Sunset Crater at sunset

Sunset Crater: Camping in a Stunning Lava Flow

If you look at the cinder cone volcano of Sunset Crater as the sun’s last rays illuminate it, you’ll see why it got its name. The top of the volcano seems to glow in the gold and orange colors juxtaposed to the black lava around its bottom.

This gorgeous view stays even during the day when the bright sun washes out most colors. It might not be as bright, but it still showcases the same combination of colors.

Sunset Crater - view from the trail
Sunset Crater – view from the trail

No wonder we love the place. Although it is close enough for a day trip from Phoenix, perfect getaway from the summer heat for a day, we often spend more time here than we could in one day. We also use the park as a stop along a longer road trip, either through Northern Arizona, or on our way to Durango. Since it is one of my family’s favorite National Parks in Arizona, we camp here often.

The Bonito Campground

The campground is on the Bonito Lava Flow, in the shadows of tall ponderosa pines. Since we got there early, before lunchtime, we could choose from some of the best sites.

View from the Bonito Campground
Our “backyard” – view from our site.

We set up our tent on the black lava sand created about 1000 years ago.

Lava-sand, a perfect place to set up the tent
A great place to set up the tent

Grey squirrels were running up and down the surrounding trees, collecting pine cones and munching on some. Two very noisy stellar jays chattered on the tree above our picnic table. Hummingbirds were fluttering by, and ravens were flying above us. Hot during midday in the high desert, a cool breeze made our picnic more enjoyable.

We waited to set up the tent until later when things would cool down. In the meantime, we went off for a walk to take a walk on the trail through the lava flow.

We walked up on a hill behind our campsite, in search of some shade.

On the Bonito Campground
Behind our campsite, a trail led up on a small hill.

The Lava’s Edge Trail

Later on, we set off on the lava’s edge trail that connects the campsite and the Visitor Center to the Lava Flow Trail, the best known one of the Park. We didn’t hike the whole trail though; it was still too hot to walk on hot black lava with the sun beating down on us.

To be fair, most of this trail is shaded, but the ponderosa pines don’t give you much shade, especially close after midday.

We still enjoyed walking at the edge of the Bonito Lava Flow. Jagged rocks signaled the edge of the lava flow while we were walking on loose cinders and rough basalt rocks. it wasn’t an easy walk although in cooler weather I’d love to do it.

After enjoying it for a while, we turned around and drove instead.

The A’a Trail

Right off the parking lot by Lenox Crater a shorter trail, called A’a Trail leads into the sharp Bonito Lava Flow. Its name comes from the a’a basaltic lava rock that is so prevalent here, formed as the Bonito Lava Flow cooled.

This is a short and easy trail, though it is exposed, you won’t find shade here. Though I stepped on it, I didn’t walk long, leaving it for later, or for a cooler day.

Instead, we crossed the road and walked up Lenox Crater, in the shade of mature ponderosa pines.

Lenox Crater

Across from the lava trail, we climbed Lenox Crater on a well-maintained, proper trail. It was a great place to be on a hot summer day. Tall ponderosa pines surround the black sand trail that zigzags towards the top of the cinder cone.

I remember the days when this trail didn’t exist. You could still climb Lenox Crater, but the old trail was barely visible, and it climbed up in a straight line through loose lava cinders. Here, the shortest route was not the fastest route, since it took forever to reach the top through the pebbles and sand.

The trail takes us on a harder surface, easier to walk, though it’s longer.

View of Kachina Peaks from the top of Lenox Crater
On the top, we have a great view of the Katchina Peaks in Flagstaff (on maps the San Francisco Peaks)

When we got to the top, we still walked or rather ran in loose sand to get inside the cone. We were in the center of a bowl, surrounded by lava sand. The only humans in there, we enjoyed the company of a few bluejay and crows that joined us. With no breeze, it gets hot in the bowl, but we each found a tree to sit in its shade (one would not have enough shade for two people).

