Arizona offers some of the most unparalleled natural views in North America. The state’s ancient Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument alone is home to many stunning geological wonders, including the Bonita Lava Flow, Lenox Crater, and Sunset Crater. The Sunset Crater area is peppered with cinder cones formed from extinct volcanoes, and great swathes of lava, cinder, and ash, including the Bonita Lava Flow’s brittle black fields. Experience not only the thrill of Sunset Crater’s vast, powerful peaks and lava flows, but also immersion into the rich history of an extinct people who once made their home in its folds – the Sinagua Indians.
A set of volcanic eruptions produced Sunset Crater Volcano almost 1,000 years ago. The lava spills inundated over 800 square miles of land with lava and ash, devastating the carefully tended home of the Sinagua Indians. Despite the breadth and length of the eruptions, which continued sporadically for almost 200 years, the ancient Sinagua Indians refused to give up. The archaeologist Harold Colton believes that the volcanic ash that saturated the ground made the ideal mulch for crops, which, combined with the heightened amount of rain, brought the staunch Sinagua back to Sunset Crater within just a few years.
Sunset Crater’s eruptions not only ruined the Sinagua’s lives, but also paradoxically enriched them beyond all reasonable expectation. After moving back to the area, the Sinagua began interacting with their neighbors on a much more frequent basis. The Mogollon, Hohokam, Anasazi, and River and Delta Yumans all contributed to the Sinagua’s style of ceramics, crafts, architecture, and much more. This foreign contact produced some of the most fascinating aspects of Sinagua culture, not limited to the architectural style evident in their community ceremonial chambers, courtyards, and ball courts.
See the contrasting red, brown, orange, and yellow coloring that gave the volcano its name (it is widely believed that the first explorer in the area, John Wesley Powell, thought the peak’s colors resembled those of an everlasting sunset) where the determined Sinagua lived so many years ago. Sunset Peak’s spectacular color variety is mainly due to the effects of oxidized sulphur and iron. Combined with the jet-black landscape of the surrounding lava flows, the rich color variation of the Peak is a dazzling spectacle to behold. Although the buckled, brittle lava fields look as jagged and fresh as if they were new, the sun set on all of Sunset Peak’s volcanic activity back in the 11th century, allowing you to feast your eyes upon cinders and lava flows frozen in time exactly as they cooled for hundreds of years.
Sunset Crater’s summit was closed in 1974 to prevent over-erosion, but the Bonita Lava Flow Trail that loops around the fields of lava at the foot of Sunset Crater gives a stunning view of the latter’s 1,000-foot high expanse. The Bonita Trail also affords a breathtaking view of the San Francisco Peaks. Located just west of Sunset Crater, Lenox Crater is a climbable peak that also offers a marvelous view of the San Francisco Peaks, as well as a heightened perspective on the Sunset Crater and its rugged lava fields.
Observe the intense color differentiation within the peaks, contrasted even more greatly by the black basalt of the surrounding lava flows. Note the return of trees, flowers, and animals to Sunset Crater – nature’s irrepressible life triumphing over its darker forces of destruction. Just like the Sinagua Indians, plants and animals in the cinder-covered region refuse to give up their home. Be a part of the testament to resilience and pure historical and geological wonder that is Sunset Crater in Flagstaff, Arizona.