S.P. Crater – Cool Arizona Destination (With Video)

It’s easy to forget or to never even realize it – but much of northern Arizona’s landscape was shaped by fire. Or by lava, if you prefer a more precise word.

Volcanoes disgorged magma onto the surface, forming everything from towering giants like the San Francisco Peaks to the loaf-like dome of Mount Elden to the mysterious hoodoos of Red Mountain. But trees have covered the landscape, often concealing the area’s volcanic origins.

S.P. Crater
SP Crater cuts quite a figure on the prairie.

 

S.P. Crater – Way Off the Radar

S.P. Crater, however, will resist any attempts to whitewash its furious history. This beautifully shaped cinder cone had the foresight to belch a four-mile long lava flow onto the flat prairie lands. Today, nearly 71,000 years after its birth, S.P. Crater stands out among a multitude of lesser cinder cones in the area, beckoning visitors to peer into the crater that once spewed ash and blobs of lava.

Few hear its call, though – that’s likely because of the nearby Sunset Crater National Monument. The park might be slightly more picturesque, with its pine forest and an equally haunting lava flow.

But for me, S.P. Crater has an effect that its just-slightly Disney-fied neighbor doesn’t: a sense of solitude that practically takes me back in time. I can picture the lava glowing red as it churns across the landscape like so much hell-flavored soft-serve ice cream. I can smell the sulfur in the air as another family of bombs rockets out of the crater, borne aloft by super-hot gases.  I can imagine fumaroles venting steam into the air.

Also, I can climb directly to the top, and even descend into the crater. This is forbidden at Sunset Crater, for concern of erosion. Park officials closed the slopes in the 1970s, propelled by fears that, one day, Sunset Crater would be nothing. I don’t know if there is any hard science to back that notion – if there is, I’d like to see it.

 

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Walking the lava flow.

Not as Touristy as Sunset Crater

On a Memorial Day weekend exploration, I encountered not a single hiker. A few pickup trucks passed within a few miles, but our only company was the cattle (S.P. Crater is on land belonging to the Babbitt family, and I applaud them for granting access to those who want to visit the craters). When the wind died down, we could hear them lowing even from nearly 900 feet above them.

Engine noise from the highway is nonexistent, and you can catch glimpses of the brilliant colors from the Painted Desert; it looks just a few miles away, but is closer to 100 miles distant. You can watch small cloudbursts roll in, drop rain and disappear. Be careful, though, because some will contain lightning. Use your head.

If you’re in northern Arizona, I’d recommend visiting both of these iconic volcanoes. Each will give you a distinct experience that will be hard to forget.

How to Get to S.P. Crater

Just head north from Flagstaff on Highway 89. Go past the turnoff to Sunset Crater. SP Crater will soon be in view.

Look for a dirt road headed west. If you see Easy Joe’s Saloon, turn around and head back. The dirt road will branch off more than a few times. I’ve found my way to S.P. Crater more than a few different ways. Don’t worry about getting lost. It’s easy to get back to 89 one way or another.

Make Time for the Lava Flow

The lava flow north of the crater is worth checking out up close. It’s about 5 miles long and extremely rough – you’re not going to be able to see all of it. But who knows what’s waiting to be found in it? Lava flows are always a good place to find a lava tube.

 

 

Tucson’s Airplane Boneyard a Creepy Piece of History

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Transports in the desert.

There’s this really creepy, weird place down in Tucson, Ariz. Most people call it the Boneyard. The official name is the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, or AMARC. In short, it’s where airplanes go to die.

I just wrote a piece about it for Associated Content. That’s where you can get all the official-speak – how to get there, what to bring, what to see. But since this is my own blog, I want to give you a little something different, plus bigger photos!

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I'm guessing these are various types of C-135s.

I want you to picture thousands of acres. Then imagine rows of aircraft dating from post-WW II to practically present day. Dozens of B-52 Stratofortresses. Old Boeing 720s. Even the odd B-1B bomber! Helicopters, light transports, they’re all here baking in the sun.

This place just staggers my imagination. If this is where planes die, can you imagine how many are still flying? Can you imagine how many of these could find a second life better than being chopped up and turned into cans?

And the Boneyard is a starkly and oddly beautiful sight. If you’re riding the Fantasy Island mountain bikes trail network, the Boneyard is a backdrop for quite a bit of the ride. It makes me feel like Mad Max will soon coming roaring through the desert. No matter how many times I see it, I just wish I could spend a day walking among all these planes.

The Boneyard is a huge, impossible-to-miss piece of the military’s buying power and scope. I’m going to add a little something to that: Along I-17 and Highway 79, thousands of people pass decommissioned ballistic missile silos and never even notice them. In some ways, that’s more chilling than seeing thousands of aircraft strewn through the desert.

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Making Peace with Vegetarians – A Visit to Cape Trib’s Fruit Farm

After my recent post “Can You Survive These 5 Foods?“, a reader called me out.

“What’s the matter with you? This is all meaty stuff. Ya got something against vegetarians? Huh? Huh?” demanded Chantel, who writes the Click Elsewhere for the Daily Special blog.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. She’s Canadian, and thus too nice to really rake me over the coals. But she made a great point: What do you do if you’re a vegetarian, but you want to try something exotic?

I can think of one incredible place where you can savor the strange whilst harming nary a cute, fuzzy creature …

Exotic Tastes in Rural Queensland

I first heard about the Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm in Darwin, Australia’s uninhibited party place and launching pad for serious Outback adventures. Though the tiny farm is thousands of miles away in Cape Tribulation, a tiny Queensland outpost, travelers were abuzz about it.

