Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Location: Flagstaff, AZ
Smashed Penny Machine: No
Sunset Crater Volcano is one of three parks that sit just outside of Flagstaff. If you are traveling to the Grand Canyon from the East like we were you can easily stop at all three of these parks on your way to Grand Canyon (you will end up entering Grand Canyon National Park at Desert View). Sunset Crater Volcano is a dormant volcano that last erupted about a thousand years ago leaving its mark clearly across this land. Sunset Crater is a medium sized park with several great trail options.
We started our time in this park at the Lava Flow Trail head. This part of the park has a few picnic tables and a primitive style toilet as well as being the main parking area for three trails. We enjoyed a short picnic before starting our hike.
We opted to hike the Lava Flow Trail which is a mile loop that takes you down through the ancient lava flow. The hike is a moderate hike with a few stairs to descend to the lava flow and some uneven ground to traverse. The Bonito Vista Trail is a paved accessible trail that allows you to overlook the Lava Flow. The Lava Flow trail takes you past huge boulders and other volcanic remains including caves. You cannot enter the caves but you can feel the cool air if you lean over the grates. The trail also takes you along the base of the volcano. You are able to get an up close view of the unique rock colors that give the volcano its name.
After our hike we had to back track back to the Visitor’s Center to complete the Jr Ranger books. The Visitor’s Center had a nice museum with lots of hands on activities for the kids. They were able see how pumice stone floats where other stones sink. We were able to jump on mat that registered our movements on a seismograph. My daughter loved the map that updates seismic activity around the world in real time. A ranger was also doing hands on demonstration displaying some of the areas wildlife.
Overall: Sunset Crater Volcano is a neat stop. The park feels very secluded even though it is really a fairly short drive to Flagstaff. We saw several other groups in this park but the park never felt crowded. It was a fun stop with lots to explore. We spent about two hours in the park including our picnic lunch. I felt like we got a good feel for the park and the history of the land, but there are plenty of other trails that you could hike. If you are in the general Flagstaff area, I would highly recommend stopping at Sunset Crater Volcano.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Location: Flagstaff, AZ
Smashed Penny Machine: No
Walnut Canyon is a small park located just outside of Flagstaff. The park is known for the ruins of ancient cliff dwellings and amazing views. The park is not a very large park. Most of it’s land is back country. The main part of the park consist of a small visitor’s center and two trails. The Island Trail, which descends into the canyon, and Rim Trail which is an accessible trail at the top of the canyon.
We arrived at the park just before park opening. We stopped in the Visitor’s Center to get Jr Ranger books. We had spoken with the rangers at Bandelier a few days before and she highly suggested Island Trail. I highly suggest Island Trail but this is a hard trail. If you have problems with taking the stairs do not attempt this trail. Island Trail starts just behind the Visitor’s Center. Part of the Jr Ranger booklet was for the kids to count the stairs they climbed. We counted somewhere around 400 stairs going down.
Once you reach the bottom of the stairs, the trail hugs around the base of a cliff face. Along the trail you’ll pass the remains of about 20 cliff dwellings. There are many more ruins visible along the opposite canyon wall. The trail is a little narrow and you cannot see the bottom of the canyon from the trail so keep kids close and stay on the trail. There were a few spots where the trail went under the cliff face. Taller people may have to duck.
The kids had a great time imagining what life would have been like for the people who once populated the cliffs. We also had the chance to see many lizards sunning themselves in the morning sun and several squirrels. The trail around the cliff dwellings is mostly flat and not a hard walk. The real challenge of the trail comes at the end of your hike. The 400 or so steps you walked down, you now have to walk back up. There are plenty of benches to rest along the way. Be sure you take water with you before you leave the Visitor’s Center. Despite the cool air temperature, we were all very hot and sweaty by the time we got to the top.
The kids finished their Jr Ranger books while other members of our party shopped the small bookstore or watched the film about the people who once called the canyon home in the museum.
