Visiting Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments


The Painted Desert as seen from Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments are located about 20 miles apart off Highway 89 north of Flagstaff, Arizona, but offer completely different experiences. The monuments, which are connected by the appropriately named Sunset Crater Wupatki Loop, are home to a variety of cultural and historical sites as well as geographical diversity.

We somewhat randomly decided to visit Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument after noticing it on a map while we were camped near Humphreys Peak. Since the map listed the monument as “Sunset Crater National Monument” we did not even know it was a volcano until we were on the way and Apple Maps provided the additional clarification. Hey, you don’t last long as a vandweller if you are not up for some uncertainty and adventure.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

The Sunset Crater Volcano erupted about 900 years ago, leaving behind a staggering amount of ash and cinder that still covers the ground and hills for some 800 square miles surrounding the volcano. Sunset Crater is within the San Francisco volcanic field not far from the San Francisco Peaks.

Hiking trails provide the opportunity for visitors to view lava fields and other geologic features. We passed on hiking the day we visited because of the late-June heat.

Wupatki National Monument


Wukoki Pueblo ruins at Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki National Monument is situated between the Ponderosa pine highlands and the Painted Desert. Wupatki was a bonus since we did not even know about it prior to checking in at the welcome center at Sunset Crater Volcano.

There are a number of ancient pueblo ruins scattered throughout Wupatki. Frequently built atop a red rock outcropping, these pueblos seem to be located in a particularly inhospitable environment.

The oldest known pueblo at this monument dates to about 500 A.D. The population in the region increased during the 11th century following the Sunset Crater Volcano eruption. The volcanic ash that was spread throughout the area improved agriculture and thus attracted more people. The area seems to have been abandoned around the 13th century.

The pueblos were built using sandstone blocks and mortar. The structures are in remarkably good condition today, even after hundreds of years.

I hiked into the 12th century Wukoki pueblo to explore, but we did not hike into the others as the afternoon temperature hit 104 the day we were at Wupatki. The hike into Wukoki felt a lot like walking into a furnace, but it was well worth the effort.

Nomadic Reflections

My visit to these two national monuments was interesting and thrilling. Learning about anything new is always interesting to me. Walking where ancient people lived hundreds of years ago and seeing the buildings that they constructed from local, natural materials is thrilling.

Diversity

Arizona is an incredibly diverse state. Prior to visiting Arizona last fall I pretty much assumed the whole state was a uniform desert. I have spent a lot of time exploring different areas of the state over the past 10 months and, even with more to see, I am in awe of its diversity.

Serendipity

A willingness to explore, and the intentional flexibility that is required to facilitate that exploration, often results in wonderful discoveries and experiences. We found Sunset Crater Volcano on a map and decided to explore it on a whim. We then explored Wupatki with no idea what we would find and had a deeply rewarding experience.