Over our nearly twenty years of travel as a family, Flagstaff, Arizona has become a place we frequent, either as a stop on our road tripping adventures or as a vacation of its own. Located along Interstate 40 and U.S. 89, Flagstaff is in relatively close proximity to two national parks. The South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is only a little over an hour away, and Petrified Forest National Park is less than two hours away. There are also three national monuments that should be on any top ten visitor list and are within an easy driving distance from the city of Flagstaff. While on Spring Break back in 2016, we visited the following three parks, which collectively are known as the Flagstaff Area National Monuments. The visits definitely added to our Arizona Adventure as well as our growing collection of junior ranger badges.
Sunset Crater Volcanoes National Monument
I typically don’t think ‘volcano’ when I think of Arizona, but a geologically recent volcanic eruption just under 1000 years ago changed the landscape as well as the movement of peoples living in the area. The park’s namesake feature is the 1000 ft tall cinder cone volcano that erupted in about 1065. This explosion resulted in not just the piles of lava blocks and cinders around the volcano, but also the two lava flows that created the landscape of jagged and rough a’a lava rock that exists today.
In addition to preserving the rugged beauty of Sunset Crater Volcano, there is also important research that goes on here. The volcano’s eruption incinerated the area around it, and destroyed the fertile land that was once used by Native Americans in the region to grow crops. For about 400 years, nothing would grow in this barren soil. Six hundred years later, the area is still recovering, with new soil being created from the lava rocks through the process of weathering. There is new forest growth, however there are still areas where not much will germinate and survive. Sunset Crater is an area studied to give insight into how ecosystems recover after volcanic events.
I loved hiking around this national monument. Most of the hikes within the national monument are rated easy, with only the Lenox Crater Trail being moderate. Sami was eight years old at the time of our 2016 visit, and this was a really easy trip for her. We hiked along the Lava Flow and A’a Trails, and were fascinated by the ice caves we saw. The kids were really surprised at how the landscape reminded them of our visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park some years prior, and Sami especially kept asking if I were positive that we were in Arizona. The day was very cold, and it had snowed earlier in the week, which was very different from the blistering heat we experienced in Phoenix the summer prior.
Wupatki National Monument
When looking east from Sunset Crater to the Painted Desert, you look toward Wupatki National Monument, which sits between the rocky landscape of lava flows and the colorful stratified layers of the Painted Desert. The land was designated a national monument back in 1924 to preserve the Wupatki pueblo, an impressive structure made up of multiple rooms and a ball court, once the largest and possibly most influential pueblo in the area. In this arid landscape of ancient sandstone punctuate by juniper and cottonwood trees, as well as cacti and shrubs adapted for life with very little water, there is much to see and learn. The peoples who once lived at Wupatki were impacted by the eruption of the Sunset Crater Volcano, as families moved away from the volcano’s damage to Wupatki. As the area’s population grew and the large pueblos were erected, the people were dependent on the very few natural streams and seeps for water in the region. The area thrived and was relatively densely populated for the next 150 years or so, and was a grounds for trading and cultural exchange. But eventually the people moved on, abandoning the pueblos that once stood tall in the desert landscape.
There was so much to learn in this environment. The older kids, who at the time were learning about indigenous cultures in school, were able to see up close the different buildings used by the people of the area and learn what life may have been like for them at the time. The younger kids enjoyed exploring the large Wupatki Pueblo. Sami liked experiencing the rush of air coming from the geologic blowhole. We spent more time than we thought we would at Wupatki, as we took the scenic drive, stopping at different short hikes to see the pueblos. As we went at the end of March, there were pretty purple wildflowers blooming. The changeful weather became cloudy as the day progressed, lending a different feel to the vast desert scene.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
The last, but not least, of the Flagstaff Area National Monuments we visited was Walnut Canyon. We had originally planned to hit all three in one day, but felt that we needed to spend more time at Sunset Crater and especially Wupatki to better appreciate the parks. So we continued our adventure the next day, our last full day in Flagstaff.
I was glad that we did allow for more time at each of the parks. There was something a bit different to see at each of the sites. Walnut Canyon is home to ancient cliff dwellings. Archaic indigenous peoples came and went in the area thousands of years ago. The first permanent settlements happened about 600 A.D. People would farm beans, maize, and squash on the canyon rims. They eventually utilized the limestone hollows and built up the cliff dwellings we can visit today. The Island Trail takes you into the canyon, where you can see 25 cliff-dwelling rooms along the trail, and enjoy the beauty of the canyon. At 6690 feet above sea level, pinyon pine and ponderosa pines dominate the forest. There was still some snow within the canyon on our early-April visit, which added some extra interest to our canyon views.
The Rim Trail is easily accessible from the visitor center and is a flat, easy hike. It offers a nice view of the canyon below. The Island Trail is more interesting, but it does descend 185 feet and comes back up the same way. It is fully paved, but there are many stairs, and can be considered strenuous for folks who aren’t accustomed to hiking at elevations over 6000 feet. If you can go into the canyon though, it’s worth it. The kids learned so much by being able to observe the cliff dwellings up close.
Some things to consider:
Most of the hikes shown here are rated easy, with the exception of the Island Trail at Walnut Canyon. While these hikes are good for families with kids, caution is always recommended. Bring plenty of water and sun protection.
Northern Arizona’s climate is very different from the hot, southern desert areas of Phoenix and Tuscon. The weather can be changeful, and it can get cold. Our spring break trip was marked by snow, with blizzard conditions the night we returned from the Grand Canyon. I recommend dressing in layers. Be aware of weather conditions before heading out and plan accordingly.
If you have limited time in Flagstaff, I recommend doing Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments on the same day. Loop Road, a 34-mile scenic drive, connects the two parks and takes you through the changing scenery between the parks.
Entry to the parks is varied. A vehicle fee for a standard vehicle is $25 and covers both Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments for seven days from time of entry. Entry fee at Walnut Canyon is $15 per person, kids age 15 and under are free. As recommended in other posts, the America the Beautiful Pass is the economical option for those who plan on visiting other national lands. The year we visited Grand Canyon and the Flagstaff Area Monuments, Nate was actually in fourth grade. We used the Every Kid in a Park pass, free for fourth graders and their families, and meant to get them outdoors and exploring our nation’s areas of cultural, national, and natural importance.
At time of writing, all three parks are open, however, operations are limited due to the ongoing Covid19 pandemic. Check individual park websites for updates.
There is so much to do on a trip to Flagstaff. I would absolutely return to these national monuments, especially Wupatki and Sunset Crater to explore more and take some longer hikes. On your off days, Downtown Flagstaff offers up many shopping and dining options. Flagstaff Soap Company is a favorite of the girls, and we buy a selection of their shea butter moisturizers on all of our visits. But the real treat is the myriad of outdoor options in this part of northern Arizona. Happy trails!
Walnut Canyon National Monument:
Some of the facts mentioned here we learned from ranger-led talks, as well as activities in our junior ranger books. There’s no maximum age to participate in the fun, so we all earned our junior ranger badges, and learned some cool history in the process.