You don’t have to go to Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest or Central America to hike a volcano. Just head north to Flagstaff.
"Almost every hill out here is a volcano," says Bob Van Belle, a National Park Service ranger.
There are more than 400 volcanoes to explore in the San Francisco Volcanic Field, in the Kaibab and Coconino national forests. Volcanic eruptions rocked the landscape sporadically throughout the field’s 6 million-year history, creating geological wonders such as Sunset Crater, Strawberry Crater and SP Crater.
While the volcanoes in the field are extinct, the field itself is active.
"Anything can happen," says Van Belle, who lived 60 miles from Mount St. Helens when it erupted in 1980. "Another Sunset Crater could pop up at any time."
SUNSET CRATER NATIONAL MONUMENT
Around the time William the Conqueror was invading England, Arizona’s youngest volcano blew ash and flaming rocks into the sky. Even the Hohokam, who were living 165 miles away in the East Valley, would have seen the smoke. Today, Sunset Crater is a national monument complete with a stateof-the-art visitors center.
"It’s kind of weird how there’s red and black ashes together (on the ground)," says Lauren Bentley of Tempe. The 10-year-old is visiting Sunset Crater with her grandparents to hike a paved trail around the base of the crater known as the Lava Flow Trail. Unfortunately for die-hard hikers, trips to the rim are prohibited; the terrain is too fragile to support human traffic.
Sunset Crater was almost blown to bits in the 1920s by a movie company that wanted to re-create an eruption. Locals protested, and Congress quickly designated the volcano a national monument.
"I like to call it Serendipity National Monument," says Al Remley, archaeology program manager for the National Park Service in Flagstaff. "It was so lucky, so fortunate, to escape that."
Length: One-mile loop
Getting there: From Flagstaff, take U.S. 89 north for 12 miles and turn right on the Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop road. Continue two miles to the visitor center. There is a $5 fee to enter.
When Sunset Crater erupted, the people living in its shadow fled 14 miles north to Wupatki Pueblo, on a mesa of the Colorado Plateau. The pueblo, an important trading center, was the meeting place for three different cultures — the Sinagua, Cohonina and Kayenta Anasazi. It stood three stories high and housed about 85 people in 100 rooms.
"This is what (Frank Lloyd Wright) was trying but could never quite do," says Remley. "This is organic architecture."
The remaining walls of the pueblo look as though they are part of the landscape. Wupatki is a Hopi word that translates to "long cut house." Length: A half-mile loop around the pueblo
Getting there: From Flagstaff, take U.S. 89 north for 12 miles and turn right at the sign on the Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop Road. The Wupatki Visitor Center is 21 miles from the junction.
Formed 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, the jagged terrain of Strawberry Crater is challenging, but the effort is worth the view. From the top you can see the Painted Desert and a field of cinder cone volcanoes.
When this volcano erupted, the entire backside was blown out.
"It’s a classic cinder cone, and one whole side has spilled out onto a huge lava field," says Van Belle.
Except for the occasional jackrabbit, this crater is secluded. You have to take unpaved forest roads to get there, so make sure your car is prepared for the journey.
Length: Two-mile loop
Rating: Moderate to difficult
Getting there: From Flagstaff, go 16 miles on U.S. 89 and turn right on Forest Road 546 for 3.4 miles. Continue east 1.1 miles on Forest Road 779 to the trailhead.
Just past Hank’s Trading Post on U.S. 89, a dirt road leads to the mostphotographed volcano on the Colorado Plateau.
You can’t miss it. SP Crater is set apart from surrounding volcanoes by its height and the near-perfect symmetry of its black cinder cone. The volcano erupted about 70,000 years ago, and the lava spewing from its base flowed four miles north.
"I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when this thing was erupting," says Mare Czinar, communications director of the hiking club Stick and Boots. "It must have been the essence of hell at its best."
Most of the lava on the crater hasn’t eroded, giving hikers "the sense of being on something that is still alive and vital," says Czinar, who has hiked the volcano twice. "The second-best thing to hiking a real live volcano would be SP Crater."
Inspired by the black spatter of lava on the rim, local cowboys suffering from a limited vocabulary named the volcano after the only indoor plumbing available in the 1890s. Turned off by the crude name, map makers went with an acronym and dubbed it SP Crater.
Today, cattle graze on surrounding pastures, and each spring the volcano is a destination of choice for geology students. SP Crater is on state trust land and there’s no restriction to access, but the hike to the rim isn’t easy. Loose cinders and the fragile terrain require a delicate "three-step" — two steps forward, one step back. It’s best to move sideways, says Czinar.
Length: One mile
Rating: Moderate to strenuous Getting there: From Flagstaff go 27 miles north on U.S. 89 to Hank’s Trading Post (Milepost 446). Turn west onto the unsigned dirt road, drive for half a mile and keep left at the fork in the road. At the sixmile mark, bear right. Follow the track 100 yards and park. (Source: Mare Czinar)