Sunset Crater: Along the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road

12 Best Things to Do Along the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road

The first time I drove on the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road I was twenty-five, a visitor in the country I now call home. I was here with my new American boyfriend (now my husband), on our first vacation together, a trip to the Southwest.

Since we moved to Arizona, we’ve driven the same road often, with and without our kids. We took them here as babies, later toddlers, then teenagers, and camped along it often.

I drove this road with my parents, when they first visited Arizona, and I remember my mother’s wonder and joy when we stopped at some of the sites along the road.

I also drove it with my brothers, and enjoyed the area looking at it through their eyes as visitors from a faraway land.

This was also our first destination during the pandemic, after a four-month quarantine. Still, the place never lost its magic.

You can add the drive to a day trip from Phoenix, and we often do it especially in the summer, camp in Sunset Crater and take it from there, or use it as a diversion on a longer Northern Arizona road trip.

View from Lenox Crater, along the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road
The volcanic landscape around Sunset Crater

The Story of Sunset Crater Area: Sometimes Change Comes with Violent Eruptions

What is so magical about this area, you might wonder. As the newest volcanic field in the area, it tells a story that is still fresh and visible. It is a story of change, of destruction and survival, of new lives being reborn.

Unlike the old volcanic peaks, filled with pine and other vegetation, the volcanic field around Sunset Crater still carries the signs of its formation. A formation that included destruction of everything in its surroundings.

The volcanic field around Sunset Crater
Sparse vegetation is growing on the lava bed.

I love the contrast of the black lava field and young pine trees or delicate flowers growing out of it. The striking difference in color is only the visual beauty of the image.

And the whole idea of new life growing out of the lava flow that once destroyed everything in its path fills me with hope, gives change a new meaning.

Sometimes change is slow, barely discernible.

Other times, it comes with a bang, with destruction that may leave scars. But eventually life is reborn, fresh and new, often more beautiful than before.

Sunset Crater

In and around Sunset Crater this bang, this sudden change came around 1085, with an eruption of hot lava spewing high into the air. Brewing just under the surface for a while, it eventually erupted, changing the landscape and the lives of people who lived here forever.

Driving the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road

As we turn off the highway towards Sunset Crater, things seem suddenly quieter, as if time slowed down somehow. I almost feel like the black lava covering the landscape muffled all noise.

It’s not an absence of sound I experience though, rather the absence of civilization, of city and highway noise I am so used to every day. Now I hear the wind in the pines, and an occasional bird. It feels that only the sounds of nature surround us.

1. Stop at the Pullout Near the Ponderosa Pines

Pullout along the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road
We stop at the first pullout to enjoy the fresh scent of the ponderosa pines.

We stop at the first pullout to stretch our legs, and slow down, enjoy the fresh pine-scented air and the lava pebbles under out feet. Then we get back in the car and continue the drive.

Across the meadow, a side road leads up to O’Leary Peak. Though it is not part of the scenic road, it is a short side-trip worth the drive.

Up the road, we stop in the large parking lot to enjoy the views of the Bonito Lava Flow and Sunset Crater. When we came up here during the winter once, we walked on the path paralleling the road in the snow. We found animal tracks in the fresh snow, and I even noticed something that looked like a fox at a distance crossing our path.

No matter when we drive up this road, we are usually alone here. Years ago, the road was open all the way to the top. From there, we had the opportunity to hike up all the way to the the peak. It was a hard climb, but the views at the end were absolutely worth it. Now, the road is closed halfway up, so we stop there for a walk in the pines.

Being here seems to slow time, to remind us what’s important.

3. Camp (or Just Stop) at the Bonito Campground

Getting back to the main loop, we drive through the Bonito Lava Field. More often than not, we turn into the Bonito Campground and get a campsite so we can spend all day and night in the area.

After setting up the tent, we take a walk in the lava pebbles, watching squirrels, bluejays and crows around the campground.

Grey squirrel at the Sunset Crater campground
Grey squirrel in the Bonito Campground

Once settled, we get back on the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road to explore further.

4. Stop at the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument Visitor Center

We pass through the gate into the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and stop at the Visitor Center.

This is a great place to learn about the geology of the surrounding volcanic field. The exhibits are especially fun for kids, who enjoy the experience of creating a virtual earthquake among other things. But everyone can find something interesting there.

