Flat, sandy, arid grasslands characterise the countryside east of Flagstaff, between the wooded hills of the Mogollon Rim and the delicate hues of the Painted Desert, and the only major natural attraction is the Meteor Crater, which lies 6 miles south of I-40, half way between Winslow and Winona. This huge depression, 0.74 miles in diameter and 550 feet deep was created 49,000 years ago by meteoric impact, and its proximity to the interstate now attracts many visitors despite the rather high cost of entry - the crater has been privately owned by the same family since early investigations began in 1902 by Daniel M. Barringer, and is now a thriving commercial enterprise complete with such modern requirements as a movie theater, restaurant and gift shop. Entry prices (2021) are $22 per adult or $13 per child (free for the under fives).
Approach is from the east or west along I-40, across the high desert of northeast Arizona. The land to the north is part of the Navajo Nation and almost every interstate exit has a roadside Indian jewelry/souvenir store, either open or derelict, with suitably old Western names - Jackrabbit, Tomahawk, Twin Arrows. Some of the exits meet small sections of former Route 66
. There are several miles of the old route either side of the Meteor Crater exit (number 233) though no Indian store, instead the Barringer family operate a 71-site RV park, next to a pricey gas station just south of the interstate. From here, the road south is quite straight, passing over a flat plain but with the upturned edge of the crater visible from a distance, as a brownish ridge one mile across and rising 150 feet above the surrounding reddish desert. Frequent signs at regular intervals promote the forthcoming attractions, including the movie theater, an interactive learning center, a museum of astrogeology, views of the crater from the inside, views of the crater from the outside, etc. About one mile before the crater and its conspicuous visitor facilities, a wide gravel track (Chavez Pass Road) branches off to the right, leading to various ranches and eventually meeting road AZ 87 between Payson and Winslow. It soon passes quite close to the western crater rim, by which time the main road and the visitor center are out of sight. No Trespassing signs posted at intervals are the only deterrent for attempts to reach the crater by this route.
The interior of the Meteor Crater is first glimpsed from within the visitor center, which has several observation areas equipped with telescopes to study the distant rock walls in more detail. Outside, other viewing areas are connected by short walkways and steps though there is only one trail, 1/3 mile around the rim, and all hiking must be done as part of a guided tour. A path runs all around the edge but this is now disused, because solo, unaccompanied hiking was stopped several years ago; now rim walking is only possible as part of a guided group, along a short path to a second viewpoint a few hundred yards west of the visitor center. The meteor crater seems smaller than expected, not much larger than other less well known craters like Death Valley's Ubehebe Crater. It has similar distorted strata around the sides, and the colors of the rocks are rather faded and muted; generally reddish-brown, though lighter brown around the top of the rim, which is strewn with large limestone boulders thrown up by the impact. Overall, the scene is impressive but not especially remarkable, in fact the views of other directions, across the vast red prairie to distant mountain ranges including the snowy San Francisco Peaks, are almost as good.
Geology of the Meteor Crater
The crater was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century by Grove Gilbert, and studies by him and others including Daniel Barringer proved that the crater was formed by impact of a huge metallic meteor, the first and best preserved of (so far) about 150 such craters on Earth to be identified. The main evidence was the large quantities of meteoric nickel-iron rock fragments found in the crater and scattered for several miles around, this being a substance not found naturally in this location. The largest surviving fragment, viewable in the visitor center, weighs 3/4 tons. Current theories place the size of the meteor as 150 feet in diameter, and its weight at 300,000 tons.