Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Northern Arizona provides an intimate look at a young volcanic landscape. About 900 years ago, a dramatic explosion rocked the Colorado Plateau. In its wake, it left behind a new landscape covered with a jumble of dark basalt rock. A prominent cinder cone, Sunset Crater, lies within the protected area of the monument and allows visitors to see a relatively undisturbed reminder of this area's volcanic past.
The contrast between the cinder cones and a'a lava flows is striking. The colorful cinder was formed when an explosive eruption blasted molten lava into the air to heights of nearly 850 feet! The lava cooled quickly, formed small rocks and fell back to earth, forming the cinder cones you see in the park. On the other hand, slow-moving lava flows called a'a cooled more slowly, creating the blocky lava fields throghout the desert.
Several trails provide up-close viewpoints of these volcanic features. The A'a Trail and Lava's Edge Trail take hikers through jagged basalt lava. The Lenox Crater Trail climbs up to an excellent vista of the entire area. The Bonito Vista Trail offers visitors an accessible walk along a paved trail to view the lava flow and nearby volcanoes. And the Lava Flow Trail leads to the base of Sunset Crater (which is off-limits to climbing).
While the landscape appears to be inhospitable, many animal and plant species call Sunset Crater home. About 400 years after the volcano erupted, plants started re-colonizing the area. Pinyon pines arrived first, followed by ponderosa pine and aspen. Lichens form colorful crusts on the dark basalt. Tough plants like rabbitbrush and cliffrose have begun to establish a foothold among the rocks.
Several species of birds and mammals make their home among the lava. Mule deer, pronghorn and Aberts squirrels are commonly seen in the park. Only nine species of reptiles have been observed in the park. Several of these have one adaptation in common: Their black skin provides life-saving camouflage against the dark lava rock.
If your visit to Sunset Crater lasts beyond sunset, join the park rangers for a night sky program! Each summer, Sunset Crater hosts solar viewings and star parties at the monument. Visiting Northern Arizona provides the rare opportunity to experience true dark skies. Nearby cities like Flagstaff and Sedona have ordinances that encourage homes and businesses to limit their light pollution at night. Combined with clear, desert weather, these actions have enabled locals and visitors to enjoy some of the darkest skies in the country. Be sure to check out a night sky program and learn more about the stars overhead.