Jul 1

Shitpot Crater

Category: Arizona

Did that get your attention?  Well, that’s what it’s really called.  Wikipedia has a perfect description of how this crater got its name:

The naming of the mountain is a bit of lore from the Old West. C. J. Babbit, an 1880s rancher and early landowner of the mountain, expressed his opinion that the mountain resembled a pot of excrement, and this became the accepted local name. When viewed from certain angles on the ground, the combination of the smooth round shape of the cone, the dark lava spatter on the rim, and the long dark lava flow extruding from the base do indeed resemble a toilet catastrophe. Mapmakers refused to spell out the full name, and the mountain has been shown on maps and other literature with the abbreviated name.

Down in this post I have pictures of the flow from space and from the rim of the crater.  The crater is in the shaded region, within the blue circle.  Drive up route 89 from Flagstaff, well out of the pines and into the desert. Pass both signs for Wupatki National Monument (a cool place I’ll write about some other time).  There is a forest (dirt)  road on the left-hand side.  Take it under the power lines about one mile from 89,and  about 6 miles after that you’ll see the unmistakably conical shape of SP.  There are a number of other volcanoes in the region – actually, the area is pimpled with volcanoes – but none are as perfect as SP.  Don’t forget your sunscreen and hat.



The scenery from the forest road.  The desert is in bloom, and that’s Humphreys Peak, Arizona’s highest, in the background.


The approach to SP.  You can see the black rock around the rim.


Here’s a view (with beautiful Holly) as we started climbing the western edge, where there’s a gentler grade for the first couple of hundred yards.  Note the car in the background.


In the background is the overflow of SP.


At this point we reached the real slope of the crater.  It is a 45 degree angle, and essentially a pile of small gravel.  It is very difficult to climb, although on the western side there is more vegetation.  The plants hold the cinders together which makes for easier going.  It is a very fragile surface; it worries me that people (myself included) will destroy this beautiful place.  As we climbed, our feet dug into the soil, sending little avalanches down the slope.  The unvegetated area near the base has probably been worn away by people who started to climb, them gave up.  The base of the mountain is at 6200 feet; the top is almost 7000.  The difficulty of the climb, the desert heat, thorny plants, the time required, and the thin air are probably too much for most out-of-town tourists, most of whom probably give up at this point.


There is a lot of animal life in the desert, if you look for it.  I think this is some kind of “earless” lizard, but I don’t know my lizards that well yet.


There are a lot of these big locusts, which have bright yellow wings, red legs and are very pretty when they take flight.  On the ground, their camouflage makes them very hard to see.  Even if you see one land, it will seem to melt away right in front of your eyes.  If you get too close they explode into flight like pigeons and are rather startling.  Since you can’t see them, it becomes a common experience as you walk through the region.


Flowers are everywhere.

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Finally, the rim!  that’s Humphreys peak in the background again.  The SP crater is several hundred feet – maybe 300 – deeper than the rim.  I didn’t climb down; I think it would be a technical climb, and the friable rock would make it very dangerous.  It is a giant echo chamber.  It’s a fun surprise to find that your voice echoes for a couple of seconds if you shout.  Birds flying in the crater cry and it echoes.


The vista was amazing; every point of the compass has a different view.  Northward it is almost a prairie; eastward lies the painted desert; to the south lie the San Francisco peaks (with Mount Humphreys), and to the west are seemingly endless small volcanoes and gently rolling grass-covered hills.  It is worth the effort to get to the top.


View to the north.  Beyond the horizon lies the Grand Canyon.


View to the south.  Flowers on the crater rim in the foreground; Colton crater in the middle, and Humpreys peak in the background.


View to the east.  on the horizon, to the right, you can see a straight line that marks te boundary of Wupatki.  I guess it’s greener to the left because the adjacent ground is ranched and either fertilized by cattle or irrigated.  In the foreground you can see some extruded lava that squirted out of the ground like toothpaste.  There are many examples of this at the summit.  The crater stopped erupting about 71000 years ago; it’s hard to believe that some of the lava forms still look so fresh.


Lichens on extruded lava.


I walked all the way around the rim, a difficult and sometimes dangerous trip because of the jumble of shattered lava and the precipitous heights.  If you fell here, you’d roll a long way through razor-sharp plants and unforgiving rocks to wind up in a deep pit with no escape.  This view from the eastern rim looks out to the west.  As a gauge of the crater’s size, that’s Holly on the horizon.  Click on this image to enlarge it; you’ll see a speck on the other side – that’s Holly.


Another distance-gauging image.  The car is in this picture – can you find it?


Did I mention that we had the place all to ourselves?


Reluctantly, we started down.  We took the northern slope down because we wanted to see a different side of the volcano.  It is heavily forested, and since everything is flowering it’s also pretty.  We could hear quail calling in the underbrush.


Holly is taking a picture of something on the ground.  Look at that perfect 45 degree slope!


You don’t walk down, you slide down – you almost ski down.  I’d take a step forward and slide about six feet, sinking into the cinders over my ankles.  I fell a couple of times, once falling on a pointed rock that could have done real damage if it hit me on the head.  I did my best to avoid sliding over plants.  Sharp plants of all sorts clawed at us on the way down, but fragrant flowers, birds, endless blue skies and great views made it all worthwhile.


Here’s a satellite image of SP with its distinctive lava flow.


Here is that same lava flow seen from the crater rim, facing northeast.


Here’s Holly down in the lava field.  It’s over 100 feet thick in places, a jumbled profusion of jumbled, cracked lava.  It’s like a coral reef; countless crevices make homes for all kinds of animals, including tarantulas.  They make distinctive burrows in sandy areas, also inhabiting abandoned lizard burrows.  Like all good monsters, they come out only at night.  Sooner or later I’ll go in search of them.


1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Jason O. July 3rd, 2009 6:55 PM

    Great pics! I’m impressed by your photog skills- my point & shoot can’t compete.

    Actually, we’ve seen tarantula during the daytime, hiking to Verde Hot Springs. True, most desert critters are nocturnal, but there’s plenty that come out during the broad daylight, or dusk/dawn as you’ve probably already seen. It was kinda cute (I say this knowing that they’re harmless to humans) how the tarantula tried to be all terrifying by going up on it’s hind legs to make itself seem bigger… almost like my favorite Disney character in Lilo & Stitch.

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