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As part of our going to all of the nearby National Monuments and National Parks, the 3 sisters and I made our way up to the Flagstaff area, taking in Wupatki National Monument along with Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon. At the end of this day's adventures, we stopped in Flagstaff for dinner at Huhot. We were able to get the sisters their book stamped as well as numerous photos by all of us to capture the memories. We had a picnic lunch at the Sunset Crater visitor center.

Info from: https://www.nps.gov/sucr/index.htm

The Destruction and Rebirth of a Landscape

The lava flow lies on the land like a dream, a wonderland of rock. A thousand years ago, the ground was torn open and lava erupted into the sky, forever changing the landscape and the lives of the people who lived here. A thousand years later, trees and flowers grow among the rocks, and people visit the lava flow to see and remember the most recent volcanic eruption in Arizona.

Volcanoes and Lava Flows

A thousand years ago, around the year 1085 CE, this landscape would have been unrecognizable, in the midst of a violent volcanic eruption that radically changed the lives of the people who lived here. The ground shook with earthquakes for days or weeks before the eruption began, prompting mass evacuations of the pithouses and fields that now lie buried by lava. Then the ground split open along a great fissure nearly 6 miles (11 km) long, and lava erupted out of it to heights of 850 feet (260 meters) or more.

This type of “curtain of fire” eruption is relatively common among the Hawaiian volcanoes, and the eruption that occurred here at Sunset Crater in 1085 would have been quite familiar to Native Hawaiians. It may have been familiar to the people living here, too – while eruptions in this part of northern Arizona are less frequent than eruptions in Hawaii, volcanic activity here has been ongoing for hundreds of thousands of years.

As the lava fountain progressed, activity concentrated in several areas along the fissure. As the lava flung out of the fissure cooled, it fell back to earth as tiny rocks called cinders. Other, bigger pieces of lava are called lava bombs. These cinders and lava bombs began to pile up around the main vent of the eruption, creating the cinder cone we see today.

Even more lava poured out across the landscape, creating the Bonito and Kana’a lava flows. As the surface of the lava flow cooled, hot lava continued to flow underneath and occasionally break through the cooler surface, creating the jagged landscape seen on the lava flows today. These slow-moving flows filled in two small valleys to a depth of 100’ (30m) or more. If a lava flow of that depth covered Flagstaff today, the whole town would be buried, except for the top of Sechrist Hall on the university campus.

The eruption and formation of Sunset Crater Volcano incinerated the surrounding landscape, covering almost 900 square miles (2300 square km) with lava and ash. The volcano has several names given to it by Indigenous people, including Palatsmo (Red Hill, Hopi), Ha Gudni Káá (Where It Burned, Dilzhe’e Apache), and Dzil Bilátah Litsoí (Yellow-Tipped Mountain, Diné).

The lava fountain and ash cloud produced by the eruption were likely visible throughout much of the region. The ash cloud is estimated to have been around 5 miles (8 km) tall, and could have been seen from high points in the landscape from Tucson to Durango to Las Vegas. People would quickly have realized that something highly unusual was happening!

The Lava Flows Today

For decades after the eruption, little to nothing grew on the lava flows. In the dry, cold climates of northern Arizona, rock weathers slowly and soil formation occurs over many centuries. Lichens and mosses are typically the first plants to become established on new rocks, because they don’t require any soil. Over time, as those first pioneer plants grow and die and decompose, soils begin to form, and other plants begin to grow. On the lava flow today, you can see ponderosa pines, juniper, rabbitbrush, and a few other hardy plants twining their roots through the cinders for sparse water and nutrients.

The fertile soils that once filled the valley below O’Leary Peak are gone, buried below a lava flow as thick as a ten-story building. Farther from the lava flow, however, a thin layer of cinders and ash covered the sandstone and limestone hills of the Painted Desert, making it possible to grow food there. Many of the people whose homes were buried by the eruption relocated to what is today Wupatki National Monument, where they worked to rebuild their lives and develop a new way of living in a new place.

