just turned out to be a forest fire nearby.
Since the monument was so unique, my siblings and I made two separate trips to visit it. During our first visit, we were limited on time, so we decided to hike the Lava Flow Trail. We arrived at the trailhead and started on an easy .25 mile paved loop. It was very cool to see the lava field all around you, but thankfully my sister spotted the remaining .75 mile loop, which took you into the field! We made our way off the paved path and onto a black sand path that lead us near the base of the Sunset Crater Volcano. The monument was practically empty so we enjoyed the 1 mile stroll through time as we walked alongside hundreds of years old lava.
In the same parking area is Bonito Vista Trail. This trail is complete flat and paved the entire .3 miles round trip. On this trail you see expansive views of the Bonito Lava Flow and surrounding volcanoes, such as the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks.
On our first visit we noticed another trail in the same parking area, called Lenox Crater Trail. Since it’s a 1.6 mile round trip hike, we didn’t have enough time to do it on our first day. So, since we had extra time when we came back through Flagstaff, we decided to make another stop at the Sunset Crater Volcano. The hike starts on a primarily flat, black sand trail leading to a Ponderosa pine forest. Once we were in the forest, we begin a steep, angled climb up the crater. After about a 10-15 minute climb, we reached the summit and enjoyed sweeping views of the San Francisco Peaks before beginning our descend.
Overall, the trails and experience at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument were peaceful and laid back, with extraordinary views and an interesting history. It’s a ‘must-go’ destination if you’re passing through Flagstaff.