Old Caves Crater
Ruins of a 70–80-room Sinagua pueblo sit atop the summit ridge of this volcano near Doney Park. Occupied about 1250–1300, it was the last large settlement of the culture before they migrated from this area. Did they choose this commanding location for the fine view, or for defense? The archaeological record is silent. The volcano holds some geological mysteries too. Instead of the usual cinder cone with lava at its base, Old Caves Crater has its lava on the summit ridge. Furthermore the lava formed room-like chambers called "bubbles." The Sinagua built their village above the bubbles, using them as rooms, then carved out storage alcoves and connecting passageways. The pueblo walls, built of unmortared stone, have largely fallen down, but you can see the underground chambers and sherds of the Sinagua's plain pottery. Archaeologists found burials just below the pueblo and a ball court at the base of the volcano. Visitors must take care not to disturb the pueblo or remove anything from it.
Head north 5.5 miles on US 89 from I-40 Exit 201 to Silver Saddle Road, which has a traffic light between Mileposts 422 and 423, then turn right half a mile on to the signed trailhead, which will be on your left. Follow signs up to a trail junction on the summit ridge, then turn right to the pueblo. Take the other fork on the summit ridge to reach the highest point and a panorama of volcanoes to the north. The moderate hike is 1.2 miles one way with a 430-foot elevation gain to the pueblo, then another 100 feet to the 7,183-foot summit.
Strawberry Crater Wilderness
Extrusions of slow-moving basaltic andesite formed this crater 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Strawberry Crater's jagged features contrast with the much younger cinder cones nearby. Because the San Francisco Peaks form a rain shadow over this area, the crater receives only about seven inches of annual precipitation. Sparse vegetation of juniper, pinyon pine, cliffrose, and a few ponderosa pines cover the gently rolling terrain of cinders and lava. The 10,141-acre wilderness offers good cross-country hiking and a challenging climb to the crater summit. Prehistoric ruins lie within the area as well; artifacts must not be removed.
Strawberry Crater is northeast of Flagstaff between Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments. The wilderness boundary lies just north of the Painted Desert Vista area on the road between the monuments, but it would be a long hike to reach the crater from here. You can drive much closer by going north about 16 miles from the Flagstaff Mall on US 89 to the bottom of a long grade, turning east 3.4 miles on Forest Road 546, then continuing 1.1 miles east on Forest Road 779 to a set of power lines near the wilderness boundary. An unmarked trail contours left around the crater to the inner basin, then follows a ridge to the summit, about two miles roundtrip with a 500-foot elevation gain. You'll have a great panorama of the surrounding volcanoes and lava flows. Help preserve Strawberry Crater by not hiking on the steeper slopes; they're fragile and easily damaged.
This and nearby Colton Crater, about 14 miles due north of the San Francisco Peaks, offer interesting geology and good hiking. SP Crater's graceful shape and the black tongue of lava at its base resemble the contours of Sunset Crater. SP even features some reddish lava on its rim like its younger cousin. The near-perfect symmetry of this cinder cone has earned it photos in many geology textbooks.
Actually "SP" isn't the real name of this little volcano. Most likely prudish mapmakers turned red-faced when they heard what local cowboys called it. The cowboys saw the black spatter on the rim of the bowl-shaped crater and the leaking lava flow below, and figured the thing "looks just like a shit pot." The name stuck.
The climb is moderately difficult ascent of 800 feet to the rim. Any time of the year is all right for a hike as long as the weather is good. The Coconino Forest map or the 15-minute SP MTN topo map help in navigating the dirt roads, none of which are signed. From Flagstaff, drive 27 miles north on US 89 to Hank's Trading Post (Milepost 446). Or, from the Wupatki National Monument turnoff, go north 1.2 miles to the trading post. Turn left (west) 6.5 miles on the unsigned dirt road just south of the trading post. You can pick out SP, straight ahead, among the other volcanoes by its height and symmetry. Keep left where the road forks a half mile in. Six miles in—with SP Crater on your right and a large black water tank on your left—keep right at the fork, then look for a vehicle track on the right 100 yards farther. Take this track for a half mile and park. People four-wheeling beyond this point have made deep ruts on the slope.