We sit at the picnic tables just outside the Visitor Center. This gives us an opportunity to enjoy the surroundings, and watch the squirrels that inevitably approach us. No, we don’t fed them, but that doesn’t mean they are not hoping for a morsel.

We get back on the road, but stop almost immediately in the next parking lot. Here, we can choose between two separate and very different hikes. Usually, we do both.

5. Hike Up Lenox Crater

Across the street from the parking lot, we climb Lenox Crater.

Smaller than Sunset Crater, it is similar in shape. We can tell it is older though, since ponderosa pines grow on it, all around. The trail we walk on is well defined, and leads up to the top of the cinder cone on switchbacks.

Every time I go, I remember the first few years when we used to hike up the cone in a straight line, on a barely discernible trail. We used to be the only hikers on this crater, our car the only vehicle in this parking lot.

Now the lot is often full, and we usually meet a few groups or lone hikers on he trail.

Still, the trail never gets crowded (at least I haven’t seen it crowded yet). It offers a pleasant walk up the hill, even if it gives me a bit of a workout. It is an uphill climb, in lava sand, after all, though nothing like the way we used to hike up years ago, in the black sand and pebbles.

View of the San Francisco Peaks Volcanic Field from Lenox Crater in Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
View from the top of Lenox Crater – after rain

We hike the full trail, instead of returning the same way we came. This means hiking towards Sunset Crater from the top.

Once in the Sunset Crater area, we have two choices. We can continue and connect to the Bonito Vista Trail and the Lava Flow Trail at the bottom of Sunset Crater. Sometimes we do.

But for now, we return to the car and take the A’a Trail from the same parking lot.

6. Hike A Few Trails in the Bonito Lava Flow

The A’a Trail, named after the basaltic lava it goes through, is a short trail, just enough to give you a taste of the sharp, jagged lava rocks the field is comprised of.

The first time I visited Sunset Crater, there was no trail in the area. Still, we felt the need to walk into this otherworldly landscape. I wore a pair of leather cowboy boots then (nobody’s perfect), and I felt lucky I wore them since the sharp lava cut right through it when my feet brushed against it.

Now, the trail leads safely through this landscape filled with sharp boulders at every step.

Another trial through this maze of sharp, black boulders, the Lava’s Edge Trail leads back to the Visitor Center, and to the campground. We sometimes walk to it from the campground, when we stay overnight.

But for now, we get back into the car and drive over to the next stop, the main area at the bottom of Sunset Crater.

7. Hike the Bonito Vista Trail

We park at the largest parking lot in the Sunset Crater area, and start with the paved, short Bonito Vista Trail loop. It’s an easy walk in the middle of a lava field, with gorgeous views of the colorful Sunset Crater.

On the Bonito Vista Trail
On the Bonito Vista Trail

The loop is longer now, with benches along the way, and an amphitheater set in the center.

As I walk through it, I remember being here with my mom and my newborn son, just a few days old at the time. It was my first child’s first outing, and my mother’s first view of Sunset Crater. The three of us walked the much shorter paved trail while my dad and my husband took the longer loop through the lava field.

Now, I walk the same trail, though more developed, with my youngest child, who is a teenager. A teen who doesn’t mind hanging out with her mother.

We sit at the amphitheater for a short time, then move on and walk the Lava Flow Trail, our all-time favorite in the park.

8. Continue the Hike on the Lava Flow Trail

A stairway leads onto the Lava Flow Trail
A stairway leads onto the Lava Flow Trail at the base of Sunset Crater

I remember being on this trail with my kids when they were little, barely able to walk the whole mile-long loop, stopping often to play with a rock or a pine cone, telling me stories while walking up the hill at the bottom of the crater.

I’ve been on this trail with my older brother when he told me stories of his adventures of spending days underground in caves.

I’ve spent time on this trail with my younger brother more recently, listening to the wind, enjoying the flowers, connecting with nature around us, while he was teaching me about photography – and so much more.

Now I walk the same trail with my youngest child, the only one still at home, while we tell stories of our old adventures on the same trail with her siblings. She points out how the loop seems shorter now than she remembers it. She’s grown into it, ready for longer hikes.

View of Sunset Crater from the Lava Flow Trail
View of Sunset Crater from the Lava Flow Trail

We stop at the ice cave/lava tube, and sit there for a while, enjoying the cool air rushing out. And all along the trail, we enjoy the proximity of the dormant Sunset Crater, the youngest and prettiest of the hundreds of cinder cones in the area.

