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Southwestern USA Hiking Trails including Scottsdale, Phoenix, Northern Arizona


Sunset Crater, Flagstaff, Arizona

Directions: From Phoenix, travel on I-17N for 124 miles to Flagstaff. In Flagstaff, take I-40 E for 5.6 miles to US-89N and drive 11.9 miles exiting right onto Fire Rd 545/Loop Road. Drive 4.1 miles until you come to Sunset Crater National Monument Visitor Center.

About the Hike: Sunset Crater is the youngest volcano in the San Francisco Volcanic Field. While in the park, we hiked in two different areas. From the visitors center, We stopped at the A'a Trail. This is an easy .25-mile horseshoe loop that's easy and fun. It's an excellent trail to take the kids to observe the blocks of rough basaltic a'a lava created when the volcano erupted in 1085, radically altering the landscape below O'Leary Peak.

O'Leary Peak is in the distance.

Next, we hiked the one-mile Lava Flow Loop Trail around the crater's base. This trail is rated as easy. The first .25 mile is along a paved pathway where you get a good glimpse of the top of Sunset Crater.

Two of the trails are closed because of fire damage. The Lenox Crater Trail and the Lava's Edge Trail. I found that the fire damage enhanced the desolation vibe this area gave off even today after more than 900 years since the volcano first erupted.

Snowcapped San Francisco Peak peaking over the top of the burned Ponderosa Pines

You climb down a few steps onto a dirt trail at the end of the paved path. The lava is crushed into a fine a'a lava.

As you continue, the looser a'a lava becomes packed, creating an excellent hiking trail.

A few yards along the trail is an off-shoot path to your left. I recommend hiking along this trail as it provides an excellent view of the lava lake directly below Sunset Crater.

This hike will feel different than any other hike you do in Arizona. Although it's barren, you will find signs of life dotted across the landscape and tucked into crevices among the lava rocks. Each year more and more new life adds beauty to the area.

Follow this alternate trail to the end, where you'll find a wooden landing to view a lava tunnel. I stood above the tunnel, trying to imagine the sheer red-hot heat that must have permeated outward as the lava flowed through the tunnel.

After a few minutes at the landing, we turned around and hiked back towards the wooden fence to continue the loop trail.

We took a left at the end of the wooden fence line. It's a slight incline up a hill into a few Ponderosa Pines. There were enough pines clustered together to provide a bit of shade and reprieve from the sun.

It's better to do this hike in the spring or fall rather than June, when we chose to explore it.

Along the trail is a splatter cone. I had yet to learn what a splatter cone was or even existed. That's what we loved about hiking in National Parks. This park has educational signposts where you can educate yourselves about the intricacies of volcanos and the area's history. I learned that splatter cones are formed from fluid fragments of liquid lava spewing upward as gas is released like carbonated bubbles from a soda pop. The fluid pieces fall and congeal, creating a circle mound around the opening.

Splatter Cone

We continued on the loop, eventually looping back along the paved pathway.

We crossed the bridge and headed back toward our car. Both happy, we came and explored the park but left a little more solemn, knowing long ago this area was lush and green with towering Ponderosa Pines, but today it's barren, struggling to become a vibrant landscape again.

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