“They really should call it ‘Meteorite Crater,'” I told my wife as we drove toward Meteor Crater. As she’s learned during our three years of marriage, I tend to fixate on minor verbal distinctions. In this case, though, the distinction isn’t minor: If you’re describing a flying rock from outer space, it’s an asteroid before it enters Earth’s atmosphere, a meteor when it’s in the atmosphere and a meteorite if and when it hits the ground. The latter is what happened about 50,000 years ago, when a 300,000-ton rock made mostly of iron slammed into this middle-of-nowhere spot. I’d been wanting to visit the crater since I’d moved to Arizona in 2000, but this past weekend, when we went on an overnight trip to Flagstaff, was the first time I’d had the chance.
Clearly, our guide on the one-hour walking tour around the rim of the crater had heard other comments about the name. According to him, “Meteor Crater” is the name the U.S. Postal Service gave the site, but the crater’s official name is “Barringer Meteorite Crater.” It’s named after Daniel Moreau Barringer, who came to the site in 1903 and spent the next 26 years trying to prove that the nearly mile-wide crater was formed by a meteorite impact. Definitive proof of that came in the 1960s, long after Barringer’s death.
Scientists think 80 percent of the 150-foot-wide meteorite was vaporized when it hit the ground, but the remaining 20 percent was scattered around the area. Pieces of it have been found several miles from the crater, and the largest one is on display at the visitors center.
The crater itself is considered the best-preserved impact crater in the world, owing to the area’s relative lack of precipitation. The price of admission includes the optional tour, which stops at three points along the rim for discussions of the crater’s formation, geology and human history. It’s about a mile round-trip, and there are some ups and downs, but it’s mostly paved, and my wife, our 4-year-old son and I didn’t have any trouble. The surrounding land is a cattle ranch, so don’t be surprised to see cows grazing on the outer rim.
There’s plenty more to see at the visitors center, including a museum, a 3-D film showing how the crater was formed, and a gift shop. And pictures don’t do Meteor(ite) Crater justice. Whatever you want to call it, it’s an impressive sight.
— Noah Austin, Associate Editor
Meteor Crater is located south of Interstate 40 between Flagstaff and Winslow. From Flagstaff, go east on I-40 for 35 miles to Meteor Crater Road (Exit 233). Turn right (south) onto Meteor Crater Road and continue 6 miles to the visitors center. Admission is $16 for adults, $8 for children ages 6 to 17 and free for children ages 5 and younger. For more information, call 800-289-5898 or visit www.meteorcrater.com.