Meteor Crater: Another Hole in the Ground Worth Seeing in Arizona

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the things we thought only used to happen years or centuries ago can definitely happen again.

I grew up in a world where polio could no longer stop you from going to school and where the worst that could get you sent home sick was mainly colds, flus, and chicken pox, not the deadly measles now covered by routine shots. And plague? Like polio, it was just a history class lesson. 

But here we are at the end of a year that has seen one of the worst pandemics since the 1918 flu, reminded that outbreaks of infectious diseases can still occur—and will continue to occur—even in our advanced scientific age.

Impact crater seen from the rim in Arizona
View from the rim

It’s this kind of reminder from Mother Nature about the reality of the world we live in that makes me think of Meteor Crater, out in the lonely expanses of northern Arizona.

This massive impact crater was formed when a, uh, meteor made of iron crashed into the Colorado Plateau and left a hole in the ground around a mile wide 50,000 years ago. Sure, that sounds like a really long time ago, especially since most humans only live into their eighties. But on the geological timescale of a planet that’s 4.5 billion years old, this crater wasn’t even formed yesterday…that meteor essentially hit the Grand Canyon State just as you were reading this blog post.

We often may think that horrifying astronomical calamities like getting pulverized by meteors is something relegated to the very distant past. Scientists refer to an early period of the Earth’s history as the “Late Heavy Bombardment” due to the relentless number of asteroids that pummeled our planet’s surface billions of years ago. And the asteroid that sent the dinosaurs into extinction? It likely careened into Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula 66 million years ago.

Ancient history, right? Not if you take a cruise down Route 66!

Desert, mountains, and blue sky seen through a brick window in Arizona
The other side of the crater rim

As is the case with so many places on the Colorado Plateau, you can come face-to-face with the reality of how many harrowing events our planet has endured when you peer out across the giant, rocky bowl at Meteor Crater. Trace the rim that’s over two miles in circumference, and you just might gain a humbled perspective on your place in history…and a chilling reminder that the vast geological processes that shaped the planet and influenced life on Earth are still at work today.

More than just a hole in the ground

Meteor Crater isn’t just a macabre item on your Reminders list that says, well, “look out!” This Route 66 landmark has played a significant role in shaping our understanding of all impact craters around the world.

This is where, during the Atomic Age, that we learned that meteors can create impact craters.

It seems obvious to us today that craters can be formed by the impact of a meteor, but it wasn’t always so clear. After all, Meteor Crater’s in the same neighborhood as the 600 cinder craters of the San Francisco Volcanic Field that surrounds nearby Flagstaff. You’d be forgiven for assuming this was an eroded, ancient volcano.

But Daniel Barringer thought otherwise. Starting in 1903, he filed mining claims here and dug all across the crater, searching for a mother lode of iron ore deposited by the meteor—but his efforts were in vain, as the meteor largely vaporized when it landed.

Later in 1960, Gene Shoemaker (of comet Shoemaker-Levy fame) formalized the impact-crater hypothesis after seeing how nuclear bomb tests created similar craters in the Nevada desert. The smoking gun that confirmed his proposal? The presence of the mineral coesite, which is formed when high pressure and temperature are applied to quartz. Meteor Crater was an impact site.

View of an impact crater observatory deck from the rim in Arizona
Observatory deck

Meteor Crater is also one of the most accessible and striking impact craters in the world.

Some craters are simply too vast to take in, like the 300 kilometer-wide Vredefort in South Africa, others are mostly underwater, like the Chicxulub crater that’s buried in the Caribbean off the Yucatán peninsula, and others still are isolated, like Tenoumer deep in the Sahara of Mauritania. Meteor Crater, by contrast, is right off a major interstate highway and the popular Route 66. What’s more, we can still appreciate its iconic shape today because the impact occurred very recently (relatively speaking) and because the arid climate of the Colorado Plateau has hardly eroded the rim since then.

What you can do at Meteor Crater

This crater is the least-kitschy landmark along Route 66, even if it’s still a money-making machine ($22/person, complete with gift shop and restaurant). There’s plenty to do and see beyond just rolling up, taking your photo, and getting back on the highway:

  • Visit the observation deck and take in the gigantic, uh, lack of ground. Just think, this could be your neighborhood if the next mile-wide asteroid doesn’t happen to miss us! Fingers crossed that meteor plugs the middle of the ocean into its GPS unit…
  • Walk around the rim on a guided tour. When I was last here in July 2016, gusts were so strong that they actually had to cancel rim tours (lest visitors, uh, fly away). I was disappointed, but I had more exciting things to do on my vacation list than end up at the bottom of a crater. I’d still love to walk along the 2.4-mile trail and really experience the vastness of the crater.

  • Interactive museum exhibit with two screens and buttons
    Meteor simulator game

  • Watch a movie. Impact! The Mystery of Meteor Crater is a 15-minute screening that does a great job introducing you to the history and science behind the crater. Whether you’re escaping the Arizona heat or just need to rest your legs, watch this short, informative film.
  • Blow up the Earth in a meteor simulator. One of my silliest memories growing up was visiting Meteor Crater in 4th grade and playing with the arcade-style meteor simulator game in the visitor center. You get to tweak all sorts of variables, from the meteor’s speed, to its size and density, to even its angle of approach and see what kind of impact crater results. Fourth-grade Trevor managed to generate a meteor so strong that it split Planet Earth in half!
  • Touch a hunk of rock from outer space. On display at the visitor center is the Holsinger Meteorite, a massive fragment from the meteor that hit Arizona 50,000 years ago. It may not be safe to come into contact with high-touch surfaces right now, but you can at least stand in awe of this lump of iron that voyaged to the Earth from outer space—elemental iron that was formed at the very end of a long-forgotten star’s life billions of years ago.
Large pitted rock on a display stand in a museum
The Holsinger Meteorite in the visitor center

How to get there

From Winslow, Arizona, head west on Interstate 40 and take exit 233 for Meteor Crater Road. It’s the same exit if you’re going east from Flagstaff along the historic path of Route 66. Meteor Crater is at the very end of the road.

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