CRATER
LAKE, Coconino
National Forest

Crater Lake fills the vent of an extinct cinder cone

The light,
porous cinders that put a roll and crunch in your step on the mountain trail
that leads to Crater Lake belie the site’s fiery origins. When viewed from the dusty dirt roads that pass by its
base, the 8460-foot-high cinder cone volcano blends in with dozens of another
mundane hills that dot the Coconino
National Forest 20 miles northwest of Flagstaff.

San Francisco Peaks seen from Crater Lake volcano.

But a
surprise at trail’s end makes this little mountain special.

During
their active phases, cinder cone volcanoes live fast and furious lives.
Although they are like a fly-in-the-soup in terms of igneous impact on the
landscape when compared to the likes of other nearby volcanic mountains like the San Francisco Peaks or Kendrick Peak, these spitfires leave interesting residuals.

Kendrick Peak is visible through most of the hike
Crater Lake volcano seen from Forest Road 760
View from the road leading to Crater Lake

The
conical hills that rarely break 1000 feet in height form when gas-propelled
lava blasts from the earth in what has been described as “curtains of fire”.
The bubbly spatter flies high into the sky cooling quickly into bits of ash, cinders
(scoria) and pock-marked blobs that fall back to earth to form mound of pyroclastic debris around the central vent.

Wright's Bluets bloom May through September

The
process continues over months to decades before the eruption runs out of gas, the
fireworks subside and a belch of viscous lava signals the end of the hill’s
active period. Thousands to millions of years later, some of these spent magma geysers
have taken on second lives as hiking destinations and tourist attractions. Of the roughly 600 cinder cones in the San
Francisco Volcanic Field in northern Arizona, several are well-known natural
wonders. The collapsed walls of Red
Mountain expose complex volcanic structure while the young, intact Sunset
Crater and its raw lava flow is an outdoor science festival.

Butter and Eggs bloom on the summit road

Others,
like the Crater Lake volcano, live a less-showy, but intriguing retirement. The
trek to this quiet geological find is an easy stroll on backroads below the east face of Kendrick Peak. Begin hiking on Forest Road 9009D–a rough two-track–through piney cattle country. At the 0.8-mile point, a series of berms mark where FR 760 has been decommissioned and closed to motorized travel. Follow the road scar another 0.2-mile to Forest Road 9009V on the right which swerves onto the mountain for a moderate half-mile climb to the rim of the crater. This short climb packs in some terrific views of the San Francisco Peaks, Crowley Park (an open meadow area) and Kendrick Peak.

San Francisco Peaks loom southeast of Crater Lake
Crater Lake approach.
Approaching Crater Lake

At the top of the trail, a wood
cattle fence serves as a gateway to the jewel of the hike. Directly ahead, a shallow pond shaded by pines and firs fills the basin that was the volcano’s central vent. Alive with
lush grasses and wildflowers, the aspen-ringed paradise is wrapped in a crusty
rim of ragged stone. A walk around
the boggy, bowl-like depression reveals evidence of abundant wildlife activity.
Footprints and scat speak to the importance of this watering hole to resident
elk, deer, racoons, bear and birds.

A log soaks in Crater Lake
East flanks of Kendrick Peak tower over Crater Lake

Within
this cloistered hollow, the hush and rustle of leaves makes it difficult to
imagine that hot vapors and flames once spewed from the eroded vent. Sometimes, in the early morning hours, the
crater emulates its origins when the summer sun coaxes a smoke-like mist from
the dewy swale.

Volcanic ejecta on Crater Lake volcano

LENGTH:
3 miles roundtrip

RATING:
moderate

ELEVATION:
7,955 – 8,460 feet

GETTING THERE:
From Flagstaff, go 18.3 miles north on U.S. 180 to Forest Road 760 (just past
milepost 234). Turn left and continue 0.9 mile and bear right at a fork. At 1.1 mile, continue straight ahead at the crossroads for the Kendrick Snowmobile trails. From this point, continue 1.0 mile to Forest Road 9009D on the left. The road sign is located
roughly 100 feet in from the FR760 and is easy to miss. Park in the roadside pullouts.