Overall: Walnut Canyon is a hidden gem. The park was active on a Monday morning but not crowded. The scenery even from the top of the rim was breathtaking. The Island Trail hike was worth the work if you are able to hike it. Take your time. I would suggest planning to spend an hour or two in the park to explore it. This was unexpectedly one of my favorite stops of this trip.
Standing on the Corner Park
Location: N Kinsely Ave & W 2nd St; Winslow, AZ
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, at the gift shop across the street
This is the smallest park I think I have ever been to. Embracing the song that made people know their town existed, the small town of Winslow has a half a block park dedicated to the Eagles song “Take it Easy.” Like a lot of small towns along old Route 66, Winslow has been slowly revitalizing their small town Main Street to attract tourist looking to capture the nostalgia for days gone by.
The park is completely free. Parking is available along the various downtown streets. The park consists of a few statues, a mural and a flatbed Ford. So you can pose for maybe the cheesiest of all photos while living the opening lines of the song. The park itself will take you at most 15 minutes to experience (and that’s assuming you have to wait a few minutes for other groups to clear out-of-the-way). We were there early in the morning on a Monday in July and there was one other couple taking pictures.
The rest of town has several gift shops mostly filled with Route 66 and Eagles memorabilia. There are also a few classic diners around town (we stopped at one for breakfast before coming to the park). The town is also home to some restored Route 66 hotels. Winslow has enough options to make a half day visit to town or just pick one or two as your time allows.
Overall: We spent about an hour and a half in Winslow. We ate breakfast at a local diner, took a photo with the famous corner, and browsed through a couple of the gift shops. Having seen it once, I don’t think I’d go out of my way to go back. However, I do think that this is a must stop for any Route 66 trip.
Location: 811 W Hopi Dr; Holbrook, AZ
Price: varies on season
Smashed Penny Machine: No
I don’t normally review hotels but this stay was special because it’s not every day you can stay in a large concrete tepee. The Wigwam Motel in Holbrook is only one of three remaining original tepee style hotels (the other two being in California and Kentucky). Wigwam Motel does not have a booking website so if you want to stay here you are going to have to go about this the old fashion way: call them. I do suggest pre-booking your room. There are only about 20 rooms in the whole complex. The hotel office also runs some limited hours so you might have to call multiple times before you get ahold of someone to book. It’s worth the effort to keep trying.
The rooms are set up as individual freestanding tepees. They are in a semi-circle with the main building that houses the office and a small gift shop in the center. Each Tepee has a classic car parked in front of it and enough room to park another car or two. The hotel is also old fashion in that they still give you an actual key to your room. If you are looking for nostalgia, you are in the right place. The rooms are not large. Ours had two double beds, two side tables, a small desk and a small LCD TV on a shelf on the wall. We had room to set up a pack and play but we were pretty much tripping over luggage when we were in the room. The bathroom is located in the back of the room, which means the ceiling of the bathroom is sloped. It’s not a big deal but my 6 foot tall husband did say he had some challenges rinsing his hair in the shower.
One thing we did not plan for was the fact that small town Holbrook acts like a small town. We arrived into to town about 5:30 on a Sunday evening in July. Other than fast food, there were only two restaurants open and all of the gift shops along the main stretch were closed. So after dinner we walked crossed the street to the grocery store and bought some snacks for the kids. We spend the evening (the temperature became very pleasant as the sun went down) hanging out on the benches in front of our tepee and let the kids run off some energy.
Overall: Wigwam Motel is not a 5 star spa experience. This hotel preserves the experience travelers along Route 66 would have had when they stayed during the 50’s (except for the welcomed additions of a TV and AC). This hotel is perfect to get the feel of old Route 66. The room was clean and the staff was friendly. I had read online about the train tracks behind the hotel with the AC running no one in our group heard the trains at night. If you are going to be traveling Route 66, I think a stay at the Wigwam Motel is a must.