Follow the track on foot to the grassy ridgetop—SP Crater adjoins it on the right—then start up the black-cinder slope of SP itself. There's no real trail—it's one step up and two steps back on the loose sliding cinders. Perseverance will get you onto the rim for a close look at lava formations and a panoramic view of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. Walking around the rim is rewarding, but descending into the 360-foot-deep crater is hazardous. The thick, blocky lava flow from SP's base extends 4.3 miles north and is about 70,000 years old.
Climbing Colton Crater
If you'd like to see another volcano or prefer an easier hike, visit nearby Colton Crater. Colton lies two miles due south of SP; take the other (left) fork near the black water tank on the road in, then go south two miles to an intersection with a road from the right. Park near here and head up the gentle slope to the rim, ascending about 300 feet. A gigantic explosion blew out the center of this volcano when hot basaltic magma met water-saturated rocks. Rock layers can be seen clearly. A baby red cinder cone, only 500 feet across, sits at the bottom of Colton Crater. It's an easy walk to the crater floor, actually 260 feet lower than the elevation outside the crater. Or you can walk around the rim through juniper and pinyon trees, climbing about 600 feet higher than the lowest part of the rim.
Kendrick Park Watchable Wildlife Trail
Two short loop trails and interpretive signs introduce the pronghorn, mule deer, and elk that you're likely to see in the large meadows nearby. The trailhead, 20 miles northwest of Flagstaff, has paved parking and a restroom; look for the sign between Mileposts 235 and 236. The quarter-mile loop is paved and nearly level through a ponderosa pine forest. You can branch off on a 1.5-mile loop that enters an aspen grove.
A well-graded trail provides good views in all directions. Kendrick Peak is to the south, the San Francisco Peaks to the southeast, and Red Mountain—with its distinctive red gash—just to the north. Trail markers label many trees and plants. Flowers line the way from spring through fall.
Early settlers mistook the fine-grained, light-gray rock of this mountain for slate. Geologists say it's rhyolite, a volcanic rock. Hiking time is about three hours for the five-mile roundtrip; you'll ascend 850 feet. The 8,215-foot summit is a pleasant spot for a picnic. Hiking season runs from May to October; carry water. To reach the trailhead, drive northwest 27 miles from Flagstaff on US 180, then turn west two miles on Forest Road 191, between Mileposts 242 and 243 on US 180. A sign marks the trailhead.
Ever wanted to walk into the heart of a volcano? Then try Red Mountain. Unusual erosion has dissected the cinder cone from the summit straight down to its base. Walk through a little canyon between towers of black cinders to enter the volcano. A ladder helps you get up a six-foot-high stone wall, the only real climb. Ranchers built the wall for a stock pond, but cinders filled it in.
Beyond the dam you'll enter a magical land of towering pinnacles and narrow canyons. This is a great place to explore; children will love it. Trees offer shade for a picnic.
Most of Red Mountain is soft volcanic tuff. Look for the rocks and minerals extruding from it: blocks and bombs of lava; small crystals of plagioclase feldspar, transparent, with striations; black, glassy pyroxene and hornblende; and volcanic dust, cinders, and lapilli (large cinders). Scientists estimate the age of the volcano at 740,000 years old, but aren't sure how the huge amphitheater formed. Water erosion alone could not have carved out so much material in this arid land; lava flows or steam explosions might have had a hand in the unusual shape.
A lava flow covers part of Red Mountain's southwest side about 100 feet below the summit. To reach the top (elev. 7,965 feet), take the trail back out of the crater and climb the gentle cinder slopes on the southeast side. You'll ascend about 1,000 feet.
Red Mountain is easy to reach; drive 33 miles northwest from Flagstaff on US 180—or 42 miles southeast from Grand Canyon National Park—to Milepost 247, then turn west 0.3 mile on a dirt road to the parking. Red Mountain lies 1.25 miles in on an easy trail with a 300-foot elevation gain.
Kendrick Peak Wilderness
Although the San Francisco Peaks are higher, Kendrick Peak might well provide the better view—you get not only a splendid panorama of northern Arizona, but a view of the Peaks themselves. The Painted Desert, Hopi mesas, and far-distant Navajo Mountain lie to the northeast; the north rim of the Grand Canyon juts up to the north; Sitgreaves and Bill Williams mountains poke up to the west; Oak Creek Canyon and the Mazatzals lie to the south; and the magnificent San Francisco Peaks, surrounded by many smaller volcanoes, rise directly to the east. Three trails, ranging in length 8–11 miles roundtrip, lead to Kendrick's 10,418-foot summit and fire-lookout tower. Hiking season lasts from late June to September; longer on the southern Kendrick Trail. Carry water. The 15,000-acre Pumpkin Fire in 2000 burned much of the forest on Kendrick, including parts of the Pumpkin Trail and most of the Bull Basin Trail; they're not recommended due to fallen trees and difficulty in finding the way. Check with the Williams Ranger District office (928/635-5600) for current trail conditions.
