Have you ever been inside of a volcano?
Did you know that you can explore the inside of a volcano in Arizona? As you may know from earlier posts, I’m a huge fan of national forests and state parks, but they’re often underrated. Red Mountain Volcano is no exception. Completely underrated, blissfully empty, and surprisingly beautiful. As 2016 comes to a close, instead of a yearly recap, I thought I would share a trip to one of my favorite spots in the United States (so far).
About Red Mountain
It’s not an exaggeration when I say that Red Mountain tops my list of spectacular sites. There’s something magical about walking around inside a volcano that erupted 740,000 years ago. If you can’t get your volcano fix in Iceland, Red Mountain is the next best thing. The star of the park is the amphitheater. The amphitheater is waiting for the traveler at the end of a 1.5 mile hike through the Coconino national forest. It looks like, well, an amphitheater.
Getting to Red Mountain is not hard at all. It’s about 40 miles south of the Grand Canyon, and 30 miles north of Flagstaff. Most travelers bypass Red Mountain for the Grand Canyon. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon more times than I can remember, and I’ve always bypassed Red Mountain. Until one day I finally decided to stop.You can’t miss the collapsed cinder cone from the road. However, the view from the road doesn’t give the slightest hint of the geologic wonder hiding in plain sight.
The Hike Into the Amphitheater
The 1.5 mile hike into the amphitheater is extremely easy despite the elevation change (from 6,745 to 7,200 feet). Even after a half-day at the Grand Canyon, this hike wasn’t too strenuous. We had a great time taking in the scenery and listening for mountain lions and bears. Although we didn’t hear any wildlife that day, we did stumble upon the remains of an unfortunate animal. We couldn’t figure out what it was, can you?
Why It’s Important
Red Mountain is one of about fifty volcanoes in the San Francisco peaks. The San Francisco peaks are a chain of volcanoes in northern Arizona. The highest point in AZ (and in the chain of volcanoes) is Humphreys Peak at 12,633 feet. There are hundreds of cinder cones in the San Francisco Peaks, and Red Mountain is just one of them. The volcanoes stretch 50 miles west starting in Williams, Arizona. Many of the peaks and mountains in this region are sacred to the Native American Indian tribes. Also, Red mountain is geologically significant because the internal structure of the volcano is visible and accessible.
What we think of as the center of the volcano is not actually the center. The amphitheater that looks like the center is actually a geologic feature formed through erosion. It took tens of thousands of years for this geologic feature to form. The center of the center of the volcano is out of sight on the other side of the 800ft cliff that forms the back wall of the volcano.
Inside the Volcano
Although the hike into Red Mountain is pretty spectacular, the inside of the amphitheater is the real attraction. My first thought is that it’s other-worldly. Standing in the center of something that unique is a complete rush of excitement. Joe said to me that Red Mountain is way more interesting than the Grand Canyon. He’s right. Particularly interesting are the rock formations known as “hoodoos.” No not “Hodor,” but hoodoos. Hoodoos are strange 10-20 ft tall formations topped by dense lava. The dense lava “cap” protects the hoodoo from erosion.
We spent several hours inside Red Mountain wandering around and looking at the formations. The ground is also strewn with minerals that are slowly eroding out of the formations. Pyroxene, Amphibole, Clear Quartz, Pink Quartz, and Green Olivine/Peridot are just a few minerals to look for.
Arizona is not a place to travel around unprepared. It’s very different from the East Coast. You can drive for hours without seeing a store or another person. Every year there are fatalities from dehydration and exposure. Just Christmas Day at Carr Canyon, (less than 5 miles from my house) someone had to be medically evacuated from the mountain due to a sprained ankle. These warnings aren’t meant to scare you, but to help you prepare for a safe trip while in Arizona.
This was my third trip to Red Mountain and it was empty. We passed another hiker coming down the trail on the way up, but the volcano was deserted, and we were there alone for hours. Be ready to rescue yourself if you go on a hike like this. There is NO cell service at Red Mountain.
At a minimum I take on each hike:
- 1.5-2 L of water I use a convenient Camelback
- Snacks (you may not get hungry on the hike, but you will get hungry if there’s an emergency and someone has to stay behind.)
- Emergency Thermal Blankets (10 Pack) (folds to the size of a deck of cards)
- First aid kit (shoestring to use as an emergency tourniquet, bandages, QuickClot Combat Gauze, antihistamine & alcohol wipes, ibuprofen, duct tape.
- Lighter or matches & tinder (it’s illegal to start a fire in most National Forest lands.)
Red Mountain Volcano Park – 928-526-0866
Free admission/no services
3 mile RT hike into the center of the volcano
Highway 180, 30 miles north of Flagstaff in the Coconino National Forest