The San Francisco Volcanic Field

Sunset Crater Volcano is one of around 600 cinder cones in the Flagstaff area. This is a region of intense volcanism that began around 3 million years ago with the formation of a lava dome called Bill Williams Mountain. The San Francisco Peaks began forming soon after that, and over 2 million years they grew into an immense mountain that was probably 16,000 feet (5300 meters) tall - at one time, it was the tallest mountain in the continental US, and the 10th tallest in North America!

San Francisco Mountain lost its top around 550,000 years ago. It's not clear whether it had a major eruption, similar to the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, or whether it collapsed in an event called a "gravitational collapse." There is good evidence for both theories, and holes in both theories as well.

The San Francisco Volcanic Field is massive, covering thousands of square miles. It is likely to be the result of a process called crustal delamination. This is a geologic process by which the underside of the earth's crust is separated from the upper crust, as a result of plate movement, metamorphosis of rocks, or instabilities in mantle currents below. This detachment allows hot magma to contact the cooler crust, melting it and forcing molten rocks upwards through the crust to the surface.

Volcanic activity over the past 3 million years has produced hundreds of cinder cones, dozens of lava domes and lava flows, and the stratovolcano of the Peaks themselves, which still stands nearly 5000 feet (8000 meters) over the surrounding landscape and is home to the highest peak in Arizona. Volcanism is a part of life in this part of the world, and the field is still geologically active. In the long term, there's no doubt more eruptions will occur here and more cinder cones will form, and we - or our descendants - will adapt and learn to live with them, just like our predecessors and ancestors did.

Below the lava flows are ancient sedimentary rocks. The oldest rock layers exposed in the area, the Kaibab and Moenkopi formations, are found at Wupatki National Monument. As dry as the sun-baked desert looks today, a closer look at the rocks reveals water-formed ripples, mud cracks, river gravels, and the imprints of thousands of shells from clams, mollusks and other marine life.

Kaibab Formation

The 240 million-year-old Kaibab Formation is made of limestone, a rock type formed on the sea floor. Prior to the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, this region was near sea level and was periodically covered by large inland seas. Like all oceans, the sea covering this area was teeming with billions of microscopic organisms, whose skeletal remains gently floated to the ocean floor after the creatures died. Over millions of years, the tiny skeletons amassed and, mixed with sand and clay, formed a layer of briny ooze hundreds of feet thick. Through time, this ooze compacted and hardened to form limestone.

Moenkopi Formation

Well-preserved ripple patterns, abundant mud cracks and fossilized burrow traces are seen in the layered sandstone and shale of this formation. This deep red, 200 million-year-old rock layer records a period of meandering rivers, tidal flats and other near shore deposits laid down on top of the Kaibab after the seas had retreated westward. A new type of animal was flourishing; dinosaurs, thriving on the moist climate's lush vegetation, were roaming the land. River Gravel Deposits As the Little Colorado River cut down through the sedimentary layers over the last two million years, it left behind gravel deposits that document its ancestral meandering. These deposits form flat-topped caps of grayish gravel over many of the red Moenkopi hills.


People had been living in and around the volcanic hills of northern Arizona for generations before Sunset Crater Volcano erupted. To the Hopi, those people are the Hisatsinom, the people who came before. In the archeological literature, they are the Sinagua or the Ancestral Puebloan people. They were farmers, living all around what is now the Flagstaff area in villages and towns across the lands they tended. Their homes were pithouses, dug partially into the ground. These people lived their lives in a landscape much like what we see today: ponderosa forests and open meadows, framed by the San Francisco Peaks and other ancient volcanoes. Then, about a thousand years ago, a new volcano emerged literally before their eyes.

Warnings that something was about to occur came days or weeks ahead of time, in the form of earthquakes. No evidence has been found that people died as a direct result of the eruption, so it seems there was enough warning for people to evacuate from their homes. After the eruption, pithouses for miles around were burned and filled with cinders, and others were buried beneath the lava.

