“Look at me, mom, I can pick up a boulder!” The child’s exclamation is carried in the wind across a black bed of pumice and lava flowing as far as the eye can see in the shadow of a towering cinder cone.
On the road from the Phoenix desert to the first night in Marble Canyon, Arizona, we’re on a “let’s do it!” side trip veering off U.S. 89 north of Flagstaff, Arizona, into the Sunset Crater National Monument. It’s a two- to three-hour detour to see a “new” volcano and visit the villages where Ancestral Pueblos watched it explode high into the sky. The 50 mile loop encompasses both Sunset Crater and Wupatki national monuments, two of the six national monuments between Phoenix and Grand Canyon National Park.
Sunset Crater National Monument
“Hold still, I’m going to take a picture,” the mother exclaims. Another memory is snapped in Sunset Crater National Monument, Flagstaff, Arizona. One of 24 national parks and monuments in Arizona, this park about 30 minutes north of Interstate 40 on U.S. 89 was the first stop on the Desert to Rain Forest road trip.
That family from the van with Nebraska plates passes us on their way down a pumice trail deep into the Bonito Lava Flow. This massive series of black waves, lava tubes and washes flowed from the northwest base of Sunset Crater when the volcano erupted about one thousand years ago. Momentarily, they’re cut in half by the black wave. The middle boy grabs a cat-size lava rock and lifts it high in the air. “I’m the strongest,” he shouts.
“You are not,” giggles one of the sisters, and she lifts a rock of similar size. Petrified lava is one the lightest rocks for its size. Beagle-size pieces are easily lifted and surprising light.
Across the lava flows, there are easy and moderate trails and car-accessible overlooks of cinder cones and lava flows. With some extra time, we could have taken the moderately difficult trail around the base of the volcano into a world of dramatically changing landscapes. The “newness” of the eruption showcases different stages of the earth’s regeneration—like walking through billions of years of geo-history in under 90 minutes.
Sunset Crater sits on the edge of the Flagstaff volcanic field, a collection of more than 600 cinder cones and ancient volcanos—including Arizona’s tallest mountain, Humphreys Peak (12,637 feet)—that drops away into the Painted Desert shimmering in the sunlight to the east.
Getting there: Take U.S. 89 north about 25 minutes from its Flagstaff Interstate 40 exit. Turn right on Sunset Crater road. The road loops back onto 89 at Wupatki National Monument. Lodging is nearby in Flagstaff and Coconino National Forest has a developed campground adjoining Sunset Crater’s entrance.
Wupatki National Monument
Winding down from the volcanos’ heights, a 45 minute drive north on the loop road enters Wupatki National Monument. The monument is home to some of the few publicly accessible ancestral pueblos in Arizona. A two-hour driving tour allows visits with some short, easy hikes to the main pueblos. A thirty minute stay in the monument includes a visit to the visitor center and Wupatki Pueblo, the largest in the park.
On the main road through the monument, the Citadel and Nalakihu pueblos are reached with a short walk. The Lomaki and Box Canyon pueblos are at the end of a half mile, easy hike. The Wukoki Pueblo is off the main drag by a couple of miles, and is reached with a short walk from the parking area.
This is sacred ground. The Pueblos living in Wupatki are the ancestors of today’s Hopi. The Hopi believe souls still inhabit the ancestral pueblos. Visits to the villages—”pueblo” means village—should be respectful of the cultural values represented.
Other Monuments Along the Way
Between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, national monuments are easily accessible off I-17, I-40 and U.S. 89. Just 40 miles north of Phoenix, Agua Fria National Monument is an less of sight-seeing and more of sight-doing. The high mesa grasslands and countryside of the Mogollon Rim (moh-GEE-yun; hard “G” as in “gone”) welcome hikers, campers and four-wheelers into an undeveloped area of desert mesas and steep canyons. Use I-17 exits 256, 259 or Cordes Junction.
A pair of hill-top and cliff-side ancestral pueblos, Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle national monuments are located near Cottonwood and Camp Verde, about 50 miles south of Flagstaff. Tuzigoot is a hilltop pueblo occupied by the Sinagua people, and serving as a trading station between peoples of the Pacific Rim, and Mexico and Central America. Montezuma Castle is a cliffside pueblo that can be seen from below, but not accessed by the public. Tuzigoot is located on U.S. 89A, about 20 miles from I-17 via Arizona 260. Montezuma Castle is just north of Camp Verde east of I-17 at exit 289.
In Flagstaff, one exit east of U.S. 89 is Walnut Canyon National Monument. The deep green and cream-rock canyon guarded a water source for the Ancestral Pueblos. Two of their villages border the two mile moderately-difficult hike to the canyon floor from the Visitor Center on the rim.
Although not a U.S. national monument, Little Colorado River Navajo Tribal Park is the home to the renowned Chocolate Falls, otherwise known as Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River. The park has four different districts. There are two overlooks along Arizona Highway 64, the main route into the Desert View east entrance of the Grand Canyon. These provide views of the gorge where the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers meet in Marble Canyon. The visitor center at the intersection of U.S. 89 and Hwy. 64 in Cameron has maps and issues required permits. One of the districts is the Grand Falls, which in the spring and following monsoon rains is known as “Chocolate Falls” because of the water color raging over its terraces.
America the Beautiful—Desert to Rain Forest
Seven Arizona National Monuments between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon (A list and directions)