Southwest Adventures

Sunset Crater National Monument – Arizona Travel

Explore unique volcanic history on our small educational group tours.

Sunset Crater Volcano, Arizona travelSunset Crater Volcano was born in a series of eruptions near 1065 A.D. making it one of the youngest scoria cones in the contiguous United States. Tremendous seismic activity forever altered the lives of local people and dramatically changed the surrounding area. Lava flows and cinders still look as if they were only created yesterday. Among these dramatic geologic features, you’ll find life returning as trees, wildflowers, and signs of wildlife reappear. Sunset Crater was named by John Wesley Powell, first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, for the topmost cap of oxidized, red rocks which makes it appear to constantly be swathed in the light of the sunset. The colors at the top of the cone are silica, gypsum, and iron oxide that formed from fumaroles. Sunset Crater is a nearly symmetrical cone made of dark-gray scoria, which is a porous rock made of volcanic glass fragments, and scattered bombs. The cone is about 1,000 feet high and 1 mile in base diameter.

The Bonito Lava Flow is one of several flows that streamed out from the base of Sunset Crater Volcano about 930 years ago. The lava flow erupted from the west and northwest base of the cone and covered an area of 1.8 square miles. The 2200° Fahrenheit liquid formed a river of black lava that poured over the landscape before it solidified. The eruption at Sunset Crater covered an area of 800 square miles with lapilli and ash. The eruption was strombolian in style and large, with eruption columns several hundred feet high. The Kana-a lava flow was erupted from the base of the east side of the cone and traveled 6 miles down a wash. The Sunset eruption was unusual because of the volume of volcanic products (about 0.7 cubic miles) is large for a strombolian event, the air fall dispersal was large, and the discharge rate for magma was high.

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Sunset Crater National Monument

On the northern faces you can find multicolored Lichen which represent the return of life to the volcanic wasteland. Lichen represents a symbiotic relationship of a fungus and either an algae or cyanobacteria (rarely both). The lichen absorb what nutrients they can from the rocks they are attached to, slowly eroding them into fertile soil. They are well adapted to arid ecosystems, able to produce food as long as it isn’t freezing (32° F). Many other plants benefit from the presence of lichen, as they convert hard to use nitrogen from the air into a more useable form. This is especially important in places such as Sunset Crater National Monument, where fertile soil and available nutrients are in high demand.

Sunset Crater National Monument, Lichen

Sunset Crater National Monument, hardened lava

In the 1920s, H.S. Colton saved the cone from severe damage by averting the attempt of a Hollywood movie company to blow it up in order to simulate an eruption. This led to the establishment of the Sunset Crater National Monument, an area northeast of Flagstaff containing the results of much igneous activity – several colorful cinder cones formed by extinct volcanoes, and large expanses of lava and ash. Damage created by hikers forced the National Park Service to close a trail leading to the crater, but a shorter trail that skirts the Bonita Lava flow at the base remains.

Flower, Sunset Crater National Monument

This hardened lava is black and appears as fresh as the day that devastated the forest in its path. The lava flow also created an ice cave that is now closed to the public after a partial collapse. Our Arizona travel tour will lead you along the available trails to show you this unique landscape, making this an educational and fun outing.

Petrified Forest N.P.

Petrified Forest N.P.

Phoenix, AZ

Phoenix, AZ

Wupatki N. M.

Wupatki N. M.

Join our small group tours on our Arizona travel adventures! The photos above lead to individual pages about other places that you can see around Sunset Crater National Monument and which are visited on our group tours.


If you have any questions about our New Mexico and Arizona travel please feel free to contact us at We would be happy to welcome you on one of our scheduled tours, or, if you have your own group, we can customize an itinerary just for you..