Don’t overlook three magnificent Flagstaff national monuments—Sunset Crater Volcano NM, Wupatki NM, and Walnut Canyon NM—when planning your Northern Arizona itinerary.
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Table of Contents
- 1 Flagstaff National Monuments
- 2 Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
- 3 Wupatki National Monument
- 4 Walnut Canyon National Monument
- 5 Montezuma Castle National Monument
- 6 Lodging
- 7 Map It!
- 8 Happy Trails! An Arizona Road Trip
- 9 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 10 Pin this Post!
When we took the train from Williams, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon, we learned that the historic town is called the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.”
But for many visitors—especially those traveling from Phoenix and other points south and east—you have to go through Flagstaff to reach the canyon’s South Rim.
If you have ever visited Grand Canyon National Park, then you will agree it deserves all of the attention it receives. But the canyon often overshadows three incredibly worthy NPS units near Flagstaff with bragging rights of their own.
Flagstaff National Monuments
On a cool fall morning we set out on U.S. Route 89, the same highway that leads to the Grand Canyon, to tour two of Flagstaff’s national monuments.
The landscape north of town is dominated by a lovely volcanic mountain range called the San Francisco Peaks. That day the higher elevations were painted with autumn golds of quaking aspen trees.
We would learn later, on a visit to the Museum of Northern Arizona, that more than 200,000 years ago the entire mountain range was a single volcanic mountain reaching heights greater than 15,000 feet.
Instability, perhaps triggered by an earthquake, caused the cone of San Francisco Mountain to collapse, losing 2,500 feet of elevation and creating the range of peaks that exist today.
I love ride-through national parks such as Petrified Forest NP and Joshua Tree NP because the main routes through the parks provide easy access to all of the best features. I always leave with a sense of having fully experienced the parks at the end of my drive.
Two of Flagstaff’s national monuments, Sunset Crater Volcano NM and Wupatki NM, offer a similar drive-through experience. Visitors have the option of driving the 35-mile Loop Road through both monuments from south to north or north to south.
We opted to do the drive beginning at the south entrance, so we stopped by the visitor center to collect our National Parks Passport stamps and consult with the ranger at the information desk.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Sunset Crater was the final eruption within the San Francisco volcanic field, a 1,800-square mile area containing 600 volcanoes dating back 6 million years.
Today, nearly half of the monument’s 3,040-acre landscape is occupied by the Bonito Lava Flow, the remains of the volcanic eruption that occurred between 1040 and 1100 AD.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument was established by proclamation of President Herbert Hoover in 1930 to protect the natural feature. Two years earlier, a Hollywood film company had made plans to detonate explosives on the side of the crater to create a rock slide for Zane Grey’s silent motion picture, Avalanche.
We departed the visitor center, and soon fields of rough basaltic lava formations appeared along the roadsides.
We turned into the next pullover for an immersive walk along the A’a Trail, a .2-mile easy loop. Amazed at the forces of nature, I had one of those overwhelming moments I often experience in national parks.
The rugged terrain of the lava flow made it the perfect training grounds for NASA astronauts in the 1960s, learning to pilot the lunar rover and function in their bulky space suits in preparation for the Apollo missions.
Ancient meadows and forests were utterly destroyed by the “billowing ash, falling cinders,” and lava flow from the eruption. But through the centuries seeds took root in the nooks and crannies of the volcanic soil, and today ponderosa pines, aspen, rabbitbrush, and more than 160 documented plant species inhabit the monument landscape.
We paused for the obligatory selfie while out on the trail. On bright days like this, you either squint or wear shades.
The pullover for the A’a Trail also gives access to the Lava’s Edge and Lenox Crater trailheads.
Bonito Vista and Lava Flow Trails
Just up the road we pulled into a large parking area with access to two trails. The Bonito Vista Trail is a lovely accessible .3 mile out and back route.
A fallen ponderosa pine resembles driftwood though hundreds of miles from the ocean.
You can view Sunset Crater Volcano from the southwest along the Lava Flow Trail, a 1-mile partially paved loop.
Tax dollars at work were evident at this location, with ongoing construction and improvements to the site’s infrastructure. Factoring in current federal budget cuts, this is one reason I never begrudge paying a fee to enter NPS sites or buy annual passes.
Cinder Hills Overlook
Perhaps the best view of the volcano is from the northeast at the Cinder Hills Overlook.
Due to excessive erosion, the trail to the summit of the 1,000 foot cinder cone was closed to hikers in 1973.
For park guests who want to scale heights or view craters, there are three alternatives:
- The 1.6-mile loop Lenox Crater Trail through a ponderosa pine forest provides elevated views of the lava flow and surrounding peaks. The crater there is more like a slight depression.
- The 5-mile O’Leary Peak Trail is more of a commitment, but it offers stellar views of Sunset Crater, the Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks, and the Painted Desert to the north.
- For an amazing below-ground crater view, drive forty miles east of Flagstaff to Meteor Crater (post coming soon).
Painted Desert Vista
Along the Loop Road between Sunset Crater and Wupatki, there is a parking area and overlook called Painted Desert Vista. It is an impressive view, but binoculars come in handy.
Up the road we came upon an even better roadside view of the distant colorful formations.
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Wupatki National Monument
Wupatki National Monument preserves the location of an ancient settlement on the Colorado Plateau. Although the site was inhabited as early as 500 AD, researchers believe there was an increase in population following the eruption of the Sunset Volcano in the 11th century.
