I have been within the monument several times but aside from a short venture last fall, I hadn’t focused on the expansive volcanic fields in any detail. This time I was intent on seeing every bit of the area within the boundaries I could, and to that extent I was successful. My first stop was an overlook above the Bonita lava flow, the main such feature protected in the monument. There is a trail that winds down a short way for the intrepid explorer, though on every side are the jagged organic faces of the fractured stone. Every surface on the lava is devilishly sharp; I have no doubt that if one were to fall any distance they would lose half their skin before they could blink.
A few scraggly pines make this place home, though I don’t know what they find to grow in. Any other living things are restricted to small shrubs and grasses, and quite a few small lizards. The stone is unforgiving, but on much of its surface the actions of lichen break it down into soil with ponderous slowness. Perhaps some day the lava will be degraded into something more hospitable, but the area dates back nearly a thousand years, so any change will be imperceptibly gradual.
Just across from the lava flow overlook is a trail ascending Lenox crater, an older and more weathered volcano. I decided to slush through all 300 vertical feet of loose cinders in my quest for discovery, and thankfully the view from the top was worth it. The whole week had been quite breezy but the rim of the caldera was being blasted by winds I hadn’t felt since Mormon Lake a month or so back. It was obvious that the plants on the rim were used to that kind of treatment, as even the old growth pines were bent to the leeward side. Looking out I had a great view of the San Francisco Peaks, still with a bit of snow in the shaded valleys. For those unfamiliar with the area, the Peaks are also a massive volcano, though much older than Sunset Crater. The whole area around Flagstaff is practically a volcanic hotbed, though the last activity happened before any recorded history.
After Lenox Crater I headed to the nearby trail at the base of the monument’s namesake itself. I had the misfortune of getting there at the same time as several busloads of schoolkids, though, so maneuvering the narrow trails in peace sometimes got tricky. Aside from that there were several interesting features along the trail including massive ponderosa pines, expansive pits of razor-sharp lava, a “spatter cone” formed from a volcanic vent, and the entrance to an ice cave which was barred off so heavily you couldn’t drive a tank through it. It stands to reason that with all these features clustered in a fairly small area, there must be many more out on the other lava flows, but the unearthly geography makes exploration nearly impossible. Regardless, the trail was quite enjoyable and was one of my favorite parts of the monument.
From there I continued along the loop road looking for any other attractions, and the last one in the monument was the Cinder Hills Overlook. Atop a low ridge I got a great view of the area to the east of the park, comprised of more than 400 (I kid you not) additional volcanoes. Even from that distance I could tell that many of the cinder hills were used for offroad fun, evidenced by the tire tracks crisscrossing the exposed surfaces.
After the overlook was where my misadventure started; I made a lighthearted decision to check out a dirt road just across the main way and subsequently got my car stuck in the cinder banks while trying to turn around and head back out. The area becomes dramatically depopulated around sunset but I was lucky to find people willing to get me to an area with cell reception (the entrance to the monument, in case you ever need to know) so I could call a tow truck. Several hours of walking, riding, and driving later found me at home again, thankfully with an otherwise undamaged car. Moral of the story – front-wheel drive cars in snow tires are not dune buggies (and no, I don’t have a picture, so don’t ask).
As always, the pictures above are linked to the new gallery for your browsing pleasure. This may be the last photo shoot for a while as I have relocated to Phoenix and I value my mind not being at the mercy of heat stroke thank you very much. If I do get out somewhere more bearable and get some good shots, I will definitely post them here. I recently stumbled on one of my older outings which I hadn’t uploaded yet (consequently, from nearby Wupatki) so those will be going up soon, but I’ll need to find other ways to keep this place rolling over the summer. Perhaps some of that writing or changes to the Playlist and Booklist features I promised you. All coming soon, so stick around!