Photo Post: Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Flagstaff, Arizona

Cinder cone volcano seen through ponderosa pine branches
Sunset Crater Volcano

As I drive south from Wupatki National Monument, junipers begin to replace the sparse scrubland of the high desert north of Flagstaff, Arizona. But it’s not long before the juniper woodland gives way to hardened lava, rolling hills, and ponderosa pines.

Ponderosa pines grow on top of a wall of dried lava
Lava flow

I search for the namesake peak of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument between the pine branches as I drive around one hillside to another, and then—there it is: a clean, Platonic-ideal-form cinder volcano with a ruddy, “sunset” gradient from red to gray on its side.

I’m momentarily distracted as a striking Steller’s Jay flies by, its own blue-and-ashy-gray feathers painted the complete opposite of Sunset Crater’s gradient.

Ponderosa pine trunk and branches
Ponderosa pine

A little further down the road, I walk out onto some rough, hardened beds of lava that dried only 900 years ago. I quake in fear like the aspen trees growing on the remains of the youngest eruption in the San Francisco volcanic field.

Ponderosa pines grow on cinder cone ash with the desert in the distance
Looking out onto the desert

But as I feel the crumbly, ashy soil beneath my feet, I remember its moisture-keeping properties made it possible for the prehistoric Sinagua people, who lived just north of here, to build the multi-story ruins of Wupatki not long after Sunset Crater’s very recent eruption.

Long red flowers grow on the side of an asphalt drive in a ponderosa pine forest
Roadside penstemon

How to get there

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is right outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. Budget 20 minutes to drive from downtown Flagstaff north along U.S. Route 89 to the park’s entrance, tucked inside Coconino National Forest.

Alternatively, visit Wupatki National Monument to the north first and then stay on the park’s loop road south and west through the forest to reach Sunset Crater.

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