Sunset Crater National Monument, Flagstaff AZ

We’re off … and blogging again.

This time of year the sun comes early into the east window of our bedroom. It may have been the bright light, or just the anticipation of finally taking off in the Airstream that got Eleanor and I up and working on the final prep at 6 a.m. We needed to start that early if only to avoid the heat that quickly builds each morning in Tucson in May. I let the air conditioner run in the carport as long as possible just to offset a little of the heat that the Airstream was destined to absorb today. Around 9:30 a.m. we were ready to go, so I unplugged the trailer, pulled it out into the sun, gave it a quick rinse to get the worst of the storage dust off, and then we were off.

Our drive today brought us west on I-10 to Phoenix, then I-17 north all the way to Flagstaff. I-17 heading north has a couple of tough climbs, the type where signs warn “Turn off air conditioner to avoid overheating”. They mean it. It was about 95 when we hit the first steep grade north of Phoenix. I watched the engine temperature and mostly it was stable, but there was one point at which it started to rise and so we went without a/c for a few minutes.

The GL320 is a good tow vehicle in most circumstances, but its weak spot is climbing steep grades. Anything over 8% with our 7,000 pound trailer in tow means slow going. We usually end up with the 18-wheelers, moaning up the hill at 35 MPH with flashers on, while cars zip by at 65. That’s the result of having 400 ft-lbs of torque, but only 210 horsepower. It’s kind of like having a diesel tractor. We always get there, but we don’t get there fast. I don’t sweat this, because the slow part ends up being five or ten minutes out of an eight-hour drive, which hardly seems worth getting excited about. The rest of the time we can tow at any speed we care to.

After a few hours the brown desert began to give way to the pine forests and cooler temperatures of high altitude. Flagstaff is at about 7,000 feet, only a part-day drive from Tucson but worlds away in terms of climate and geography. We stopped here to pick up 20 gallons of diesel and then headed north on Rt 89 towards Page, with the intention of continuing on to Navajo National Monument, a place we’ve visited and enjoyed before.

And then something great happened. We passed by a sign for Sunset Crater National Monument, and Eleanor said, “Why don’t we stop here instead?” It was only 3:30 in the afternoon and we hadn’t covered the miles I had hoped for. I wanted our first day out to be a big one, so we’d have less pressure in the next two days to get to Denver. But I was feeling tired, and we’d never visited Sunset Crater before, and there was a little blue symbol by the road indicating that it had a campground. We considered the pros and cons, and then turned around and drove a mile back to Sunset Crater.

This turned out to be a good choice. Sunset Crater offered much more than we expected. As you drive in a few miles along the entrance road, there’s a spectacular view of the dormant volcano, and you can immediately see from the red and purple cinders along the crater’s edge how it got its name. It is just beautiful.

The campground is very nice (no hookups, $18), with sites set among tall Ponderosa pines and well spaced. We parked the Airstream in site #13 and headed to the Visitor Center, which was small but well-done. Then we drove a short distance to the one-mile Lava Trail and took a walk to get a better view of the volcano and shake off the hours of travel.

It was a stunningly beautiful afternoon, with temperatures in the 70s, beautiful sunshine, dry air, and a pleasant breeze. You couldn’t ask for a better day to visit this great National Park, and yet the campground was half empty (on a Friday night) and the trails were uncrowded.

We had all changed into long pants and grabbed sweatshirts for the trail, and as the afternoon began to fade we were glad we had them. It seems like the heat of Tucson was weeks ago, but we have a souvenir in the Airstream—it’s 80 degrees inside from the heat accumulated during towing. That will fade quickly. Tonight we are expecting a low of 37 degrees in the campground. Eleanor and I added blankets to our bed and we expect to sleep well and rise early. Our roadtrip is well and truly begun.