Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: The Complete Guide

Cinder Cones and cracked dried Lava rock flow at Bonito Lava Flow at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, Arizona, usa

Peter Unger / Getty Images 

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Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Address
6082 Sunset Crater Road, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, USA
Phone +1 928-526-0502

Formed nearly a thousand years ago by a volcano that spewed fire into 850 feet into the air, Sunset Crater—and its smaller and older counterpart, Lenox Crater—stands as a testament to the awesome power of nature. On a visit to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, you can see both craters as well as hardened lava flow and cinder fields.

Hiking is the primary activity within the 3,040-acre park, however, the cinder fields in the surrounding Coconino National Forest are popular with off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts.

You can easily visit both Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monument in one day since the two parks are located on a 34-mile loop drive off US-89. Plan to explore the lava fields at Sunset Crater first, then continue to the Ancient Puebloan ruins at Wupatki.

Things to Do

You can view the cinder fields and craters at scenic stops along the 34-mile loop, but hiking is the only way to truly appreciate the landscape. Stop first at the visitor center to learn about volcanoes, the Puebloan people who once lived in the area and how astronauts trained on the unique landscape for the lunar landing in 1969. The visitor center is also where you can find out about ranger-led programs, including seasonal stargazing.

Although not part of the park, the Cinder Hills OHV Area draws off-roading enthusiasts who ride dirt bikes, quads, and other vehicles through loose cinders where the astronauts once tested lunar vehicles. For the testing, NASA created small craters that, today, have eroded into divots. To see them or ride your OHV through them, turn off US 89 at FS 776 and drive about 1.5 miles to the OHV area.

Sunset Crater
 Daniel A. Leifheit / Getty Images

Best Hikes & Trails

Hikes in the park lead through loose cinders and along hardened lava flows. Unfortunately, you can’t hike to the top of Sunset Crater, which was closed in 1973 to prevent further visitor damage. You can hike to the top of Lenox Crater, though, and to the top of O’Leary Peak, which looks down into Sunset Crater.

In addition to the self-guided hikes, rangers lead backcountry hikes and a roughly 2.5-mile Volcanology Hike that explores the Bonito Lava Field. For reservations, call (928) 526-0502.

  • Lenox Crater Trail: This 1.6-mile, moderately strenuous trail rewards with views of Sunset Crater, the Bonito Lava Flow, and O’Leary Peak. At the summit, you can see the San Francisco Peaks.
  • Lava Flow Trail: Partially paved, this easy, 1-mile loop takes you to the base of Sunset Crater. Plan to spend about an hour on the trail exploring the Bonito Lava Flow.
  • Lava’s Edge Trail: This trail starts at the visitor center and follows the edge of the Bonito Lava Flow 3.4 miles under pine trees and across loose cinders. It connects to Lenox Crater Trail, A’a Trail, Bonito Vista Trail, and Lava Flow Trail.
  • O’Leary Peak Trail: Although not in the park, this 9.6-mile trail (just under 5 miles each way) provides glimpses into the Sunset Crater’s cinder cone. Access the trail from FS 545A off the Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop Road.

Scenic Drives

Sunset Crater is located on the 34-mile Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop Road, which connects it to Wupatki National Monument. The scenic drive begins 12 miles north of Flagstaff when you turn right at the sign for Sunset Crater Volcano National Park. Stop first at Sunset Crater’s visitor center and hike one of the trails. If you’re short on time, the Lava Flow Trail—not to be confused with the longer Lava’s Edge Trail—is your best option.

From there, the drive continues to the Wupatki Visitor Center. Park at the visitor center, and take the 0.5-mile loop around the 104-room pueblo and ball court. Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop Road ends at US-89, approximately 15 miles north of where it began. Without stops, the route takes about an hour to drive. However, if you're going to explore both parks, plan on spending an entire day on the route.

