The World's Best Preserved Impact Crater


  It was 50,000 years ago... Within ten seconds, a tiny pinpoint of light in the ancient Arizona sky quickly turns into a brilliant ball of fire, then "BLAMMO!!"... a herculean terrestrial explosion... incomparable to anything in recent history. In a flash, tons of rock are instantly vaporized. The shock waves immediately wipe out all plant and animal life within a 20-mile radius... and rock fragments are thrown miles further. The debris cloud dissipated, revealing a hole nearly a mile wide and as deep as the Washington Monument is tall.

As part of my 2005 solo trip to Arizona, I spent an hour at Meteor Crater (official name... Barringer Meteorite Crater). Located about 40 miles east of Flagstaff, the crater is about 7 miles off I-40 in the midst of the flat, wide open grasslands. You can’t miss it... You’ll pass an occasional "Meteor Crater" sign for miles from whatever direction you are approaching. And the sign for I-40 Exit 233 reads "Meteor Crater Road". A 7-mile paved road provided access from I-40 to the crater. The surrounding terrain is unremarkable. One can see for miles and miles across the treeless semi-arid landscape. There are no indications of civilization anywhere in the vicinity.


Meteor Crater was formed about 50,000 years ago by a meteorite about 150 feet across. About the size of a large house, the meteorite was relatively small in comparison to the resulting 4000-foot-wide hole it the ground. Almost perfectly circular, the crater resembles a typical crater found on the moon. Because this part of northern Arizona has remained quite dry since the impact, the crater is by far the world’s best preserved impact crater. Several other impact craters have subsequently been discovered around the world, but most are so old and/or eroded that they are unrecognizable without the aid of a topographic map or scientific instruments.


Beyond the (melo)dramatic natural history described in the opening paragraph... the past 200-year history of the crater’s site is also quite interesting. Throughout the 19th century, scientists had widely believed the crater to be volcanic in origin... formed by molten magma exploding through the earth’s surface, like nearby Sunset Crater. However, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, many scientists began to correctly believe that the crater had an extraterrestrial origin. In 1902, Daniel Barringer, a mining engineer from Philadelphia, was convinced that the crater was formed by the impact of a large meteorite. However, he further assumed that a large mass of iron must therefore be buried just below the crater floor. Motivated by the prospect of riches for his newly formed Standard Iron Company, Barringer filed a mining claim and the crater became his property. For the next 26 years, Barringer and his crews meticulously and painstakingly dug, drilled and blasted... in search of the elusive Moby Dick meteorite. But each effort only resulted in further disappointment. What Barringer did not realize was that the meteorite had undergone nearly total disintegration upon impact through vaporization, melting and fragmentation. Barringer died in 1929, just months after his funds had exhausted and exploration of the crater had been abandoned. Although Daniel Barringer’s dreams were never realized... he left a valuable legacy to his family and the world of earth science. To this day, the land is still owned by the Barringer family. Today, Meteor Crater Enterprises, Inc. operates the visitor center, museum and gift shop as well as a campground, store, gas station and Subway franchise at the intersection of I-40 and Meteor Crater Road. (Some of the information in the previous paragraph was reproduced from the literature handed out at the facility.)


The visitor center is a good one. Outdoors, there is Astronaut Memorial Park which includes an American Astronaut Wall of Fame and an Apollo test capsule used by the Apollo astronauts for training. The crater itself was also used for some training of the Apollo astronauts. The gift shop is nice and clean. They have the usual t-shirts, refrigerator magnets and shot glasses. But they also have some very nice items unique to the area, such as fossils, quality mineral specimens and some gorgeous polished petrified wood. A short orientation movie is shown regularly and is a good introduction to the crater and the facilities. The museum features many exhibits about the formation of Meteor Crater as well as other craters around the world, impact and volcanic. They also have a fascinating exhibit dedicated to the fairly recent collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter.

Outdoors, there are a few paved and semi-paved trails leading to several points to view the crater. These trails don’t stray too far from the visitor center. The view is really about the same from most of the viewpoints. One of the trails leads to a deck which has a few fixed monoculars, offering a close-up view of some of the crater’s highlights. An informative guided tour along a small section of the rim is offered regularly throughout the day. 

Admission to Meteor Crater (2005) is $12.00 for adults, $11.00 for seniors (over 59) and $6.00 for kids (6-17). Meteor Crater is open 7 to 7 Memorial Day through Labor day and 8 to 5 the rest of the year. They are closed only on Christmas. Allow 45 minutes or an hour for your visit... a little more if you take the guided tour. This seemingly desolate area is teeming with science and history. It's more than a "big hole-in-the-ground"... and I’ll bet the Barringers wish they had a dollar for every time they’ve heard that phrase.

Meteor Crater Website




METEOR CRATER PHOTOS - (Click Thumbnails For Larger Images)