Any trip that involves a ferry crossing is awesome.
Any trip that involves a ferry crossing is awesome.

More impressively, they promised me that the black sapote was in season and on the menu at the farm. That meant that a two-year chase to eat the fabled “chocolate pudding fruit” was about to come to … um, fruition. And surely, there’d be other tasty items, too.

On the Road to Cape Tribulation

If you plan to visit, you’ll likely land in Cairns. And yes, you’ll need to rent a car. You have an hourlong drive along a winding coastal road just to get to Port Douglas, which just gets you in range. And though it’s barely 50 miles from Port Douglas to Cape Trib, it’ll take close to two hours because of the twisting road – and you’ll need wait for a ferry to cross a river. Cape Trib is pretty much the end of the road. And much of it is beautiful rain forest.

The Garden of … Just About Everything

A friendly farm employee from Brazil sat about 10 guests around a table. She’d introduce each fruit and tell us a bit about its cultivation, history, uses and characteristics before slicing it up for us to sample. There were also pitchers of ice water to keep the palettes cleansed.

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Our fruit expert displays the black sapote. Cut it up, already!

In addition to the black sapote, I also met the breadfruit, which lived up to its name with a very starchy, dry consistency – you can even use it much like a potato. Then came the dragonfruit, jakfruit, sapodilla star fruit, mangosteen, soursop and so many others that the variety was overwhelming. The selection varies by season.

Picking a favorite is difficult, but I’d give the nod to the soursop. Trust me, under its spiny skin is a fruit that tastes far more pleasant than it’s face-puckering name. The black sapote (which contains a monstrous load of Vitamin C) got beat in my taste test by its relative, the white sapote. Both versions have a consistency similar to a slightly dried-out avocado, and odd mixture of creamy and chalky. I also liked the black sapote fruit leather, which added a bit of coconut flavor.

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I’m ready for my sample of the black sapote, or chocolate pudding fruit.

After the tasting, we got a tour of the farmlands itself. It’s amazing a place so compact can grow so many diverse fruits and vegetables.

Worth the Trip?

It doesn’t matter if your an omnivore, a vegetarian, a veg-aquarium or a carpetfuzzatarian, this is a drive worth making. The scenery is unforgettable  (stop in Mossman, the little sugarcane and railroad town).

And the fruit itself is spectacular. You’ll forget a lot of it if you don’t take notes and photos – because there’s just so much of it, not because it’s a dull experience. You will leave for the day topped off with every vitamin and mineral under the sun, so you can call it a day of really healthy travel eating.

Can You Survive These 5 Foods?

When I travel, I make it a point to find something weird to eat. I’d prefer it not be something I can get just anywhere – I scoured Web sites for a way to get a fresh black sapote fruit here in Arizona, but no dice: I had to chase that all the way to Cape Tribulation in Queensland, Australia.

But I encounter the weirdest purely by accident. Here are a few wild foods that can delight or disgust, depending on your palette.

Dangerous Delectables from Down Under

As you might guess, they’ll eat just about anything in New Zealand – especially it’s #1 pest,

Have a bite of possum pie, mate!
Have a bite of possum pie, mate!

the imported possum. While exploring the South Island of New Zealand, be sure to stop in Pukekura at the Sandfly Cafe. There, you can sample a personal-sized possum pie. Yeah, it’s a big ol’ ratlike marsupial. But, as Naked Bus driver Renee says, “It’s easy to eat!” It really doesn’t taste that different from beef. But you know it’s possum, and that makes it fun.

Australia gets two entries on my list of must-try whacky foods. If you’ve just arrived in Sydney, check out the Australian Heritage Hotel and its excellent restaurant. If you’re up for a liberal and exotic interpretation of a pizza, pick from emu, kangaroo or salt-water crocodile toppings. I chose the croc, and got a chicken-like texture with a briny hint of billabong. I hope your plans take you to Darwin in the Top End – it’s the starting point for awesome adventures into the Kakadu. It’s also home to the Wharf Precinct, where you can pick up a tasty camel schniztel. I expected it to be tough and stringy, but was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t far different from veal – but I still get lots of “ewwwww” factor when I tell people about it.

Get Teste With Me

Now, my own home state of Arizona boasts more than a few crazy treats - pit-cooked javelina (a wild pig) and fried rattlesnake, to name just two. But neither can compete with what you’ll eat at the Rock Springs Cafe monthly Hogs ‘n’ Heat BBQ and Nut Fry. You can play it safe with steaks and such, or dive into the namesake “nuts.” No, we’re not talking pecans and almonds here. This is all about Rocky Mountain oysters, bovine  gonads, bull bollocks. Dig in, cowboy!

Delicious on pizza ... but don't tell him yet.
Delicious on pizza ... but don't tell him yet.

A Fishy Treat for an Iron Stomach

I’ve saved the grossest for last, and we’re visiting Iceland for this diabolical delicacy: rotten shark meat! The Icelandic folks call it hakarl, and devouring it is a show of fortitude. Or, if reports are to be believed, a sign of completely non-functional tastebuds. I fully intend to eat this when I get to Iceland. After all, a few moments of gagging is fully worth telling people about this and watching them gag just from hearing about it. With its ammonia content, this stuff must taste like cat pee, but I can’t resist a challenge.  It doesn’t sound like you can just roll into any old grocery store and pick some up, but this blog post gives some clues.