In the aftermath, the Sunset Crater area was no longer farmable. The volcano itself occupied one end of a small valley, and its two lava flows filled valleys to depths of 100 feet (34 meters). People relocated to other nearby communities like Walnut Canyon and Wupatki, where they found that thinner layers of ash and cinders from the eruption had improved the soil, holding more moisture and making traditional dryland farming easier. Within a generation after the people were displaced by the eruption, new villages had been built, new fields planted, and new lifeways begun. Agriculture and trade flourished in those areas for years before people once again moved on.

Their descendants, including the Hopi and A:shiwi, still live nearby; memories of the eruption live on in their stories and traditions. Indigenous names of the volcano often describe the eruption, like the Apache Ha Gudní Káá, which translates to "Where It Burned." Other names describe the resulting volcano, like the Hopi Palatsmo, "Red Hill" and the Diné Dzil Bilátah Litsoí, "Yellow-Tipped Mountain."

Several centuries after the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano, new groups of people began to appear in the area. In the 1530s, Estevanico, an enslaved man from Morocco and the first African to explore North America, may have passed through southern Arizona. With him were three other men, the only survivors of the ill-fated Narváez expedition. A few years later, in 1539, an Italian immigrant named Marco de Nizza crossed into Arizona in the San Rafael Valley, along the Santa Cruz River, then turned east to visit Zuni Pueblo before returning to Culiacán in the mountains of Sinaloa.

Two years after that, the Hopi town of Awatovi became the first to be visited and occupied by European colonizers. In 1540-41, a large Spanish force passed through northern Arizona. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led a force of around 2500 people, including enslaved Indigenous and African people, Indigenous allies, and around 400 armed Spanish men, northwards from Culiacán along the Pacific coast. For six months, they traveled north through the Arizona mountains to the Zuni town of Háwikku, which Coronado's army attacked and captured.

During the weeks that followed, Coronado sent out several scouting missions into the surrounding territory, where they came to Awatovi and Tusayan. From there, Hopi people led García López de Cárdenas and a small group of men westward through their homeland to the Grand Canyon. Though the canyon, Öngtupqa, has been known to the Hopi and their Indigenous neighbors for generations, it's likely that Cárdenas and his men were the first Europeans to see it.

After the Coronado expedition left the region in 1541, several decades passed without many - or any - European visitors. The next recorded visitor came to Hopi 40 years later, in 1583, when Antonio de Espejo traveled up the Rio Grande Valley and then west through Zuni, Acoma, and the Hopi mesas with a group of about 30 Indigenous servants, a dozen soldiers, a Catholic priest. Hopi guides led Espejo and his company through the Verde Valley and the mines around modern-day Jerome, Arizona.

Though the people traveling with Cárdenas's and Espejo's expeditions certainly saw the volcanoes of northern Arizona, it would be another few decades before a Spanish name was recorded for them. In 1629, the name Sierra de San Francisco was given to the Peaks, the largest of the region's volcanoes, by Catholic friars at a mission in Oraibi. The Spanish name Sierra Sin Agua, or Sierra Sinagua, is also used.

In Spain large mountain ranges often have springs, streams, and rivers, and so the Spanish armies who first used the name Sin Agua here were surprised to find mountains with little water and no permanent streams. Many Indigenous names for the mountains, however, reference snowfall and rain, and recognize the mountains as a significant water source in a dry land.

The Diné name for the Peaks is Dook'o'ooslííd, which means "the mountain that never thaws." The Hopi name is Nuva'tukya'ovi, "shining on top" or "snow on top." Dook'o'ooslííd is the western sacred mountain of the Diné. Nuva'tukya'ovi is also sacred to the Hopi, the A:shiwi (who call it Sunha K'hbchu Yalanne), and the Havasu 'Baaja (who call it Hvehasahpatch), among others.

Much later, in the 1800s, white colonists arrived in the region, and with them came ranching, logging, mining, and the railroad. The English name Sunset Volcano was given to the cinder cone by John Wesley Powell in 1885. He wrote:

The contrast in the colors is so great that on viewing the mountain from a distance, the red cinders seem to be on fire.

