Just north of Flagstaff, Arizona, you'll find a vast array of national monuments, forests and parks. One of the most unique parks within the region is Sunset Crater Volcano - its unique and violent history has resulted in incredible formations that will leave you hungry for more information and knowledge about the area.
If you're heading here in the summer, you'll have a few options for primitive campsites in the area. Summer in the park boasts opportunities for hiking, ranger-led discovery hikes, and the chance to see the area's famous night sky become splattered with millions of stars. In the winter, it might be best as a day trip, as many of the campgrounds in the area close once cold weather comes.
The landscape in this area is so unique that NASA sent the astronauts of the Apollo 16 and 17 expeditions to the Bonito Lava Flow to train, test out field equipment, and gain knowledge and appreciation for the stunning geological landscapes.
GPS devices often struggle with finding Sunset Crater Road, so make sure you do your research before you start driving. A lot of GPS devices will direct you towards dirt roads in the forest - avoid these if you are not in a high-clearance, four wheel drive vehicle.
If you're driving from Flagstaff, take U.S. 89 north for 12 miles, and then turn right onto the Sunset Crater - Wupatki Loop road. In two miles, you'll be at the visitor center. This drive should take about 30 minutes.
There are no campgrounds within the boundaries of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Luckily, just across the from the visitor's center is Bonito Campground, operated by the United States Forest Service.
The campground is generally open from late May to mid October, and there are no hookups available. Generators are allowed between 6 am to 10 am, and there are flush toilets and drinking water available. Each site has tables, fire rings and cooking grills, paved roads, and spurs.
The maximum RV and trailer lengths allowed here are 42 feet. Pets are welcome if they remain on leash.
Sunset Crater Volcano has five hikes, ranging from 0.2 miles to 3.4 miles. These hikes will take you to the jagged basaltic lava formations along the Bonito Lava Flow, through the Ponderosa pine forest, and across fields of cinders.
Remember that the weather in Arizona can be quite hot in the summer, even at higher elevations. To avoid the heat, you might consider hiking during the early or later portions of the day. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen with you.
If you're interested in the geological and ecological history of this unique area, reserve a spot in one of the ranger-led discovery hikes. You'll have the options of exploring the Bonito Lava Field or walking among the cinder fields to learn how NASA used this area to prepare for their lunar explorations.
These hikes are held seasonally and limited to groups of 15 people or less. If this is something you want to do on your trip, make sure you make a reservation in advance.
Flagstaff, just thirty minutes south of Sunset Crater Volcano, was the first Dark Sky city in the United States, and this area is an International Dark Sky Community.
Throughout the surrounding national monuments, you'll find plenty of opportunities for Night Sky events. Check online for the activity schedule, and you might be able to catch a solar viewing or star party.
The winter months in Sunset Crater Volcano can be pretty grueling - even though it's in the south, its high elevation means temperatures will drop below freezing, and there will be heavy snow fall. The campgrounds in the area will be closed, but if you want to visit, you still have the option of taking the scenic loop to see the vast landscapes blanketed in snow.
If you choose to do this, make sure you call the rangers ahead of time to assess road conditions, and definitely be prepared with a 4x4 vehicle.
Just 16 miles away from Sunset Crater Volcano, you'll find the Wupatki National Monument, another stunning park that is definitely worth a visit.
During the winter, they offer guided discovery hikes that will take you through archeological sites, petroglyphs, and unique flora and fauna that make this monument another incredible must in the area.
Sunset Crater Volcano's stunning landscapes are formed by the area's unique, volcanic history. If the weather isn't great, spend some time in the visitor center's interactive exhibit, and catch their film about the volcanic activity.
After you've seen the film, take a look at their working seismograph. The center is open every day except Christmas Day and has a bookstore, restrooms, and picnic tables.