After visiting historic Holbrook, Arizona and Petrified Forest National Park, we hit the road for the two-day drive back home. On the first day, we drove from Holbrook to Las Vegas, stopping at Meteor Crater and Hoover Dam on the way. Then on the second day, we drove all the way home to Rocklin, California with only one stop at the International Car Forest Of The Lost Church.
Meteor Crater, also known as Barringer Crater, wasn’t on our original road trip itinerary, but we ended up with a little extra time and decided to check it out… and holy moly are we all glad we did. Meteor Crater was way more cool than any of us thought it would be.
Measuring nearly 1.0 mile across, 2.4 miles in circumference, and 570 feet deep, Meteor Crater is the world’s best preserved meteorite impact site.
Located just five miles off Interstate 40 and the old Route 66 in Northern Arizona, the Meteor Crater complex includes a modern Visitor Center and Gift Shop, an awesome Interactive Discovery Center, outdoor trails and observation platforms, a movie theater, and an outdoor park and picnic area.
Visiting Meteor Crater In Arizona
We arrived just after opening, and after collecting some pressed pennies, we headed outside to walk along the crater rim and check out the stunning views from each of the three observation decks.
- We first headed uphill to the highest observation platform that gave us stunning 360 degree views of the desert landscape, including Meteor Crater below and the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.
- After peeking through the telescopes and snapping a few photos, we headed down to the middle platform that extends out into the crater. At this observation point, several fixed telescopes are mounted along the rails and labeled with what you can see through them, like the actual impact site, the site of an old mine, and digging remnants.
- Finally, we walked down to the lowest observation platform that has benches, a bit of shade, and plaques sharing some of the history.
Meteor Crater is the incredible result of a collision between an asteroid traveling 26,000 miles per hour and planet Earth approximately 50,000 years ago. During impact, 300-400 million tons of rock were displaced. Today, the rim’s height above the surrounding plain is 120-200 feet and the highest point on the rim is 5,723 feet (1,744m) above sea level.
Standing on the crater rim and looking into this National Natural Landmark is quite an experience!
Meteor Crater Interactive Discovery Center
After we had our fill of crater views, we headed back inside because it was starting to get hot and timed it perfectly to duck into the movie theater and watch the 10 minute movie: IMPACT, The Mystery of Meteor Crater that covers the origins of Meteor Crater and its value as a living astrogeological laboratory.
Next we explored the Discovery Center — and if you love science or your kids love science and space, this is going to be their favorite part of visiting Arizona’s Meteor Crater.
The Meteor Crater Interactive Discovery Center is the most extensive and informative museum of its type in the world. With 24 displays and exhibits, this meteor impact science center is also interactive, which means you can touch and even control some of the exhibits!
Our favorite museum exhibits are:
- A Russian Mystery: What was the blinding fireball that streaked across the Siberian sky in 1908 with an impact that sent shock waves around the world and was heard 600 miles away?
- Collision & Impact: The Holsinger Meteorite displayed is the largest fragment of the 150-foot meteor ever found.
- Put Yourself at Ground Zero: Mini-theater lets you experience the Meteor Crater impact as it spews 175 million tons of material out of the crater.
- Stars Fell on Alabama: Depicts 8-1/2 pound meteorite that crashed through the roof of home and strikes woman. The only documented event of its type.
- Who’s Who in the Night Sky: Identifies objects traveling through space. What’s the difference between asteroids, comets, meteoroids, meteors and meteorites?
- Who Can Guess My Weight? Test your knowledge on weights of a motorcycle, car and horse compared to that of the Holsinger meteorite.
- On the Crater Floor: Apollo astronauts training site from 1963 through 1970 as a result of Meteor Crater’s moonlike surface. Have your picture taken with a lunar module pilot in a simulation of the floor of the crater.
- Craters of the Moon: Major craters can be spotted with ordinary binoculars. Display identifies many of the moon’s impact sites.
- IMPACT: Lets you select the elements, density, diameter, velocity and angle of descent to create your own digital crater.
- Crater View: Daniel Barringer’s sectional view of Meteor Crater including 1376 foot deep shaft at base used in an attempt to locate the non-existent primary meteorite.
- Mars Panels: Startling photos of craters, volcanoes, moons on Mars, plus spacecraft landings on the Red Planet.
Finally we stopped in the Visitor Center, perused the Gift Shop, and peeks at the actual Apollo test capsule and American Astronaut Wall of Fame in Astronaut Memorial Park, which was under construction during our visit. Then before hopping back in the truck, bound for Hoover Dam, we enjoyed a quick tailgate breakfast in parking lot.