Petrified Forest National Park
Location: Holbrook, AZ
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, at the gift shop at Rainbow Forest
Petrified Forest National Park is a large and very diverse park. We entered the park through the north entrance at the Painted Desert Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center is just before you enter the park. There is a small gift store and restaurant here. Stop and get a map so you know what major stops you would like to make on the drive. The scenic drive from the Painted Desert Visitor’s Center to the Rainbow Forest Visitor’s Center is about 28 miles long. The drive through the park takes about an hour with minimum stops. There is a lot to see along the way so if you have time for stops I highly suggest taking time.
In addition to plenty of scenic pullouts the park has several really neat stops. From the north side one of the first stops we made was at the Painted Desert Inn. The Painted Desert Inn was once a hotel destination along Route 66. Today the Inn is preserved as a museum of the original restaurant upstairs and has a small soda shop/ice cream parlor downstairs. This was a beautiful overlook and a really cool historic building. We arrived too late in the day to try out the soda shop but that is on the list for a return trip.
Along the road there is another historic Route 66 stop. There is a rusted 1932 Studebaker sitting on the side of the road. This location shows were the original Route 66 road crossed the park. The car is in pretty poor shape (it’s been sitting in the desert) but it makes for a pretty need photo-op. Other neat stops on the drive include Puerco Pueblo: a short hike to an ancient Pueblo site, Newspaper Rock: lots of petroglyphs, Agate Bridge: a petrified log that had fallen across a gap form a “bridge” (you are not allowed to walk out on it), and several short hikes through the petrified logs.
The drive ends at the south side of the park at the Rainbow Forest Visitor’s Center. This visitor’s center has a small museum that has many exhibits about the prehistoric history of the area including several skeleton displays. There is also a small bookstore inside the Visitor’s Center. Next door to the visitor’s center is a larger gift shop that offers a lot of merchandise and a few snacks. Around the Rainbow Forest Visitor’s Center, several trails will get you very close to the petrified logs. We opted to hike the Crystal Forest loop. The trail was a fairly easy hike. It was under a mile long and the trail is paved. The trail has stairs so it isn’t stroller friendly.
Overall: Petrified Forest is an amazing park. It has several different environments to explore. You could spend as much time as you want at this park. I would suggest making sure you have at least 2 or 3 hours to explore it but you could easily spend a few days here. In the summer the weather was very hot and there was no shade, so be prepared and bring plenty of water. Petrified Forest is a destination I want to come back and explore in greater detail.
El Morro National Monument
Location: Ramah, NM
Smashed Penny Machine: No
El Morro National Monument is about a twenty-minute drive along Highway 53 from the El Malpais El Calderon hiking area. The close proximity of the parks makes it very easy to visit both parks in the same trip. El Morro is a much smaller park than El Malpais. It is the site of a natural water hole at the base of the sandstone bluff. The reliability of water in the desert and recognizable landmark made El Morro a very important place for many groups of travelers through history from ancient peoples, Spanish explorers and pioneer settlers. Each group has left their mark (literally) on the bluff.
El Morro consists of two trails. The first is the Inscription Trail is a half-mile loop that will take you along the base of the bluff, past the watering hole and past many ancient petroglyphs and more “modern” carvings along the walls of the bluff. The Inscription Trail is a very easy hike and completely paved so you could easily take a stroller on it. Both the toddlers walked most of the trail so it is a very easy hike but pack some water because it is still hot in the desert. The Headland Trail is about a two-mile hike that will take you to the top of the bluff. The trail also features the ruins of a pueblo village.
Because we had chosen to do a little more hiking than we had originally planned at El Malpais we opted to just hike the Inscription Trail. The trail meanders through some scrub desert plants were we saw several various desert birds. The trail leads directly past the watering hole that made this place so vital to the area. The watering hole was a lot smaller than I was expecting and the view of it (at least in late July) was mostly obstructed by the natural reeds growing in the shallow waters. As the trail continues along the base of the bluff, you will see lots inscriptions and carvings from the various groups that had passed through this area.
The park also has a small bookstore and museum. They also offer ranger led hikes. If you are just walking the Inscription Trail like we did then you don’t need to plan very long for your visit. Between our hike and doing Jr Ranger activities we spent about an hour or an hour and a half at this park.