Waiting for a breeze, however small, to make our climb out of the bowl easier, we sat there for a while. At last, we gave up the wait and set off. The climb was short anyway, and once on top, we followed a shaded trail.

Since we thought we still had plenty of daylight, rather than turning around, we took the trail towards Sunset Crater. On the way, we enjoyed some of the best views of the famous cinder cone, at sunset, understanding why it got its name.

Sunset Crater at sunset
Sunset Crater at sunset. View from the Lenox Crater trail

Sunset Crater

A well-defined trail leads to Sunset Crater from where we were. Once off Lenox Crater, it flattens and goes through the lava bed before joining the main trail.

Trail from Lenox
On the trail from Lenox to Sunset Crater

This is the area most tourists know of Sunset Crater. Years ago, it was the only area with a proper trail.

We stopped for a break, then set off on the Interpretive Trail.

Since it was getting dark, we only walked the upper paved loop, leaving the most spectacular part of the trail for the next day. We still enjoyed great views of the Bonito Lava Flow and the surrounding volcanoes.

Back at the Campsite

The campsite was full by the time we returned though most of the people were in Winnebagos or pop-up campers. While I appreciate that many people need all their amenities with them, I miss the days when all we saw were tents in the Bonito Camp Ground.

It used to be quieter without all the motors running. It also seemed friendlier, since everyone was outside all the time, inevitable interacting with each other. You couldn’t sit inside your tent all day. Well, that’s what we get for using convenient campgrounds, with nice clean bathrooms and running water, though I appreciate both.

After dinner, we walked over to the amphitheater for the ranger talk. This time we learned about some wildlife in and around Sunset Crater.

As we went back to the tent, the full moon was so bright, I felt it was daytime. But we knew later, after the moon sets, we would get up to look at the sky.

The Night Sky in Sunset Crater

The highlight of our camp at Sunset Crater is always the night sky. On a moonless night, or after this bright celestial body sets, we have the best view of the starlit sky.

Sunset Crater is an International Dark Sky Park because it’s far from all light pollution. We knew the moon would set around 2 am this time, so we tried to go to bed early so we would wake up to enjoy the show.

When we got out of the tent in the middle of the night, the Milky Way stretched across the sky.

Milky Way
The Milky Way. Photo credit: Pixabay

We could come up for a day trip to Sunset Crater. But unless we camped, we would never see the night sky the way we do in this campground. And the view is worth it every time.

Camping in Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

A few quick facts about Sunset Crater

  1. What is Sunset Crater and when was it formed?

    A cinder cone volcano, the youngest in the Flagstaff area, Sunset Crater was formed during an eruption around 1065 that lasted about 200 years.

  2. Where is Sunset Crater?

    Sunset Crater is in Northern Arizona, just outside of Flagstaff, 18 miles from the center of town, off US-89 N.

  3. Things to do in Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

    Stop at the Visitor Center to learn about the volcano and the area.Enjoy the hiking trails. Hike on lava beds, hike into a volcano similar to Sunset Crater, called Lenox Crater, camp at the Bonito Campground and watch the night sky.

  4. Where is the Bonito Campground?

    The Bonito Campground is just outside the entrance to the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, off a paved road.

  5. When is the campground a Sunset Crater open?

    The campground is open from the end of May to mid-October. Exact dates vary depending on the year, so call if you plan on camping there in May or October. In the summer months, it’s sure to be open.

  6. Amenities at the Bonito Campground:

    Clean restrooms with flush toilets, drinking water. No hookups.Large lots and paved parking spots, picnic tables, grills and fireplaces at each site.

  7. Campground hosts

    Campground hosts live on the premises, and they can answer all your questions; they also have firewood for sale, in case you want to build a fire (except during no-burn days – you’re still in the desert, under mature ponderosa pines, it happens often)

Sunset Crater campin pin 2
sunset crater pin
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