SP Crater Loop
On this trip, travel through the remote and wide open northern end of the San Francisco Volcanic Field around the prominent and perfectly shaped SP Crater cinder cone. Take a side trip to hike to the top of an 800’ cinder cone or to drive up to the rim of a volcano at Colton Crater.
Permits: A State Trust Land Permit is required for this trail. Permits cost $15/individual or $20 for two people and are good for 1 year. Get permits here.
Where to go:
From downtown Flagstaff, head east on I-40 BUS/Highway 180 for 3 miles. Continue north onto US-89 for 27.4 miles. There are two ways to get to SP, the first is a turnoff to the left just before Hank’s Trading Post just before mile marker 446. The second is about 2 miles down the road just past mile marker 447. Both are small dirt roads with no signs so they are easy to miss. For this description, we’ll begin along the southern most entrance (35°35'28.10"N 111°31'40.73"W), although you can use the more northern route as an alternate entrance/exit to the loop.
SP Crater Loop leaves Highway 89 as a two lane, dirt road. As it heads west, you can see SP Crater ahead. Stay left after half a mile where a lesser road goes right. You’ll pass a cattle tank and power lines around 1.2 miles. The trail becomes narrow and has some washboards as you quickly cut through the wide open grassland. Stay straight past a water tank at 3.2 miles. The trail continues to climb through some interesting terrain as you approach a fork at 4.7 miles. Stay right. At the 5 mile mark, the trail will swing sharp left as another road enters from the left. This is the ending point should you want to make a complete loop. Continue to the left uphill. The road becomes somewhat rough as you quickly pass through the barren terrain. At 5.9 miles, you’ll come to the first of 2 possible side trips along this route.
SP Crater side trip: If you want to stop and look at SP, or hike up, stay right here at 5.9 miles. The faint and narrow road leaves the main road remains relatively flat for the first half mile. More aggressive vehicles can continue up the steep and sometimes tippy trail to a parking area at 0.8 miles. You can hike SP from any angle but starting at the end of the road saves your legs some climbing. Hiking SP isn’t easy. The rule of hiking a volcano like this is 2 steps forward, 1 step back. The fine cinders make it hard to climb but once you get to the top of the 800’ volcano, the view is worth it. You can also peer into the main vent of the volcano where the lava came out. When you’re done at SP, return to the main road. The trip odometer continues from the original 5.9 miles (doesn’t include side trip).
Continuing southwest on the main trail, things remain easy. The trail becomes wider and not as bumpy as it meanders through shrubs. At 7.7 miles, the road begins to curve right as you come to the second side trip option.
Colton Crater side trip: to get to Colton Crater, make a hard left off the main road at 7.7 miles. The road heads southeast along a fence line. After about 0.7 miles, turn right to cross through a gate. The trail then heads due south and begins to climb at 0.9 miles. The very rocky and rutted trail gets very steep near the rim of the crater. 4-wheel drive is required on this side trip. At about 1.3 you’ll reach the rim of the crater where you can park, have lunch and enjoy the view. You’ll also be able to peer into the inside of the volcano where a lava dome sticks out of the center. Continue back downhill 1.3 miles back to the main trail. Mileage continues from 7.7 miles.
Back on the main trail, the road veers left to follow along a fence. Stay on the main road (which seems to be a new road cut) and stay right at 8.2 miles as the trail passes some ranches. The trail twists back and forth and returns to the “original” road at 8.6 miles. The trail begins to drop and get a little rocky as you pass on the west side of SP Crater. Stay right at 10.4 miles where the road splits and rejoins a more traveled dirt road. The road head southeast as you approach SP Crater. At 11.9 miles you’ll cross over the lava flow from the crater, visible on both sides of the trail at this point.
The trail continues to twist before turning northeast and dropping downhill. At 13.6 you reach a junction. Continuing straight will take you 5.6 miles on an easy and wide road along the alternate entrance/exit road back to Highway 89. Turning right on the lesser traveled road will take you 1.3 miles along a rougher trail back to the original road you came in on. From there it’s another 5 miles back to Highway 89 via the southern route. Pick whichever route you want, both are scenic though the northern route (straight) is a little quicker. Easily extend your trip by camping in the area, hiking the numerous cinder cones, and exploring the many other roads.
Notes & Trail Ratings:
No matter which route you take, the loop around SP Crater back to Highway 89 is about 20 miles. Allow for 1-2 hours to drive this trail plus add more time if you take the side trips. The side trips only add about 5 miles but will require a more capable vehicle. High clearance and 4-wheel drive are a must if you want to do the side trips. The main loop, remains fairly easy and is rated a ‘3’ out of 10. High clearance is a good idea and there are some rocky sections that make it a bad idea for passenger cars. The side trips are rated a ‘7’ out of 10. Allow for a good 4-5 hours to do all the side trips and check the area out.