Meteor Crater Geology
The meteorite impact created an inverted stratigraphy, which means the layers of Earth immediately outside the rim are stacked in the reverse order of how they normally occur. The impact basically flipped the ground outward and turned it upside down. Outside the crater, from top to bottom, you can see:
- Coconino Sandstone formed 265 million years ago
- Toroweap Formation limestone formed 255 million years ago
- Kaibab Formation dolomite formed 250 million years ago
- Moenkopi Formation mudstone formed 245 million years ago
Meteor Crater History
Meteor Crater was discovered by American settlers in the 19th century and called the Canyon Diablo crater. Then in 1891, mineralogist Albert E. Foote presented the first scientific paper about the meteorites of Northern Arizona. Also in 1891, Grove Karl Gilbert, chief geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, investigated the crater and concluded that it was the result of a volcanic steam explosion.
In 1903, the Standard Iron Company staked a mining claim and received a land patent signed by Theodore Roosevelt for 640 acres around the center of the crater. The company was owned by mining engineer and businessman Daniel M. Barringer, who suggested that the crater had been not been created by a volcanic explosion but by the impact of a large iron-metallic meteorite.
Standard Iron Company conducted research on the crater’s origins between 1903 and 1905 and concluded the crater had been caused by an impact. Barringer and his partner, the mathematician and physicist Benjamin Chew Tilghman, documented evidence for the impact theory in papers presented to the U.S. Geological Survey in 1906 and published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Barringer’s arguments were met with skepticism, so he began a quest to find the remains of the meteorite, that he believed was buried beneath the crater floor. He spent 27 years trying to locate a large deposit of meteoric iron, but no significant deposit was ever found.
Despite Barringer’s scientific findings, other excavations, and Professor Herman Leroy Fairchild, an early promoter of impact cratering, arguing Barringer’s case in an article in Science in 1930, geologists remained skeptical.
It wasn’t until 1960 that research by Eugene Merle Shoemaker confirmed Barringer’s hypothesis. He discovered the minerals coesite and stishovite in the crater. These rare rare forms of silica are found only where quartz-bearing rocks have been severely shocked by instantaneous overpressure and cannot be created by volcanic action. Because the only known way to create coesite and stishovite is naturally through an impact event or artificially through a nuclear explosion, Shoemaker’s discovery disproved the mainstream belief that the crater was formed by a volcanic eruption.
Know Before You Go
- Barringer Meteor Crater is located about 5 miles off Interstate 40, Exit 233 in Winslow, Arizona 86047 in Coconino County.
- Meteor Crater Visitor Center is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Summer extended hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day) are 7:00 am to 7:00 pm. Thanksgiving Day hours are 8:00 am to 1:00 pm. They are closed Christmas Day.
- Parking is free. Free big-rig and RV parking is available. There is also an RV Park on site.
- Admission is $18/adult, $16/senior, $9.00/youth (6-17). Veterans, non-active military, and military youth receive discounted admission and all active military are free with ID.
- 45 Minute guided group tours are available. We skipped the group tour because the groups looked HUGE and in big groups, us short people often can’t see. We also would prefer to experience the crater on our own and in our own time. So we headed out to the Crater lookouts on our own and had two of the observation decks to ourselves, which was awesome!
- The Meteor Crater Visitor Center is fully air-conditioned and heated so you can comfortably check out the crater in extreme temperatures. It features a widescreen theater, crater trail access, interactive discovery center, artifacts and exhibits, and gift shop.
- Meteor Crater’s 10-minute IMPACT, Mystery of Meteor Crater movie, features 3D modeling and animation that allows you to experience the thunderous sound and explosive fury of the meteor’s super-heated trip through the Earth’s atmosphere.
- Elevators and ADA accessibility at the Visitor Center entrance are available for guests with special needs.
- There is a Subway restaurant on site, but if that’s not your jam, pack a picnic and enjoy it in the parking area.
- At the Rock Shop and Gift Shop, you’ll find souvenirs and gifts, including Native American and gem jewelry, authentic fossils, astronaut ice cream and mission patches, space toys, games, postcards, space and geology science kits, books, home decorations, and Meteor Crater t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats.
- Plan to spend about 90 minutes at Meteor Crater. This will give you time to check out the Visitor Center, explore the Interactive Discovery Center, and walk the outdoor rim trail to the observation platforms. If you do the guided tour, you’ll need to add 45-60 minutes extra.