Cinder Hills Overlook

Orion, Canis Major and the Winter Milky Way soar over Sunset Crater as seen from Cinder Hills Overlook

Cinder Hills Overlook is a cul-de-sac at the top of a small hill on the eastern edge of Sunset Crater National Monument. The site is situated amid a stunning volcanic landscape with gorgeous, dark skies after evening twilight. The entrance to the park is a mere 12 miles north of Flagstaff on Highway 89.

Because this is within the boundary of a national monument, be sure to obey any posted signs. One standing rule is that there is no camping allowed inside the monument. So, if you need some sleep after packing things up for the night, you will need to move down the road a bit. There is a forest service road just across the main road from the Cinder Hills Overlook entrance. This forest service road heads outside the monument, and there are a number of places to pull off to get some rest.

This is common sense, but it bears stating–please treat this site with respect so that others will be able to enjoy it in the future:

  • Park and set up equipment in a way that does not block vehicle traffic that may need to pass
  • Pack out all trash
  • Do not hike off road or off trail inside the monument
  • Obey posted signs
  • Cooperate with park personnel

The site can accommodate several vehicles. However, if you wish to plan an observing event, please contact a ranger at the visitor center beforehand to discuss your plans.

Google Earth aerial view of Cinder Hills Overlook – Facing Southwest

Google Maps view of Cinder Hills Overlook
View Browsable Map

Site Information

Site Name Cinder Hills Overlook — Sunset Crater National Monument
Coordinates 35 22 17.2 N / 111 29 25.1 W
Elevation 7065 ft (2153 m)
Directions Drive 12 miles north of Flagstaff on US Hwy 89. Turn right at the Sunset Crater/Wupatki Loop entrance. Drive 2 miles to the visitor center. If you arrive before 5 PM, you can pay the entrance fee at the booth or visitor center. After 5 PM, the booth and visitor center are closed, but the road remains open all night. Cinder Hills Overlook, is 3.5 miles beyond the visitor center, on the right side of the road. Drive another .2 mile to the cul-de-sac
Accessibility Easy access. Paved road all the way to the parking area. Parking area is asphalt.
Capacity Parking area can accommodate several vehicles and equipment.
Horizon There are a few trees and snags around the parking area–primarily on the north side. The horizon to the south and east are excellent. The bulk of Sunset Crater volcano lies to the west and southwest.
Light Domes Senset Crater does an excellent job blocking the modest Flagstaff light dome to the southwest. The light dome can be seen along the southern slope of the volcano, but it does not otherwise adversely effect sky quality.
Weather Temperature Ranges
Jan: Avg. Max: 43°F / Avg. Min: 17°F
Apr: Avg. Max: 58°F / Avg. Min: 27°F
Jul: Avg. Max: 82°F / Avg. Min: 50°F
Oct: Avg. Max: 63°F / Avg. Min: 31°F
Nocturnal cold air drainage can be a problem here, and this area is prone to stronger winds than the surrounding plateau. If the wind becomes a problem, heading north to Wupatki National Monument can sometimes bring relief. All Northern Arizona sites are susceptible to cloudy weather during the monsoon season which runs on average from early July through mid-September. The months of May and June are on average the most reliably dry months of the year.
Incidental Traffic The site rarely sees nighttime traffic. However, if someone heads up the road to the cul-de-sac, you will have advance warning to protect your vision as approaching headlights are filtered through numerous downhill trees. Parts of the main park road below are visible from the observing site. Headlights are a minor nuisance, but traffic is very infrequent, especially during the winter months. During summer, the cinder hills 1.5 miles south of the site may play host to the flickering headlights of off-road vehicles enjoying nighttime recreation. If this happens, observing objects away from the southern horizon can help remove the distraction until things settle down later in the evening.
Seeing Seeing is hit and miss here.
Transparency High elevation and typically dry air make for excellent transparency.

Photo Gallery

Updated February 11, 2010.

2 Replies to “Cinder Hills Overlook”

  1. I recently visited the Flagstaff area and Lowell Observatory during late September of 2010…and explored the area around Sunset Crater for hiking and stargazing.
    Farther down Forest Service Road 545 and the Cinder Hills Overlook (around 3 miles) one passes under some power transmission lines and about a mile farther, the Painted Desert Vista overlook which could probably be used as a place for observation.
    On the north side of FS545 is the 10,000 acre Strawberry Crater Wilderness Area (Coconino National Forest)..great dark skies and one of the most pleasantly quite places I’ve ever been to. No vehicles are allow into the Wilderness area itself and the traffic on 545 was nearly non existant. Biting flies were annoying until the sun went down and a cool breeze began to blow. Interesting volcanic geology, and views of surrounding cinder cones and the Painted Desert towards the northeast. There are pullouts along FS 545 for parking. This road eventually enters Wapatki National Monument and back to State Hwy 89.
    There are many places on public land around Flagstaff for stargazing under dark skies.

  2. Excellent information, Kelly, thanks for posting your experience in the area. I’ve had a look at the Painted Desert Vista overlook, and it seemed like it would be a great spot for observing. The volcanic terrain and incredible natural beauty add to the experience of stargazing in the area. I hope you make it back and enjoy some more observing here soon.

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