Meteor Crater - Barringer Crater
Whenever a big enough rock tumbles from outer space and smacks into Earth, cataclysmic disaster is almost assured. But on the plus side, if anyone survives, the resulting hole becomes an instant tourist attraction.
There's just such a giant hole in the ground east of Flagstaff, nearly a mile across and over 500 feet deep. According to its promotional literature, the bottom of this planet-scaled pockmark is "large enough to accommodate 20 football games being played simultaneously as over two million fans watch from the sloping walls." And even at that, it's not the biggest hole that you can visit on your vacation. But it's still pretty impressive.
Meteor Crater was blasted out of the surrounding sandstone about 50,000 years ago, and the dry Arizona climate has kept it close to impact-fresh ever since. That stroke of good fortune, however, was wasted on America's geologists, who for years insisted that the Crater was just another dead volcano.
Daniel Barringer, a mining engineer from Philadelphia, believed otherwise. He bought the Crater in 1903, convinced that it was made by a huge meteorite. He also believed that if he could find that meteorite, buried somewhere beneath the crater floor, he'd be rich. Daniel was right about the Crater, wrong about the meteorite. He drilled a 1,400-foot-deep shaft, found nothing, and died in 1929 when he ran out of money.
The Barringer family still owns the Crater, and has made a tidier profit as a tourist attraction than Daniel ever would have made from the meteorite. The Crater is such a big natural wonder that some people mistakenly believe it's owned by the government, and are sometimes unhappy to discover that they have to pay retail price to see it. But, you know, the Barringers have sunk a lot of cash into this place. They built a six-mile-long paved road between it and the interstate, and a nice visitor's center and museum, and even an elevator to take you to the rim if you don't want to climb the stairs.
The small museum is dwarfed by the crater -- frankly, everything is -- but it does have some nice touches. A photo-op allows you to pretend you are standing on the floor of the Crater, which is something that you can't do in real life. An Apollo test capsule sits outside as another photo-op -- the moon astronauts trained here -- and there's a display of the largest fragment of Meteor Crater meteorite to survive, a comparatively puny 1,400-pound blob. The adjacent gift shop sells "Crater Dust" for ten bucks a baggie, and tosses in a magnet so that the mining-minded can extract the particles of space rock.
A stroll out the back door of the museum puts you onto the breezy Crater rim, where shutterbugs enjoy a number of impressive views. You can walk to a high point or down to a platform that juts out over the edge -- a low-tech version of the Grand Canyon Skywalk. From this vantage point a sign informs you that a tiny rock on the floor of the Crater is actually as big as a house. In the center of the crater stands a cardboard cutout of a guy in a space suit and an American flag, but you can't see them unless you're looking through the platform's fixed telescope. That gives you a sense of how deep this thing is.
With all of the stairs and varying elevations, the rim of Meteor Crater is not a place for the easily winded. And people terrified of heights should steer clear, period. But we suspect that those who trek to Meteor Crater are thrill-seekers as well as natural-wonder-lovers, and there are plenty of both here.