As always, we arrived at the visitor center and collected our National Parks Passport stamps. Heading out the rear exit, we almost immediately came upon a stunning panoramic view of the Wupatki Pueblo ruins.
Archaeological discoveries at the site indicate that the pueblo was inhabited by various Ancestral Puebloans such as the Cohonina, Kayenta, Anasazi, and Sinagua. Some of the inhabitants practiced agriculture, growing squash and maize in the beneficial ash fall from the Sunset Volcano eruption.
More than 125 types of pottery uncovered on site indicate that the pueblo was also a center for trade.
The multi-level high-rise dwelling constructed with stone walls, clay mortar, and wooden beams housed around 100 rooms.
Two circular structures at the site served different purposes. The circle in the foreground was a community room and meeting place. The distant circle served as a ceremonial ball court.
There are five additional key pueblo sites within the monument boundaries—Wukaki, Citadel, Nalakihu, Lomaki, and Box Canyon—but due to a strange occurrence we did not get to visit them.
Insider Tip: Arizona does not recognize Daylight Saving Time, but the Navajo Nation does.
Although the Loop Road is not routed through Navajo lands, apparently we came close enough to the adjacent Navajo reservation that the GPS in our rental vehicle pinged it and moved the dashboard clock ahead one hour.
We could have spent another hour exploring additional pueblo sites at Wupatki NM, but believing we were running an hour behind we headed out of the park to our next itinerary destination.
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Movie buffs will appreciate that both Sunset Crater and Wupatki served as locations in the 1969 road movie Easy Rider. Wyatt and Billy pick up the hippie hitchhiker near the intersection of Highway 89 and Loop Road, then they ride the Loop Road to Lomaki Pueblo where they shot the overnight campfire scene.
To fully experience the national monuments at Sunset Crater and Wupatki, guests should plan for at least three to four hours.
The current admission fee, including both monuments, is $25 per vehicle, which is why I encourage visitors to purchase an annual National Parks pass for $80. The pass covers everyone in your vehicle and is valid for access to all federal lands in the United States.
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Walnut Canyon National Monument
We toured Walnut Canyon National Monument the next morning, after dutifully collecting our National Parks Passport stamps in the visitor center. The crisp autumn air was perfect for exploring the site of an ancient civilization in a truly singular location.
Located just ten miles east of Flagstaff, Walnut Canyon is environmentally worlds away from the landscapes that surround it.
Between 1125 and 1250 AD, the narrow canyon walls carved over millions of years by Walnut Creek became home to the Sinagua people.
The Sinaguans constructed cliff dwellings along three U-shaped bends in the canyon. The best way to see their locations is by identifying the cliff dwelling ruin symbols on the map.
The Island Trail
The Island Trail is a 1-mile loop around the central U-shaped bend in Walnut Canyon, and it is the main way to explore the monument.
To hike the trail you need an hour, and the ability to descend 185 feet into the canyon by way of 240 steps, and make the return trip up the stairs. Although the trail is paved, it is not ADA accessible due to the steep terrain.
Five microclimates and biological communities exist within the monument, resulting from the positions of the curved canyon walls in relation to the sun.
Douglas fir and ponderosa pines grown along the shaded north-facing walls of the canyon.
Sunny, south-facing slopes are populated with varied species of cactus and agaves.
Several varieties of walnut trees grow along the canyon floor 350 feet below.
The Island Trail leads monument guests past the ruins of twenty-five pueblo rooms.
Soot-blackened walls from homefires that burned in the 1200s are still evident today.
Solid stone overhangs gave cliff dwellers protection from the elements.
It is possible to see additional cliff dwellings across the canyon with the naked eye, but binoculars will bring them into closer focus.
The striated rock formations on the lower level are petrified sand dunes.
The Rim Trail
The .7-mile out and back Rim Trail follows the edge of Walnut Canyon to two overlooks. The trail is relatively level and the segment of the trail to the first overlook is paved and accessible.
We did not hike the Rim Trail, but we did walk through a forest of juniper and pinyon to the partially reconstructed ruins of a pueblo and pithouse.
The canyon floor is not accessible to monument guests.
Admission to Walnut Canyon National Monument is $15 per person. Children under age 16 are admitted free.
Like the city of Flagstaff, all three national monuments have been designated International Dark Sky Parks.
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Montezuma Castle National Monument
If you are up for a drive, you can visit one more national monument south of Flagstaff. Less than an hour away, Montezuma Castle National Monument and Montezuma Well are two additional locations once inhabited by the cliff-dwelling Sinagua people.
You can read about our visit and learn more about the monument in our post Things to Do on a Drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Arizona.
The spacious rooms and suites at Little America Flagstaff are newly renovated with a contemporary Southwest motif.
This is such a great property, and you will find it a welcomed respite after an adventurous day exploring Flagstaff national monuments.
Happy Trails! An Arizona Road Trip
Be sure to check out Happy Trails! An Arizona Road Trip for a loop itinerary through central and eastern regions of the state. To access specific segments of the route, navigate directly using the links below:
- Part 1: Phoenix to Tucson to Safford
- Part 2: Safford to Pinetop-Lakeside
- Part 3: Pinetop to Whiteriver to Greer
- Part 4: Pinetop to Salt River Canyon to Mesa
- Part 5: A Day Trip on the Arizona Apache Trail
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you visited any Flagstaff national monuments? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!