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Hiking to Merriam Crater in Northern Arizona

I've lived in Flagstaff, AZ, since 2003, where I'm an active member of the Coconino County Sheriff's Search & Rescue team and an avid hiker.

Merriam Crater as seen from Leupp Road

Merriam Crater as seen from Leupp Road

About Merriam Crater

Do wide open spaces give you willies? If so, then a shlep up Merriam Crater (aka Merriam Mountain) would not be your best choice for some exercise and fresh air. If, however, you'd like to do some huffing and puffing, only to be rewarded with an amazing 360-degree panorama once you reach the top—not to mention an awesome view every time you pause to catch your breath and look around—then definitely put climbing Merriam Crater on your list.

Located about half an hour's drive from Flagstaff, this ancient volcano—one of the largest cinder cone hills of the San Francisco Volcanic Field surrounding Mt. Humphrey's—is a great choice for a day hike if you have some free time on a sunny morning or afternoon, especially if it isn't too breezy in town.

If it is breezy, you'll probably be windblown big-time on Merriam Crater, because there isn't much that grows above ankle height to shelter you, except perhaps a random cow as evidenced by the petrified patties we observed most of the way up. This hike follows alongside (or on) the dirt road to the top of the crater. The altitude at the top is 6813 feet, for an elevation gain of 1,450 feet.

San Francisco Volcanic Field and the San Francisco Peaks

San Francisco Volcanic Field and the San Francisco Peaks

Directions to Merriam Crater

  • From downtown Flagstaff, AZ, take Route 89 east to Camp Townsend-Winona Road (At Doney Park).
  • Turn right on Townsend-Winona and drive approximately 8 miles to Leupp Road on the left.
  • Continue 12 miles to Merriam Crater, visible on the left. Turn onto a dirt road (approximate NAD-27 coordinates are N-35.320, W-111.263) and go north for 1.7 miles to a junction, where the road to the left heads straight up the east slopes of the cinder cone. Park in the clearing here.
  • The unpaved road from the turnoff at Leupp Rd. to the bottom of the crater is well graded, and most cars will be just fine. If you plan to drive to the top of the crater, that's another story. For that, you really need 4wd and some clearance.

Climbing Merriam Crater

We left our truck at the bottom of the crater, near some nice cows, and started up on foot at 10 a.m. Our leaden bodies reached the top an hour later. Boy, that's one steep road—one I prefer to walk up and down rather than drive. (But that's just me.)

At times, it was so steep I had trouble with traction on the hard-packed surface and instead walked on the softer cinders along the edge, careful not to squash any vegetation, which here and there included a cluster of prickly things with long, sharp prickles. To our four-legged hiking companion, the climb was just another leisurely walk, but I had to command my legs to move forward and up, especially from about the halfway point where things really start to get more verticle. It sure looks easier from the bottom.

As we reached the flapping windsock at the top, I didn't have much breath left to catch but did so anyway and made a slow 360-degree turn with a satisfied smile. Snow-capped San Franciso Peaks. Lava flows and mesas. Puffy white and pink clouds. And so many cinder hills left to climb. It sure feels good to walk, even when we could have driven at least partway up, where there's another area to park vehicles (and people) that don't have quite enough umpf. We parked our own selves just to the lee-side of the top and soaked up some Vitamin D.

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While our sweat was drying and we were enjoying our accomplishment, an SUV seemed to appear out of nowhere; we hadn't heard it until it crested the top. All of that open space and the steady wind must have gobbled up the sound of the engine, because I'd just been thinking how quiet it was up there.

Strapped to the top of the SUV-that-could was a hang-glider, and out of the vehicle emerged three men who were clearly looking forward to some flying. After several minutes of contemplation, however, with the help of a hand-held gizmo to gauge wind speed, they decided it was too gusty. Phooey. We would have enjoyed watching them. On a calmer day, though, you're likely to see people riding the thermals, along with the vultures and hawks and maybe even a bald eagle, a few of which we've seen in the past couple of months.

After another spin around the top, to check out the view from all angles, we carefully headed down. For a while, we walked on the cinders instead of the road, where we probably would have slipped and landed on our keesters. The softer ground not only gave us more traction but was kind to our knees too.

We then intersected the road where the slope becomes gentler, and after a two-hour round-trip tour, returned to our truck a bit fitter, tanner, and definitely hungrier. (By the way, there's a restaurant on Leupp Road, on the way back to Flag, where the burgers are some of the best around. It's called the 2Bar3 Cafe & Saloon, and it looks a lot like it sounds.

Merriam Crater Topo Map

More Photos of Merriam Crater

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Deb Kingsbury

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