Stop #6 – A Volcano and Its Field of Lava

On the brisk desert morning of our proposed third day of our summer 2021 trek to the American West, we leave Petrified Forest and head due west and turn northward just before Flagstaff to briefly stop at Sunset Crater National Monument. About 1,000 years ago, a sudden eruption spewed molten lava and cinder ash and formed a cone and crater still extant today. It forever changed the landscape of north-central Arizona and must have disrupted the lives and culture of Native Americans who lived and hunted these once forested highlands.

Sunset Crater lies on the slopes of a much larger extinct volcano – Humphries Peak – which is the highest point in Arizona.
Entering the ancient land of fire and ice.
From the air, Sunset Crater is a classic volcanic caldera but after its eruption a thousand years ago, it has remained dormant. A forest fire and ensuing smoke several years ago raised false concerns that it may have been re-erupting.
From the visitor center, the volcanic cone rises majestically. It would be a challenging hike to the top, but the park service closed the trail in 1972 to protect its fragility.

Today, the cone dominates the landscape rising 999 feet above the surrounding hills. Visitors have been forbidden to hike to the rim not because of the threat of further eruptions but because of the fragile soil composed mostly of ash and cinders from that cataclysmic explosion centuries ago. A few trees, bushes, and grasses are eking out a shallow existence on the pyramidal slope and an occasional jackrabbit hounded by a coyote or two cautiously bound across the lunar-like landscape.

Lava fields encrust the northern section of the park. Plants and animals simply do not exist on the sterile surface.
A jackrabbit warily searches for predators on the slopes at Sunset Crater.

Stopping for lunch gives us a few moments to plan for an upcoming highlight as we approach the Grand Canyon. We will camp outside the National Park and take an afternoon and the next morning to explore and awe at chasms, pinnacles, and sunset and sunrise colors. Hopefully, the weather will cooperate and we will deviate from our general plan of sleeping in most mornings so we can enjoy the sunrise over the canyon.

Leaving Sunset Crater, the terrain gives no hint that an immense canyon lies just over the horizon!

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