Natural Features & Ecosystems
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument preserves 3040 acres surrounding a particularly dramatic cinder cone volcano and some of the geologic features associated with it, including lava flows, lava tubes, cinder barrens, spatter cones, and an ice cave. Many of these features look as fresh and rugged as the day they were formed. The cinder cone is almost a mile wide at its base, and stands 1000 feet high. Red, yellow, pink, and white mineral deposits impart the sunset-like glow to the crater rim which inspired its name. A spectacular sight! But Sunset Crater Volcano is part of a bigger picture. To fully understand it, we need to look beyond park boundaries.
The monument is located near the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, which covers more than 130,000 square miles in the Four Corners area of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. This huge block of the earth’s crust has remained relatively intact through hundreds of millions of years. Although the Colorado Plateau contains some of the world’s most spectacular volcanic features, much of its scenery has been shaped by the more patient processes of geological deposition, uplift, and erosion. Because of its varied topography and its range of elevations, there is incredible biological diversity - everything from deserts at 4,000 feet above sea level to alpine tundra on mountain peaks above 13,000 feet. But large patterns of biological communities – groupings of plants and animals with similar habitat requirements - can be traced across the Plateau. For example, the ponderosa pine forest that surrounds Sunset Crater Volcano is part of the largest such forest in the world.
Within the Colorado Plateau, the San Francisco Volcanic Field illustrates the more violent, dramatic, and sudden kinds of events that can change the earth’s surface. Over the last 6 million years, this 1800-square-mile field has produced more than 600 volcanoes. Virtually every hill and mountain seen around here is a volcano, including the San Francisco Peaks (12,633’). Sunset Crater Volcano is the youngest, but not necessarily the last.
Many aspects of the monument’s volcanic and other features are not fully understood. Because the area remains relatively undisturbed, it provides opportunities to study soil formation, pioneering vegetation establishment, plant succession, and ecological change in an arid volcanic landscape. Research is also needed on the effects of human activities – prehistoric and recent - on today’s resources. How have farming, ranching, logging, fire suppression, recreation, and general development changed the features and processes that appear so natural?
We have learned that seemingly durable materials like cinders can be surprisingly fragile. Undisturbed cinder fields are necessary for soil formation and for plants to gain a foothold. Disruption of this process, and the erosion that follows, can be long lasting. Visible scars remain on the slopes of the volcano from a hiking trail that was removed in the 1970s.