USA: Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments – lava, migration and the power of life

Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments – three places that aren’t connected at all? Wrong. It was the eruption of the Sunset Crater Volcano around 1085 that forced the farming community called Sinagua to abandon their homes and look for new ones that wouldn’t be under a blanket of ash and other volcanic materials. This is how the two mentioned settlements got founded and relatively quickly became flourishing centers of life. Only for a hundred of years or so, but still.

In order to get there, we drove through Arizona and saw some of the famous cacti on the way which I wouldn’t want to hide from you. You know, the cacti from all the Westerns and Arizona pictures? These ones. Surprisingly, it wasn’t easy to leave the highway and be “in the middle of nowhere” to take pictures of them as the sideroads led only to settlements with no way out, so enjoy the result of our struggle:

Arizona cacti.jpg

The rocks were getting redder and bigger, making our dreams of seeing the Wild West come true. We stopped in Sedona. It’s a small town that doesn’t have any tourist attractions really, but it does look great – it’s full of little Western-like houses between huge red mountains. Maybe it’s because I had only seen such places in movies or in theme parks, but it didn’t seem real to me. People live like this? In real life? I don’t know whether I will ever accept that some places in the USA look like that.

We had some ice cream and coffee at Oak Creek Espresso which is not the cheapest place on Earth, but their handcrafted ice cream was great. They have their own roastery, so you can buy some blends to take home, there were also some people working using the WiFi available. The modern coffee-shop atmosphere in a movie-like scenery was a mixture I never thought existed. It does.

USA Sedona

Don’t make the same mistake as we did and stay on the road leading to the Walnut Canyon – there’s always a good road to the National Parks and Monuments in this country, so if it’s not good, you’re lost. It’s long, but don’t give up! We ended up avoiding holes and struggling up and down the hills during a downpour that of course started as we were already quite deep in the forest. It poured as if all the clouds had opened and the very primitive road we were on filled up with water instantly… We were seriously worried we wouldn’t make it back. But hey, we did, so let’s finally get to the canyon.

First of all, I have to admit that I was quite disappointed as I learned that it’s not called the “Walnut Canyon” because its walls look like the surface of a walnut’s shell, but because of the black walnut trees that grow on them. The person naming it had less association talent than I thought.

USA Walnut Canyon

Anyway, we walked the Island Trail (1 mile / 1,6 km) which takes you on a journey back hundreds of years. It starts at the visitor center and takes you 273 steps (or 56 m) down into the Canyon to let you make a loop around the “island” and discover how its inhabitants used to live.

It’s fascinating! After the eruption we’ve discussed earlier, the Sinagua people found here rock alcoves which provided them shelter with no need for excavation – they just needed to build side walls and the front wall to have water- and wind-proof houses. Many of these walls were destroyed by time or vandals, some restored by modern preservation specialists; thanks to the latter, one can still see and understand how the natural ceiling, back wall and floor facilitated the village foundation. Many families could have their own four walls close to each other with a relatively small effort. The communication was easy and all truly lived together, sharing work, culture and resources – or at least that’s what the historians believe.

USA Walnut Canyon National Monument

Having learnt about the life on the cliffs, we continued our journey to the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. We drove through a dense forest to the Lenox Crater Trailhead and parked nearby, next to the Bonito Lava Flow. As it’s been already 900 years since the Sunset Crater eruption, some soil has been formed or carried in on the wind and various plants have managed to take roots on the black rocks. This view makes one wonder about nature’s power to both destruct and create. As it usually is, creation takes much longer time than destruction… Nevertheless, life seems to never give up and uses all resources it can find to survive, even in the harshest environments.

USA Sunset Crater National Monument Bonito Lava Flow

Why didn’t we hike the Sunset Volcano, you ask?

Because it’s prohibited and rather impossible as the slopes are covered in 20-meter deep ash.

The Lenox Crater is an older one and it only has a depression on the top, not a pronounced crater. The landscape is quite dramatic – a lot of plant species have made or are making the loose cinders their home while you pass many fallen trees on the way. The trail itself is rather easy, although you do need good shoes as you have to go up the old volcano and your feet fall down a little in the black ash.

USA Lenox Crater Trail

The last point on our itinerary was the Wupatki National Monument – another village from 900 years ago. For the standards of the time, it was quite impressive. It was composed not only of 100 rooms for its inhabitants, there were also a community room, a ceremonial ballcourt and a tower. Several thousands of people made this place thrive farming and exchanging goods and ideas; experts in the matter have found here influences of various societies from many other areas. They are associated both to trade and the arrival of immigrants wanting to be a part of this impressive village.

The interesting thing is that Wupatki held its importance only for around 100 years. In the 13th century the already difficult environment became even worse as the trees vanished, soils got depleted, and many decided to move away.

This National Monument today is mostly ruins; however, it still gives you an idea of the back-in-the-day splendour of this place. It’s also easy to visit. It’s located right behind the visitor center and it’s not even a kilometer to walk around. There are guides usually available at the entrance, however at the time we were there all were taken.

USA Wupatki National Monument


First, we came from Phoenix through Sedona to the Walnut Canyon National Monument (151 mi / 243 km), did the Island Trail and spent there around 1,5 hours. It wasn’t too hot, but the stairs down into the canyon are quite steep, so keep in mind your physical condition and don’t forget water!

Operating hours: 9 am – 5 pm

Price: $10 or free with the annual pass

Second, we drove to the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (152 mi / 245 km), hiked the Lenox Crater Trail (1,6 mi / 2,6 km) and looked at the Bonito Lava Flow. It took us around 1 hour.

Third, we drove to the Wupatki National Monument (17 mi / 27 km) and walked around for half an hour.

Price: $20 for both or free with the annual pass

Having seen all that, we continued our journey to Ash Fork (82 mi / 132 km) located on the historic route 66 that… didn’t look too impressive. But about that later.

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