The popular Kendrick Trail #22 is the shortest, eight miles roundtrip, and the least affected by the fire. Because it climbs the sunny southern slopes, you'll find it more likely to be open early or late in the season. A lookout cabin, equipped with a wood stove and three bare bunk beds, stands on the ridge a quarter mile below the summit. Hikers may use this little cabin, which has withstood the elements since 1912. To reach the trailhead (elev. 7,700 feet), take I-40 Bellemont Exit 185 (10 miles west of Flagstaff), follow the frontage road one mile west, drive 12.5 miles north on Forest Road 171, then turn right one mile on a road signed Kendrick Trail. Alternatively, you can head northwest 14 miles on US 180 from Flagstaff to near Milepost 230, turn left 3 miles on Forest Road 245, turn right 3.1 miles on Forest Road 171, then right one mile at the sign for Kendrick Trail.
Lava River Cave
This well-preserved cave is about four miles south of Kendrick Peak. Red-hot lava broke through the ground near the San Francisco Peaks about 100,000 years ago, then moved westward across Hart and Government Prairies, reaching a thickness of more than 100 feet in places. As the outer layers of the smoking mass cooled, some of the fiery interior burst through a weak spot in the surface, partly draining the lava flow. This underground river of fire eventually cooled, too.
Today, a collapsed ceiling reveals the passageway. No one knows the total length of this lava-tube cave, but about 0.7 mile is easily explored. The interior remains cool year-round, so a jacket or sweater is recommended. Keep an eye out for the ice that's often present just inside the entrance. Bring at least two flashlights to explore the cave, as it wouldn't be fun trying to feel your way out after your one-and-only light died.
The walls and ceiling form an amazingly symmetrical tunnel. The former lava river on the floor still displays all the ripple marks, cracks, and squeeze-ups of its last hours. There's only one main passageway, though a small loop branches off to the right about one-third of the way through and then rejoins the main channel. The main channel is large, with plenty of headroom, except for a section about two-thirds of the way through where you'll have to stoop.
To reach Lava River Cave, follow the previous directions to Kendrick Peak, but travel only 7.5 miles north on Forest Road 171, then turn right 0.3 mile on Forest Road 171B and walk another 0.2 mile. Alternatively from Flagstaff, you can head northwest 14 miles on US 180, turn left three miles on Forest Road 245, turn left one mile on Forest Road 171, then left on Forest Road 171B. The Coconino and Kaibab (Williams and Tusayan Districts) forest maps show the roads and cave, but may not identify the cave. A large ring of stones indicates the cave entrance.
Great views and beautiful forests make the 9,388-foot Sitgreaves summit an attractive destination. Reddish cinder cones, forested mountains, and vast grasslands stretch to the distant horizon.
Allow about four hours to hike the four miles to the top and back. Carry water. Hiking season for this northern approach lasts from about May to October. The route follows a valley from the trailhead to the summit ridge, then turns right up the ridge to the highest point. No established trails or signs exist on Sitgreaves but none are needed—just stay in the valley until you reach the ridge. Be sure to descend via the same valley, unless you want a much longer hike! Walking is a bit easier if you keep to the right when going up—not so many fallen trees. Beautiful groves of aspen find this cool, moist, sheltered area to their liking.
Sitgreaves Mountain lies about seven miles north of I-40, about two-thirds of the way from Flagstaff to Williams. To find the trailhead you'll need either the Coconino or Kaibab (Williams and Tusayan districts) forest map. Take I-40 Pittman Valley Exit 171, go north seven miles on Forest Road 74 to its end, turn right and drive three miles on Forest Road 141 (Spring Valley Road), then look really hard on the right for a small road. The turnoff is very easy to miss and probably won't be signed. Map designations for the turnoff are T.23N., R.3E., sec. 13. You can drive your car in about one mile. When the road gives out, continue walking in the same direction up the valley.
On to Williams