See how volcanic activity created Sunset Crater and other mountains in northern Arizona

Quick: Name a state known for volcanoes. It’s likely Hawaii came to mind to mind for you; or maybe California. Washington is also known for its volcanoes. Many of us are old enough to remember when Mount St. Helens erupted back in 1980.

Volcanoes formed over 600 hills and mountains in northern Arizona.

Few people think of Arizona as a state with volcanoes. But, did you know that much of the mountainous landscape of northern Arizona is the result of volcanoes that erupted in the region for over 6 million years?

Powerful forces beneath the earth’s surface shaped more than 600 hills and mountains of the San Francisco Peaks volcanic field.

Snow-cover mountain
Sunset Crater with a rare blanket of snow. Since the volcanic cone is largely made up of porous black lava rock, what snow that does fall on the mountain usually melts very quickly.

If you visit Sunset Crater National Monument northeast of Flagstaff, AZ you’ll see the evidence of volcanic activity up close and personal. I first experienced Sunset Crater one day after a winter storm dropped several inches of snow on the area. Although the white stuff provided a nice contrast for the photos I’m sharing in this post, it’s actually quite uncommon to see snow here.

The 1,000-foot-high cinder cone pictured above remains in the spot where molten rock once sprayed high into the air from a crack in the ground. While aloft, it solidified then fell to Earth as large bombs or small cinders.

As new gas vents opened near its base, spatter cones sprouted from the ground like miniature clones of the larger volcano. As periodic eruptions continued, the heavier debris accumulated around the main vent. Small, lighter particles were carried away by the wind, dusting 800 square miles with ash.

Equally impressive, two massive lava flow beds now rest where molten volcanic matter destroyed all living things in its path.

How did Sunset Crater get its name?

It’s likely the eruptions lasted for six to twelve months, punctuated by a grand finale of red and yellow oxidized cinders that shot out of the vent and onto the rim. The colorful glow from these cinders reminded people of sunset and led to the volcano’s name.

red cone mountain with light dusting of snow
It’s likely that Sunset Crater once looked like this volcanic cone that I photographed a few miles away.

Can you climb Sunset Crater?

Climbing and hiking on the cone are prohibited in order to protect the fragile landscape. However there are number of designated hiking trails with in the park that provide spectacular views of Sunset Crater and other volcanic cones in the area.

Vintage-looking sign points way to Lenox Crater in Sunset Crater National Monument
Vintage-looking sign points the way to Lenox Crater Trail in the Sunset Crater National Monument. From this 1.6-mile loop trail you get spectacular views of the volcanic cones and craters in the region.
Interpretive sign along Lenox Crater Trail
Interpretive sign along Lenox Crater Trail educates hikers about dormant volcano cones in the distance.
Sunset Crater lava rocks partially covered in snow
Sunset Crater lava flow partially covered in snow

Is Sunset Crater still active?

No, the volcano is no longer active. People who study this kind of stuff estimate that it was last active during the time frame of 1040 to 1100 A.D.

Where is Sunset Crater in Arizona?

Sunset Crater National Monument is located in northern Arizona at an elevation of just above 8,000 feet (2,400 m). In contrast to the desert landscape at lower elevations that Arizona’s known for, the terrain here is made up of tall pine trees and other wildflowers and shrubs commonly found in mountainous areas.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument entrance sign
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument entrance sign

Tap the map below for directions to Sunset Crater National Monument.

How far is Sunset Crater from Flagstaff?

From downtown Flagstaff, Sunset Crater is approximately 18 miles (29 km) to the northeast via Highway 89-A. Drive time is about 30 minutes, one way.

Have questions about Sunset Crater or other natural wonders in Arizona? Drop them in the comment box below.


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