THE LAVA LAKE at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument looks like the set of a sci-fi movie. As you pull off Highway 89 heading north from Flagstaff, Ariz., the right-hand turn into the dual parks is forested and scenic. Past the guard station and the visitor’s center, another world emerges, and this dimension tells a story unlike most.
It’s December 2020 and the pandemic continues to rage. An overnight snow storm has left a few inches on the ground. The elevation is 6,960 feet near the entrance to Sunset Crater, and although the road has been plowed, the parks service employee warns of snowpack and ice until you get past the sleeping fountain of death. From there, the elevation drops nearly 1,800 feet as the 900-year-old story unfolds toward Wupatki National Monument.
Recommended soundtrack: Robert Plant's "Carry Fire"
Rolling past the visitor center, the forest floor gives way to the blackened char of the Bonita Lava Flow. It is stunning to see firsthand. Breathtaking and alarming all at once, the devastated landscape reveals the path of a terrifying explosion and river of molten lava on the Colorado Plateau dating to 1085. Stop here, and take the Lava Flow Trail, a one-mile loop that puts you inside nature’s sculpted carnage. Remarkably, you’ll find trees growing through the seemingly inhospitable ground. Mother Nature’s magic is on display.
As you continue east through the park on the 35-mile loop, check out the view of Sunset Crater and the surrounding vistas from the Cinder Hills Overlook. From there, meander lower in elevation toward the Painted Desert Overlook and Kana-A Lava Flow. If you’ve never seen it, the Painted Desert is a marvel. Plan this stop for late afternoon, with the sun angled low in the sky, pushing beams of golden light toward the horizon. The desert shimmers with horizontal ribbons of pink and purple and beige and a dozen shades of red. For extra effect, polarized sunglasses, binoculars or a camera lens filter will really accentuate the artistry of nature.
The adventure continues as the asphalt winds through a desolate land. As the Painted Desert remains in view to the east, signs of an ancient civilization begin to dot the rugged tundra ahead. Pueblos — primarily stone structures built as multi-family homes — stand amid a windswept plateau of wild grasses, leafless trees and sun-cracked earth.
From these homes, the Native people would have witnessed the volcano’s wrath. Determined and resilient, they farmed this unforgiving land. They built communities by dragging logs for roof beams from nearby forests and shaped rocks and stone into bricks with their hands and primitive tools. Mud and grass made roofs while ingenuity and guile made washing basins and fireplaces. The craftsmanship is impressive. The Wupatki and Wukoki pueblos offer short walks to experience the small rooms and tiny windows up close. A second visitor center is nearby.
As the two-lane loop leads you closer to the park’s northern reprieve, the Box Canyon dwellings demand your attention. A series of pueblos stealthily blend into the high desert, made of stone curated from the same box canyon that offers protection. The views extend every direction for miles, and the cold December wind is brisk enough to make your eyes water. The perseverance necessary to not just survive, but thrive here, forces a quick calculation of one’s fortitude and will. To the southwest, the San Francisco Peaks rise quickly from the plateau floor, cresting at 12,633 feet of stone, timber and majesty.
Arizona has much to enjoy, but Sunset Crater and Wupatki national monuments are must-sees. It can be a day trip or you can camp overnight and explore the lifestyle of a lost people.
Flagstaff’s Canyon Diablo Distillery offers unique whiskey, vodka and gin. While they don’t have a tasting room, grab a bottle of your favorite stiff and enjoy responsibly by your camp fire. I prefer the Sonoran Rose Prickly Pear Vodka.
Lava Flow Trail. It’s very short — a one-mile loop — but you won’t quite experience anything like this. The otherworldly look and feel is worth the hike.