Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument erupted sometime between 1040 and 1100. Families can find lava flows and cinders still look as fresh and rugged as the day they formed. Walk the one mile Lava Flow Trail and see the lava flows and cinders at the base of the crater.
Now, West Coast Families may be used to hiking volcanoes for fun. They may or may not bat an eyelash at the thought of spending the day frolicking in ancient lava fields, but let me tell you... For us East-Coasters, hiking volcanoes is about as awesome as it gets!
"What did you do last summer?"
"I hiked a volcano!"
And, bam, you instantly become the coolest person in the room.
To me, Sunset Crater is one of the most amazing things we've ever done.
We stopped at the Visitor Center, picked up our Junior Ranger activities, and then proceeded to the Lava Flow Trail.
This trail is about a mile long, and relatively flat. There are a few jagged edges, as you are literally hiking through ancient lava formations. But, overall, this a simple hike through an awe-inspiring experience.
Letting the kids touch and feel different kinds of rocks, find a variety of desert plants, and spot the occasional lizard or small mammal skittering through is just a fantastic day in our books.
From there, head North along the 34-mile scenic loop that takes you into the Wupatki National Monument. You'll pass through several different lava fields, conifer forests, and juniper fields; and then you'll be rewarded with amazing views of the Painted Desert off in the distance. Don't forget to enjoy the views of the snow-capped San Francisco peaks in the rear view!
If you have a chance, definitely check out Wupatki, and any of the 6 pueblos open to the public. It's another great area where even the youngest kids can safely explore, learn, and have a blast!
As I mentioned in my review of Wupatki, I think these two places offer a far more kid-friendly experience than the Grand Canyon itself. While in the area, make time to catch these two parks on your way to the South Rim, and you'll be glad you did!
After driving through the AZ desert, Sunset Crater is set in a welcome forest of trees in FLagstaff. The air is crisp & cool & there is a lot to see. While you cannot hike to the crater, there is an EXCELLENT view of the cinder cone as you drive into the park. Stop at the Ranger Station to complete the Junior Ranger Program - a free program for kids that encourages them to explore & learn more about the park. When you turn in your booklet, you are sworn in as a Junior Ranger & given a badge. Drive just past the Visitors Center to see some awesome lava flows. A bit further on is an area where you can either hike a short loop with views of the lava flows, or take the slightly longer trail down into the actual flows. Great scenery & a neat view as you look up from the sea of black. There is a campground with plents of nice spaces, as well.
There is a visitors center where you begin your adventure. In this center is a long, but informative video about the volcano that formed the crater and the native people it affected. The kids would watch for a minute, then fi d something else fun to do, then cone back. There were a bunch of fun hands on things for kids to experience at the visitors center too so you won't want to skip it. My 8 year old loved the seismometer that you jumped on to measure how big of earthquakes your jumps made.
You cannot climb the actual crater, but my kids loved the lava flows that we were able to hike through. After getting out of the car my 3-year-old screamed "ahh, hot lava, we're gonna get burned!" But he was joking and we really excited. It is a short hike but get for small kids, especially if they are going through a volcano phase, which mine were.
We only planned time for the crater, but the whole national park around there looked pretty awesome with some native american artifacts and cool stuff around so I would advise you to plan to spend a whole day up there and maybe bring a picnic lunch.
The hiking trails to the actual crater have been closed, so the actual involvement you can achieve at this monument is pretty limited.
There are some interesting facts about the volcano errupting that older kids might be interested and there are some old lava flows you can stand in and feel.
I would only return if they opened up the hiking trails so you can actually see inside the crater.