Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

The weather looked promising for being outside on Friday, so we set out for a couple more National Park Service sites. First stop: Sunset Crater, which is an inactive volcano that still shows quite a bit of evidence of its last eruption. Scientists have used tree ring dating to place the eruption around 1040 to 1100 AD, and since we don't have evidence to the contrary, we'll go with that.

The walking trail around the lava fields at the base of the volcano were simply cinders past the first few hundred feet of concrete. As you can see in the image above, the main cone and the area around it are still pretty sparse even after hundreds of years of vegetation trying to get a foothold.

There were several large expanses like this where the ground was covered by large lava pieces that reminded us of chocolate covered corn flakes. Walking on the cinder trails made a sound similar to what one hears when crushing graham crackers. Why do all our analogies center around food?

At any rate, I continue to be amazed at the lack of vegetation and desolation in some of these areas. It would probably be interesting to study why some areas of a volcano support more vegetation than others, and I would guess available moisture has something to do with it. The mountains in the background of the image above are the San Francisco Peaks which are thought to be the remnants of an older, larger volcano (hence the bowl shape made by the peaks).

This is a hornito, a small vent for lava near the main cone. Amazing to think how many years this thing has been sitting here without much change.

There is no hiking allowed on the cone of Sunset Crater, but there is a hiking trail on Lenox Crater just to the west. We hiked the 300 feet up the cinder slope and were able to find views like this one of Sunset Crater in the background. The slope was pretty steep, and the cinders were very loose, so it was a little work making our way to the top such that we all removed our jackets even though the temperature was in the low 40s. By the time we starting making our way back down we were treated to a light snow shower that lasted until we'd made it all the way back to our van. The snow wasn't a surprise since (a) we experienced heavier snow in Flagstaff the day before, and (b) we could see the snow showers making their way across the San Francisco Peaks before we started our hike. In fact, it was kind of fun and refreshing to enjoy snow knowing that warm temperatures were within easy driving distance. Thanks for visiting!


  1. That is so interesting! I was under the impression that the areas around volcanoes was very fertile... I guess I was mistaken. Very interesting.

    and I like Karen's straw hat.. or is that Lily?☺

  2. Diane -- evidently plants don't like the lava flow area, although several sources mentioned that the ash spread over normal soil many miles downwind was beneficial to that soil in that it helped retain moisture, and farms thrived in those areas following the eruption.