by Jeff Goulden (Published by the Arizona Daily Sun - June 11, 2020)
When famed Civil War soldier, explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell directed the U.S. Geological Survey, he was in northern Arizona exploring the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The year was 1885 and Powell was particularly impressed by a red-rimmed cinder cone north of Flagstaff.
He noted in his journal: “A portion of the cone is of bright reddish cinders, while the adjacent rocks are of black basalt. The contrast in the colors is so great that on viewing the mountain from a distance the red cinders seem to be on fire. From this circumstance, the cone has been named Sunset Peak ... which seems to glow with a light of its own."
Now called Sunset Crater, the peak is a well-known landmark among the more than 600 volcanoes in the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The cone formed nearly 1,000 years ago when basalt magma rose to the surface through a primary vent in the terrain. Gas pressure produced a linear lava fountain about 850 feet high. Erupting lava fragmented into small pieces and cooled in flight, landing as black cinders. The eruption became centered on a single vent, creating the 1,000-foot-high Sunset cinder cone.
The eruption also produced the Bonito lava flow that extends 1.6 miles northwest from the crater and the earlier Kana-a lava flow that extends 6 miles northeast. The eruption covered an 810-square-mile area with a blanket of black cinders, forcing the local Sinagua people to abandon their settlements. Sunset Crater was a short-lived volcano, lasting only months to a couple of years at the most. When the eruption was over, however, it had forever changed the landscape and the people who lived in the area.
Despite its landmark status, Sunset Crater was almost mutilated in 1928. Paramount Pictures, planning to make a movie of Zane Grey’s novel “Avalanche,” wanted to detonate the north flank of the crater and film the resulting landslide. A public outcry against this proposal was led by Harold S. Colton, director of the Museum of Northern Arizona. As a result of this effort, President Herbert Hoover established Sunset Crater as a National Monument on May 26, 1930. In 1990 the area was renamed Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
Today the protected area includes 3,040 acres and is managed by the National Park Service.
On June 5, 2015, it was reported from satellite images that steam was rising from the crater. This fueled speculation that Sunset Crater was erupting. It was later revealed what looked like steam was actually a small lightning-ignited wildfire.
Sunset Crater is located 15 miles north of Flagstaff, along U.S. Highway 89. The visitor center (with new exhibits starting this spring) is located 2 miles east of the monument entrance. Continuing past the visitor center, a 34-mile scenic drive takes you through the surroundings of Sunset Crater, into the adjacent Wupatki National Monument, and eventually back to Highway 89.
There are multiple hiking trails around Sunset Crater. The Lava Flow Trail is a 1-mile, self-guided loop at the base of the crater. This easy trail skirts the Bonito Flow's otherworldly landscape of cinders and black lava. Further west, the Lenox Crater Trail is a 1.6-mile easy loop providing outstanding views of cinder fields and the San Francisco Peaks. The 3.4-mile roundtrip Lava's Edge trail and short A’a loop are located between the Lava Flow parking lot and the visitor center. Hiking to Sunset Crater’s summit is no longer permitted. The trail was closed in 1974 to prevent further erosion.
After 1,000 years, Sunset Crater remains the youngest volcano on the Colorado Plateau. The red crater rim and the dark lava flows are still a jagged and inhospitable terrain. In much of the surrounding area, however, plants and trees have returned, along with the animals that depend on them for food and shelter.
In my lifetime of hiking and photography, I’ve had opportunities to visit numerous volcanoes and craters. It always gives me pleasure to see life returning to a previously devastated area. I’m constantly in awe of the earth’s capacity to heal itself despite the destruction that can be inflicted upon it by either nature or humankind.
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Jeff's Photo Blog
In this Photo Blog I have combined my 50 year passion for photography and my love of the natural world, creating a portfolio that reveals nature in its pure and simple beauty. I am pleased to share my passion with you through this blog.