In 1928 a movie company wishing to film a landslide proposed blowing up Sunset Crater Volcano. The citizens of Flagstaff feared irreversible damage to the volcano and advocated for its protection. In 1930 President Hoover established Sunset Crater National Monument and the National Park Service took on responsibility for the geologic and human history of the site. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) assisted in construction of some roads and visitor facilities during the 1930s, and others were constructed during the Mission 66 years.

Since 2000 Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument has had an average of around 165,000 visitors each year. Volcanic landscapes are in great abundance in northern Arizona, as is human history both ancient and new, and nowhere is the relationship between the two quite so apparent as it is here. Human activity has long been an essential part of this landscape, and as the National Park Service moves into its second century of managing public lands, questions of how much and what type of human activity is acceptable, permissible, or desirable continue to emerge. Our impact on this landscape - both collective and individual - will determine its future.


The high, arid Colorado Plateau region is world-renowned for its many well-preserved archeological sites. We may think first of excavations or arrowheads, but archeology involves a wide range of structures and objects - all the things used by past peoples in their daily lives. Archeologists study all these resources - from the smallest piece of pottery, to charcoal and food remains, to the rock and wood remains of large buildings. These things, and the places where they are found, teach us more about the people who lived here and help us to connect their lives with ours.

Through the findings of archeologists, people from the past can speak to us today. What did people eat? Did they hunt elk, pronghorn, deer, rabbits? Gather plants and berries? Grow crops? Did they weave cloth? Trade with others? How long did they live? Were they healthy? Modern archeologists use both shovels and high tech tools to answer questions like these. Sometimes there are glimpses, through the artifacts left behind, of how a society functioned, or what its people believed. It is up to all of us to preserve the archeological story. Each fragment, each stone structure, is a unique piece of the past.


Almost everywhere that clay was available, agricultural societies developed the skill of pottery manufacture. In the southwestern United States, pottery making was a household industry. This resulted in the production of large amounts of pottery, much of which still exists today. Remnant pieces of pottery, called sherds or potsherds, are common across the region, and are difficult to destroy. One of the reasons, then, that archeologists spend so much time studying pottery, is that it exists in much larger quantities than highly perishable materials such as baskets, clothing, or other organic material. When examining pottery of different cultures, archeologists study the clays and other materials used, the manufacturing methods, and the types of decoration.

Types of pots

Over 500 types of pottery have been classified in the Southwest. More than fifty have been found just in the Flagstaff area. There is a formal naming system for pottery, each type having a geographic designation followed by a description. Examples found here are Sunset Red, Sunset Corrugated, and Flagstaff Black-on-White.

The presence of so many pottery types in the region has long intrigued archeologists. It was first believed that there had been a massive migration of members of many cultures into the area. Now it is considered more likely that there was extensive trade occurring, of both pots and techniques for making and decorating them.


Sunset Crater Volcano is the youngest of around 600 volcanic features in the San Francisco Volcanic Field, which is a large volcanic area around the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona. The eruption that formed Sunset Crater occurred about 1000 years ago, and also produced two lava flows.

The Bonito Lava Flow is the more accessible of these two flows. Located almost entirely within Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, the Bonito Flow is about 1.5 miles (2.5 km) long and consists almost entirely of a'a lava. The Kana'a Lava Flow is east of the monument and partially visible along the Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop Road.

Both of these lava flows, the cinder cone, and much of the rest of the surrounding area are surrounded by ponderosa pine forests and parks. The ponderosa forest of northern Arizona is one of the largest in the world, and it grows here largely because of the volcanic rocks deposited by millennia of volcanic activity within the San Francisco field.

Around the outer edges of the San Francisco Volcanic Field are the high deserts of the Colorado Plateau. To the north and east is the Painted Desert, home to Petrified Forest National Park and Wupatki National Monument. To the south is the Mogollon Rim and the Verde Valley, and to the west are the open range of the Coconino Grasslands and the Eastern Mojave Basin and Range.

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