Hiking Lenox Crater for Solitude in a Unique Environment

Lenox Crater is not the best-known or the most visited trail in Northern Arizona. That’s why we chose it as our outing for the first day-trip we took in four months at the beginning of the CoVid pandemic.

Hiking on a lesser-known trail is the best way to get out of the house while social distancing. Trouble is, you can’t safely hike in and around Phoenix in the summer, unless you have a death wish – or you hike so early or so late in the day, you won’t see the sun anyway. And one of the reasons we try to go out is to get some Vitamin D naturally. 

Driving to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

So, when we woke up on the Fourth of July and noticed no traffic going north, we decided to take a trip out of town. And where else would we go other than to our favorite spot in Northern Arizona, one of our favorite National Park unit in the state, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.

I know it’s not everyone’s favorite spot, and that fact has something to do with why it is ours. Usually it doesn’t get as crowded as other places in its surroundings. Although more and more people are realizing its potential of getting you into the pines and cool air, through an adventure on lava bed, and away from crowds – so I’m afraid it is getting crowded, but so close to Flagstaff it was bound to happen sooner or later.

Still, it is our default, go-to place in Northern Arizona, even for just a day trip from Phoenix. And on a weekend when we are trying to stay away from people, we knew that the Lenox Crater trail would offer us a chance to social distance while hiking in nature.

Walking Up the Lenox Crater Trail

When we first climbed Lenox Crater, there was no trail leading up to it. I remember fewer trees on it, as well. We basically walked up on the lava sand, trying to leave as small of a mark as possible.

As I got on the trail, the strong scent of pine enveloped me, bringing tears to my eyes. It’s ben a long time since I experienced this fresh, crisp pine-scented air. I had to stop and touch a tree, standing there for a moment. Then I started up the trail, following my family.

On the Lenox Crater Trail – hiking up the crater

We expected no other hikers on this particular trail, but a family caught up with me. I stepped off the trail to let them pass, while they stepped off the other side to keep our social distance, we all smiled at each other from afar. They were the only other hikers we encountered on the trail – or anywhere else -, on a Fourth of July.

I took my time, stopping often to smell the pines and are in my surroundings. No matter how often I am on this trail, I always love it. On my left, lava sand was surrounding me, with ponderosa pines growing in it. Looking to my right, occasional clearings offered views of the Bonito lava flow below, and other volcanic peaks of the mountain range out in the distance.

Hiking up Lenox Crater with views of the Bonito Lave Field below.

Rain on Top of Lenox Crater

Reaching the top of the crater, we sat under a ponderosa pine and watched woodpeckers and bluejays in the surrounding trees. Without warning, we felt a few drops of rain.

Out of sunny skies, sudden clouds brought rain to the top of Lenox Crater.

“I think it’s raining,” said my daughter who sat farther from the tree.

“I don’t think so, I don’t feel any raindrops,” I said, but looked on the ground.

“It definitely is, I feel those huge raindrops on my,” she answered, and by then I noticed them on the ground.

“So cool!” we all agreed, and sat there, watching the raindrops coming down, getting the pineneedle-filled lava darker, enjoying getting wet.

The sudden rain was coloring the pine-needle-filled lava darker.

But after a while we started getting cold, so we stood up and started walking.

Another Fourth-of-July… A Long Time Ago

“Did I ever tell you about my first time hiking Lenox Crater,” I asked the girls. “It was a Fourth-of-July weekend, too. All clear skies, then out of nowhere this rain came pouring down, then started hailing…”

‘Keep talking about hail, mom, we’re getting it again.”

It did get at least ten degrees colder in just a few minutes since the rain started. Not that any of us was complaining. Even if we got cold, we enjoyed it – drove up there from over 105-degrees scorching heat. We’d take any cold and rain we could.

“It definitely is not hailing now. You should’ve seen it back in 1994 I think it was. The year your dad and I moved out to Arizona. We came up and camped at the Sunset Crater campground across the street. I remember being hot though. But rather than sit at the campsite, by afternoon, we decided to hike Lenox Crater.

The trail we just walked up on didn’t exist yet. So you just walked up on the lava to the top. We started up, and halfway through our trek it started to rain. Just like now. Out of blue skies. It got very cold, and after a few minutes we noticed these huge pieces of ice hitting the ground – and hitting us. There were barely any trees on the cone then, and even the ones growing there were tiny.

It only lasted a few minutes, but it was so heavy and dense, we didn’t even see to walk back to the camp-site. We got hit by ice and soaked to the bone in just a few minutes.”

“Good story. You jinxed it, it’s hailing now, mom.”

“No, it isn’t. Look at the ground. Do you see any round ice pieces?”

It wasn’t hailing, but got colder and the rain was coming down as a sheet of water in front of us.

The Views from the Top of Lenox Crater

Then, as sudden as it came, the rain stopped.

The sun, peeking out from behind the clouds, bathed the surrounding volcanic field in sudden light.

The sun was bright after the rain, bringing color back into the landscape.

As the clouds were moving away under a clear blue sky, the colors of the landscape changed…

Looking out towards the Kachina Peaks, better known as the San Francisco Peaks I enjoyed the view of the volcanic fields in the high country of Arizona. I felt thousands of miles away from the heat of the Sonoran Desert.

The bowl of Lenox Crater below and the Kachina Peaks in the distance.
View of the Kachina Peaks (San Francisco Peaks) volcanic field from the viewpoint on the top of Lenox Crater.

Walking towards Sunset Crater

We all continued on the trail off the lava-hill, towards the more famous of the craters, Sunset Crater, that gave the National Park its name. Getting closer, we got a glimpse of Sunset Crater showing up its gorgeous colors as the sun shone through the rolling clouds.

View of Sunset Crater from the trail off Lenox Crater

But once we got off the hill, we encountered too many people for a quiet time on the better-known trail. It is CoVid time, after all, I suddenly remembered, seeing a group of people wearing masks. On the hill, in the rain, for a brief time, I have forgotten.

Since we also remembered that we had no face-masks with us, we walked to our car, got in, and drove off as rain started falling once again.

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