Arizona’s Meteor Crater and Sunset Crater Volcano Park
A Passage into the Past outside of Flagstaff, Arizona
By Susmita Sengupta
Close to 50,000 years ago, a meteorite weighing several hundred thousand tons and stretching about 150 feet across slammed into the earth with an explosive force of more than 20 million tons of TNT.
This collision created a crater with a depth equal to the height of a 60-story building. We were at Meteor Crater located about 35 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona and one of the best places to see a meteorite impact site on Earth.
Our trip to Arizona had of course been to see the major tourist attraction of the Grand Canyon, but it turned out that the lesser visited places were equally mesmerizing and fascinating. Therefore, we tried to see as many of these sights that we could in the few days that we had at our disposal.
The Meteor Encounter
We started our tour at the Meteor Crater Visitor Center where there were plenty of displays and exhibits on meteors, asteroids, comets and such with special emphasis on collisions and impacts in the solar system with escalated scenarios of their impact on the earth.
Next, a short movie allowed us to experience the sound and fury of the iron and nickel meteorite as it detached from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and crashed into this part of Northern Arizona.
We were ready to see the real crater now. According to the promotional leaflet provided at the visitor center, the crater is 550 feet deep, over 4000 feet across and has a circumference of 2.4 miles.
When the meteorite struck, the landscape around of flat rocky plain fragmented completely. A giant, bowl-shaped cavity with a rim height of 150 feet was formed.
I stood at one of the lookout points and stared into the bleak, rock-strewn and reddish brown insides of the crater and noticed someone had made it to the bottom.
Possibly an employee as visitors are not permitted to go inside the crater. Although the natural phenomenon of erosion has partially filled up the bottom and worn out the rim sides, looking at the cavernous, gigantic expanse still takes one’s breath away.
Yes, it does bring to mind that other vast chasm called Grand Canyon about a hundred miles away that we would see later in our trip. However, the difference is that while the canyon formed over millions of years, Meteor Crater was created in an instant.
What was interesting to know is that the crater when first discovered in the 19th century was thought to have volcanic origins. This was not an unusual notion as the San Francisco volcanic fields lie merely 40 miles away. Only a little more than 100 years ago, a mining engineer named Daniel Barringer whose family still owns this attraction suggested that the crater might be the result of a meteorite impact.
His company started mining operations at the bottom of the crater with intentions of finding the buried original meteorite. It was fruitless as he was unaware that impacts vaporize meteorites.
The Volcano Effect
We drove out from here and on to our next destination of Sunset Crater Volcano National Park. All around us was flat, arid, red-brown scrubland of a desert landscape and the magnificent, snowy Humphreys Peak in the distant background glittered in the sun. This is the highest peak in the San Francisco Mountain, which also includes Arizona’s youngest volcano, Sunset Crater.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the San Francisco volcanic field spreads over an area of 1800 square miles, is about 6 million years old and contains more than 600 extinct volcanoes.
The San Francisco Mountain is a stratovolcano, which is cone-shaped composite volcanoes and includes the world’s most famous and picturesque volcanoes such as Mount Fuji of Japan and Mt. Etna of Italy and Mt. Saint Helens in Washington State among others.
Very soon, we left behind the dry landscape and entered an environment that was unlike any other. The road meandered through semi-barren, black, cinder fields with little vegetation. There were towering pine trees, pinyon pine as I found out later, amidst a volcanic lava terrain.
We decided to stop for a moment to better experience the lava, something we had never seen before. Later on, I discovered that there are actually two volcanoes here. The first being the namesake of the park, which is the larger one and the other, called Lenox Crater Volcano, which is older.
The Sunset Crater Volcano erupted in 1064-65 CE, which created the Bonito lava flow, and its effect is still seen on the topography. There is a trail that provides a wonderful view of the blackened landscape all around.
Close by to the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is the Wupatki National Monument, comprised of the ancient Puebloan homes of the people who inhabited this area about 800 years ago. We took a self-guided tour of Wupatki Pueblo, the largest dwelling at the place.
The people who lived here are considered the ancestors of Hopi, Navajo and Zuni Indians who probably migrated from the drought-prone regions in the Colorado Plateau in the 1100s.
The Spanish knew them as Sinagua Indians as they were able to make a living essentially “without water”. They were adept at growing corn in the nutrient poor soil of this region.
However, by 1250, the majority of Sinaguans had left this area. The ones left behind adapted to the changing environment and all we can see today are the remains of their masonry pueblos.
While there are several pueblos located in various parts of the monument park, the Wupatki Pueblo is the largest of the lot. It is a multi-level house with about 100 rooms.
The red masonry elaborate structure is an impressive sight rising up almost as one with its red soil and brush grass surroundings.
I found out that the red stones are thin, flat blocks of a local sandstone known as Moenkopi sandstone.
After exploring the pueblo ruins, we walked farther ahead to a circular open area with stepped seating which turned out to be the common room and nearby we saw something unusual known as a blowhole. This natural vent blows out or sucks in air depending on the atmospheric pressure and is linked to underground passages. My daughter enjoyed holding her jacket over it while the air blew out.
Castle in the Sky
The Wupatki Pueblo visit reminded me of the other Sinagua habitats we had visited the previous day. That would be the ancient ruins of Montezuma Castle situated about 50 miles south of Flagstaff. Also built in the 1100s, it is one of the earliest and most well-preserved cliff dwellings in America. The Southern Sinagua was a prehistoric culture that lived in this valley doing farming, hunting, and gathering.
Under the blazing sun, we looked up at tiny openings about 100 feet above us. Mud plastered curved walls were carved into the whitish brown limestone cliffs creating a spectacular effect. The dwellings face south to get maximum sun into the interiors and it is a five-story, twenty-room structure situated in an alcove of the cliff.
Earlier thought to be Aztec in origin (thus the name Montezuma), the structure was correctly identified as Sinagua in origin in the 19th century and was quickly declared a national monument in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Iconic Natural Wonder
We capped off our trip by visiting the majestic Grand Canyon, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Mather Point, closest to the parking lot is heavily congested but that did not deter us from enjoying the magnificent view and vista of the canyon that spread out before us.
The Colorado River took more than 6 million years to carve out the canyon, I read in the brochure. I realized in that moment of taking in the awe-inspiring sight that this provided the perfect conclusion to our journey into Arizona’s past.
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Susmita Sengupta is a freelance writer who loves to travel. She and her family have traveled to various parts of the USA, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, Middle East, Southeast Asia and India. She lives in New York City with her family.