The Cinders Recreation Area

About 20 minutes NE out of Flagstaff, AZ, just off of Highway 189, lies an area that mother nature made just for us outdoor folks.  This area contains the remains of a violent volcanic eruption that happened just 1000 years ago (give or take a couple of Memorial Day weekends).  Some of you from Arizona have probably visited the Sunset Crater National Monument, which too resides in this area.  If you have, then you know just what I am talking about.  If not, head up to the monument and tell the toll collector at the pay station that you are heading through to the cinders to go Jeepin’!  They won’t charge you the customary $3 per person monument fee.  Drive through the monument and go about another mile after leaving the eastern boundary (clearly marked).  Turn right and you are at the beginning of some 50 square miles of off-roading area that has NO trail restrictions.  That’s right….you can drive your motorcycle, Jeep, quad, or whatever else you think can make it anywhere you wish (well, OK….how about staying out of the middle of someone’s camp).

My wife and I spent the Memorial Day weekend there and we really enjoyed it.  Our good friends Joe and Joyce introduced us to the area and were absolutely great hosts.   I quickly found that after going up and over several of the cinder hills and in and out of a few craters, it was very easy to get turned around.  Following your own tracks is difficult since the next vehicle to come along obliterates them (this assumes you can even pick them out of the cinders).  I quickly found that my trusty Garmin III+ GPS was more valuable here than most any other off-road trip I have used it on.

Here are a few photos that I snapped while there.  Joe’s CJ-7 appears in a few as he provided the guided tour for the first couple of days and was therefore the default picture subject at the same time.  By the third day, I was feeling a bit more comfortable on these “mineralized ball-bearings” (as Joe calls them).  Oh yeah….for all of those guys who say “the 4 cylinder engine in my Jeep is plenty good enough”, they should probably skip this page and go on to something that has bigger rocks in it and no power requirements.  I found that my 4.0L 6 cylinder was the “small kid on the block” and that in this area, BIG V-8 engines rule!   OK…enough of that.  On with the show!

Everyone needs a “base camp” from which to launch the exciting adventures that occur throughout a weekend.  We found a cozy spot and called it home for the 4 days we were there.  The weather was great but the flies were nasty….the tiny little ones that buzz in your ear and attempt unauthorized landings in your mouth while you are eating!  Joe and Joyce said they had never seen them like that before.  Perhaps it was on account of the extremely dry weather the area had been experiencing.  I hope our next visits finds them no where in sight!

This is $35 Hill, as it is commonly known by the folks that frequent the area.  You can see the little notch at the top of the photo, which is where you slide off the top of the hill and start your decent.  This is also one face of the Janis Crater (the shorter one actually).  As you work your way around the crater, to the right hand side, you eventually come to $100 Hill.  Way back before anyone had built a vehicle capable of reaching the top, the guys who regularly tried climbing the BIG hill had a pool going for the first guy that reached the top….the prize….$100.  So, that hill became known as $100 Hill.  There is a $50 Hill, and of course this one which is $35 Hill.  I came down $35 Hill several times during the weekend, as it was the most direct route from Janis Crater when heading back to camp.   I did not have the equipment to attempt to climb it.


There is a story behind this photo.  It was taken by my wife as we were coming down $35 Hill.  We were getting into the lower half and she was not totally comfortable with the entire situation.  In her defense, I will say that she has always remained very cool and trusted my driving during the many years and countless trails that we have off-roaded on together.  Seeing a foot tall and 2 foot long wall of cinders pushing ahead of Lady’s front tires was not a comforting sight, along with the fact that the rear end wanted to keep swapping ends with the front.  You can fix the end swapping problem by increasing the throttle just a bit, but then you find yourself going down the hill faster than before, and you probably didn’t like that speed to start with!  Oh yeah, it is fun to drive on. 