Overall: El Morro is a neat park for it’s history. There isn’t a lot to see or do here though. If you are in the area and have spare time, it is worth stopping to check out. I’m not sure I’d drive really far out of my way to see it though.
El Malpais National Monument
Location: Grants, NM
Smashed Penny Machine: No
El Malpais National Monument is the site of an ancient volcanic eruption. The park is very spread out so unless you have several days to explore you’ll probably need to pick a few highlights. The park offers amble hiking, caving (you have to get a caving permit from the rangers ahead of time), and nightly bat flights. Most of El Malpais is undeveloped so if you plan to really explore the park please make sure you are well prepared as this is rugged terrain. Not a back county type of explorer? That’s ok, we aren’t either. There are still great ways to explore this park.
We arrived at El Mlapais at about 8:30 in the morning. Our first stop was the La Ventana Natural Arch. The arch is about a thirty-minute drive from the interstate and is actually in El Malpais National Conservation Area not the main park. You won’t find mention of it on the parks website. This spot is a hidden gem. Since we were there so early, we were able to spot several deer. You can see the arch fairly well from the road so you could just drive by but there is a small parking area and a short trail. The parking area also has a primitive toilet and a few picnic tables. The trail covers about a quarter-mile out to the arch and is very easy to walk. It’s not paved so I think strollers and wheelchairs would have a difficult time. The arch is well off the desert floor so you can’t actually walk up to it, but hiking the trail does get you a better view of the arch than you can really see from the road.
After spending about thirty minutes exploring the area surrounding the arch, we drove to the main visitor’s center. The Visitor’s Center is located just off of I-40 in Grants. We took the kids inside for the older two kids to finish their Jr Ranger badges and get some more information about the park. The visitor’s center has a nice display talking about the geological and cultural history of the park as well as a short film about the high desert ecology of New Mexico and a small gift shop.
After speaking to the ranger and getting Jr Ranger badges, we decided to explore the El Calderon Area of the park. The El Calderon Area is along New Mexico Hwy 53 and was about half way between the visitor’s center and our next park. El Calderon is actually a dormant volcano. The area surrounding is a large lava flow. At the trailhead you’ll find some primitive toilets and a few picnic tables. The full El Calderon hike is 3.8 miles but you can hike the dirt access road back to the picnic area to cut off about a mile of the hike. NPS claims this hike is easy to moderate. I’d say it was much more to the moderate side especially during the summer.
There is very little shade along the trail and no running water at the trailhead so be prepared before taking off. We started our hike at 10 in the morning and the temperatures were already very warm. The trail leads you past several lava caves. Part of our group did scramble down to peer into one of the caves and feel the nice cool air. The hike then continues at a fairly steady climb to the base of the volcano. There is a lot of cool lava flow rocks to check out along the way. When you reach the base of the volcano, there is a trail off to the left. If you follow that and then take a right when that trail y’s, you can actually hike to the top of the volcano. The ground changes dramatically from rough jagged rock, to pebble gravel and finally to very fine sand as you go. The hike to the top was strenuous. The trail then continued around the top of the volcano but we opted to go back down to get back to the main trail.
After the volcano the trail begins to go back downhill. About 1.5 miles into the loop the trail intersects with the service road. We chose to take that back to the picnic site as it was getting close to lunch time and the temperature was hot by this point. We saw a lot of squirrels and a hummingbird was highly attracted to our bright-colored clothing. We had a picnic lunch at trailhead area and then headed for our next stop.
Overall: El Malpais is a lot more rugged than most the national parks sites we visited on this trip. With proper planning even casual day users can have a lot of fun at this park. Be sure to pack plenty of water. Most of the park is not handicap or stroller accessible. The hiking was fun but hard work. We used backpack carriers for the toddlers. I would highly recommend stopping by this park on your way down I-40. The park was quiet. We only saw 3 or 4 other groups using the park in the several hours we were there. If you are looking for rustic nature this is great park to check out.