Eventually we circle back to the parking lot, and continue our drive on the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road.

9. Stop to Visit Wukoki Ruins

We drive 15 miles through volcanic fields, and ponderosa pines, until we see the turnoff to a short 2.5-mile drive on the right to Wukoki Pueblo, the first set of ruins we reach on the road.

Wukoki ruins. photo (c) Győző Egyed
Wukoki. photo (c) Győző Egyed

We take the short trail to the ruins, and explore the three-story tower, perched on a ledge, with gorgeous views of the surrounding landscape.

A few more structures sit farther down the path, and while we are here, we visit them all.

10. Visit Wupatki Ruins and the National Monument’s Visitor Center

Our next stop along the scenic loop is Wupatki National Monument‘s Visitor Center and the largest set of ruins in the area.

This is a good place to spend more time off the road, learning about ancient people who inhabited this area, then walking through the ruins of their village. We walk through the exhibits forming a mini-museum in the Visitor Center, and stop at the loom where I remember seeing a Navajo weaver demonstrating her craft.

Heading out to the trail, I stop at the overlook, where I can see not only the whole site, but the surrounding area and the Painted Desert in the distance.

The Tall House in Wupatki. photo (c) Jeff Fromm
The Tall House in Wupatki. photo (c) Jeff Fromm

The walk through Wupatki Pueblo is about a half-mile long and it takes us downhill into the largest ruin in the area, the 900-year old ancestral Puebloan four-story high structure featuring about 100 rooms. Though we can’t enter the structure, we can walk around it and even walk into a few rooms with opening that offer a peak into the inside of the building.

Past it, we can walk into an above-ground kiva, an ancient community room, the follow the path to the ball court.

The site also has a natural geologic feature, a blowhole. Created by the lava flowing and hardening through the area, the blowhole allows air to flow through a lava tube, and in the end we can experience air rushing out from underground.

Moonrise over the desert vistas view from Wupatki NM photo (c) Győző Egyed
Moonrise over the desert vistas view from Wupatki NM photo (c) Győző Egyed

After exploring Wupatki Ruins, we get back on the road, to drive to the next set of ruins.

11. Visit the Citadel and Nalahiku Pueblos

About ten miles farther, the next ruins we stop at are Nalahiku and Citadel Pueblos. Nalahiku is a Hopi word, meaning “house standing outside of the village”, and it is the smaller ruin at the beginning of the trail, just a few steps from the parking lot.

The more spectacular of the two is Citadel Ruin, on top of a cinder hill, visible from the surrounding pueblos. It gets windy going up the hill, but the views from the top are absolutely worth it.

12. Hike up to Lomaki and Box Canyon Pueblos

The last structures on the scenic road are Lomaki and Box Canyon Pueblos. We get to them by turning off the loop just half mile past our last stop, and following the road for about a mile.

At the end of a short trail, we reach Lomaki, a two-story, nine-room structure. Two smaller structures are surrounding the larger house. I like hiking out to this site, since it is usually so quiet, we rarely see other visitors.

Driving the Rest of the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road

Lomaki is the last stop on the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road. The drive continues west for a few miles through the high desert grasslands, with gorgeous views of a field of cinder cones to the west, the Little Colorado Basin to the northeast, and if you look back, the Kachina Peaks to the south.

The road rejoins US-89 N 15 miles farther than it started. Here, we take the highway back south towards Flagstaff, and turn off at the start to get back to the campsite.

Or, turn around, and drive it in the opposite direction, enjoying the views of the Kachina Peaks (better known as San Francisco Peaks), especially pretty at sunset.

Geology, Archaeology and History Along the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Loop

On such a short distance, we experience and learn a lot. While walking in a volcanic field, we learn to distinguish different stages of volcanoes.

Comparing two cinder cones of different ages, we can see the difference a few thousand years makes in earth’s history. This helps us understand volcanic activity, and learn geology, how part of the earth we live in forms and changes.

We see different stages of life returning to a landscape devastated by erupting volcanoes.

And then we see archaeological evidence of people who lived here over a thousand years ago.

We see vestiges of their lives, ruins of their villages. Walking through them, we gain an understanding on their lifestyle, and an appreciation of their ingenuity living in this harsh environment, with little water and vegetation.

History, both natural and human, is laid out in front of us in this landscape. All we have to do is look, travel through it with open eyes.

Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road

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