Wuptaki National Monument
 powerofforever / Getty Images

Wupataki National Monument

The $25 entrance fee to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument includes admission to Wupatki National Monument. Like Sunset Crater, hiking is the main activity at Wupatki. The most popular trail is Wupatki Pueblo Trail, which loops half a mile around the largest free-standing pueblo in northern Arizona. If you have time, other trails lead to nearby pueblos.

For those who want to learn more about the ancient Puebloans who lived in the area prior to the volcanic eruption that created Sunset Crater, the visitor center has educational displays and artifacts found in the area.

Where to Camp

There is technically no camping in the park; however, the U.S. Forest Service operates the Bonito Campground across the street from Sunset Crater’s visitor center. Additional camping is available throughout the surrounding Coconino National Forest. Camping in both areas is seasonal.

  • Bonito Campground: Open generally from late May through mid-October, this campground across the street from the Sunset Crater visitor center features picnic tables, grills, fire rings, flush toilets, and drinking water. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis for a fee of $26 per night. There are no hookups.
  • Cinder Hills Dispersed Camping: If you don’t mind dispersed camping, this scenic recreation area near Sunset Crater Volcano is a good option. However, since the area is popular with OHVs, it can get noisy. Additionally, the ground is covered with rocky, volcanic cinder. No fee is charged for camping here.
  • Flagstaff KOA: During the winter, this KOA on the west side of Flagstaff may be your only camping option. The 200-site campground offers free Wi-Fi, laundry facilities, flush toilets, showers, dog park, bike rentals, and hiking trails.

Where to Stay

Flagstaff is the closest city to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and has a number of excellent hotels, ranging from budget to luxury hotels. Rooms often sell out at popular hotels, so book early.

  • Little America: The only AAA Four Diamond hotel in Flagstaff, Little America makes a good base for visiting Sunset Crater. The property is set on 500 acres of private forest, and each room has floor-to-ceiling windows.
  • Drury Inn & Suites Flagstaff: An excellent choice for travelers who are fans of chains, this hotel close to the university offers free breakfast, three free drinks, and food at the bar from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
  • DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Flagstaff: Located on historic Route 66, this DoubleTree by Hilton location has two onsite restaurants, an inviting lounge off the lobby and three EV charging stations. It is also pet-friendly.
hill of cinder with trees at Sunset Crater

 Steven Love / robertarding / Getty Images

How to Get There

From Flagstaff, take US-89 north. (There is an exit for US-89 from I-40 on the east side of the city.) Approximately 12 miles from Flagstaff, turn right at the sign for Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. The visitor center is 2 miles past the park’s entrance.

At the end of your Sunset Crater visit, you can continue 21 miles to the Wupatki Visitor Center and, eventually, US-89. Or, you can head back the way you came.

Accessibility

In addition to the visitor center, the round trip, 0.3-mile Bonito Vista Trail is accessible and provides views of the Bonito Lava Flow and volcanoes. While a portion of the Lava Flow Trail is paved, the remaining trails have loose cinders and would be impossible for anyone who had difficulty walking. Accessible restrooms are available at the visitor center and the Lava Flow Trail parking area.

Tips for Your Visit

  • A $25 fee per vehicle covers admission to Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki national monuments and is valid for seven days.
  • Sunset Crater was formed by a volcano but if you want to see a meteor impact site, visit nearby Meteor Crater.
  • To learn more about the role Sunset Crater played in the lunar landing, visit Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. It’s also where Pluto was discovered.
  • Leashed pets are welcome on the paved portion of the Lava Flow Trail and a section of the Lava’s Edge Trail.
  • Wear closed-toe shoes, especially if you intend to hike on unpaved trails. Bring plenty of water, apply sunscreen, and dress in layers. Watch the weather, and take cover if there is lightning.
  • Cell phone reception is spotty in the area. Depending on your carrier, you can get service at the Bonito Park pullout and the Lava Flow Trail parking lot.
  • GPS is also unreliable. Do not head out on forest service roads without a paper map.
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The Complete Guide to Sunset Crater Volcano