It is possible to visit both the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Pueblo National Monuments in an afternoon, and their convenient location makes a nice side-trip if your itinerary includes Grand Canyon National Park, Lake Powell and/or Petrified Forest National Park. The best time to visit is April through October. The elevation varies between 5000 and 7000′ so it gets cold in the winter and does snow.
These Monuments are part of a fascinating geological area in north central Arizona that is easily accessed by passenger car. Sunset Crater is the remnant of a volcano that erupted between the years of 1040 and 1100. The 1000′ volcanic cinder cone is still quite obvious, and is surrounded by dark cinder dunes and fields of lava flow. Just a few miles away, Wupatki Pueblo protects the ruins of a farming community on the Colorado Plateau that was inhabited by indigenous peoples in the 1100s.
Flagstaff is located on Interstate 40 at its intersection with Interstate 17, about 150 miles north of Phoenix. The monuments are located on a scenic drive off US89 north of Interstate 40 (exit 201). From the city of Flagstaff, take US89 north for 12 miles and turn right on Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop Rd. Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG) is located 5 miles south of Flagstaff off Interstate 17 and provides service to Phoenix Sky Harbor via US Airways.
An entrance fee is collected when you enter the park area and covers both monuments (per person, under 15 free, Access Pass accepted, good for 7 days). A driving tour through both monuments takes about an hour; the 35-mile loop road takes you from lush meadows and Ponderosa pine forests to the red-rock landscape of Wupatki Basin with views of the Painted Desert. Allow 2-3 hours additional time to enjoy scenic pull-outs and visitor centers, and to explore the Lava Flow Trail and Wupatki Pueblo.
The Sunset Crater Visitor Center is located 2 miles inside the southern entrance to the loop and has information and exhibits. There is handicapped parking and an accessible restroom here. It’s open 9:00-5:00 everyday except December 25 (opens an hour earlier in warmer months, approximately Memorial Day to Halloween).
A mile or two further along the loop road from the Visitor Center, you will find the Lava Flow Trailhead. There is handicapped parking, a picnic area, and an accessible restroom here, as well as a paved 1/4 mile trail through the lava flow area.
Continue along the loop road, watching for pull-outs for scenic vistas. There is another picnic area and restroom at Painted Desert Vista, but I don’t think it is accessible. It’s about 17 miles further to the Wupatki National Monument Visitor Center, where there are exhibits and artifacts. The Wupatki Pueblo is the largest dwelling in the monument and is located just behind the Visitor Center (open 9:00-5:00 everyday except December 25). This location has the best access for people using wheelchairs to see the ruins. There is handicapped parking, an accessible restroom and a short, paved sidewalk to a viewpoint that overlooks the pueblo.
Where to Stay
There is a good selection of hotels in Flagstaff. If you prefer to camp, Bonito Campground is in a stand of Ponderosa pines next to the Sunset Crater Visitor Center and is open May 1 to October 12. It advertises one accessible campsite (table, fire ring, grill), barrier-free toilets, and paved roads. They do not accept reservations and there are no utility hookups. Flagstaff is a very popular destination in the summer months because its high elevation is cooler than metropolitan Phoenix, so there should be some privately-owned campgrounds in the area as well.
Things to Know
Arizona does not observe daylight saving time, use Mountain Standard. Follow GPS with caution; it can be unreliable in this area and route you onto unpaved forest roads. There are no food services in these National Monuments, although there may be snacks and vending at the Wupatki Visitor Center. To be safe, bring your own food and plenty of water. The sun will be intense here any time of year and there is no shade in Wupatki. Come prepared with hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. Cell service may be unreliable.