Anyway, back to the above picture.  I grabbed the digital camera and handed it to Donna, which did not make her happy since I was now driving with just one hand.  She snapped a couple of shots out of the window, which didn’t make her happy either because that left her no hands to hang on with! (I guess it all boils down to a kind of “hand” thing, so to speak.)  During that brief period of chaos, she took a picture that had the trees kind of leaning over (falling up hill) and the horizon kind of looking pretty flat.   Since the trees really were growing straight up, I tweaked the orientation of the picture a bit and above is the result.  As you can see, we were coming down a fairly steep hill, considering that the tires were rolling over the top of the cinders that were sliding under the tires.

This is Janis Crater.  If you follow the tire tracks that are to the left of where I was standing when I took this picture, you can see they eventually lead down to Joe’s CJ-7 (that tiny little speck at the center of the picture) at the bottom of the crater.   The side of the crater that extends up towards the yellow dot is referred to as the mouth of the crater.  It is the lowest side of the crater, and $35 Hill is just over the lip.   On the 3rd day of my Cinders adventure, I ventured down into Janis.  The problem in doing so is that you may or may not be able to get out.  Joe has witnessed more than one vehicle who has been trapped in the bottom of the crater.  I think of it as a big “Venus Flytrap” kind of thing… sure looks like fun, let’s go down and give it a try!  OOOOOOPS!!!!!!  I can’t get out!!!  There is a trail that cork-screws up and out  along the west edge of the crater, which is what Joe and I used to get out.  Some vehicles can’t make it up this trail and then they must be towed, which usually means several big V-8 powered vehicles hooked in series to create enough power.  I tried to climb out the mouth several times, but just couldn’t do it.  The yellow dot in the picture is about where I could get to before Lady ran out of steam.

Here is a picture of Joe making a run up towards the mouth of the crater.   Just like me, he was unable to make it to the top.  Although Joe has climbed out many times before, it wasn’t in the cards for that day.  We kept hoping for a good rain storm, which increases the traction, but the weather gods just weren’t smiling on us this weekend.  Joe said that the traction is better when there is some moisture in the cinders.

The Cinders Recreation Area

So, you might be asking yourself what do you do when you get part way up the crater wall and you run out of forward momentum?  Well, you can just grind to a stop and attempt to back down the hill….ARGH!!  You really don’t want to do that.   Backing down steep hills can very quickly lead to a roll over, as many experienced off-roaders can most likely attest to.  So….you rainbow.  A rainbow is nothing more than adding an arc at the top of your track such that the centrifugal force keeps you pushed against the hill while you get your vehicle to do a tight 180° turn and head back down the hill.  Once you get the hang of it, it is not too bad to pull off.  If you do it wrong, you will roll down the hill.  In the case of Janis crater, that might account for about 300 or 400 feet (at least where we were driving).  On other parts of Janis, you will roll much further and it won’t be pretty when it is done either.  Here is a digital movie (1.4MB) of Joe doing a rainbow at the top of one of his attempts going up to the mouth.  I wish someone had shot some of mine so I could have seen them afterwards.  The adrenaline keeps the heart rate going while you are doing this entire up and back down thing.  Before I tried the mouth on Janis, I spent some time in a nice little place called Bob’s Bowl.  It is near Janis and offers a nice area where one can “learn” how to defy gravity.  The toughest part about doing it (for real, not practice) is that you are walking a fine line between making it to the top or rolling over.  If you rainbow too early, you certainly won’t make it to the top of the hill.  If you think you are going to make it, but you run out of energy just before getting there, you may not have enough left to initiate the rainbow, which means either a roll over or a high pucker factor trip going backwards down a hill you can’t even climb up!  So….as you near the top of the hill, your mind feels like it is doing a couple million calculations per second….how fast am I going, what does the motor sound like, what are my RPMs, can I afford to down shift, do I rainbow now for keep going, was that someone else coming up behind me going to the direction I want to turn, etc. etc.?  When you do it right, you have enough power in reserve to cause the rear end of the Jeep to break loose and start to whip around going up hill.  This gets you turned around in a heartbeat (or two) and then you need to get off the throttle right away else you find yourself screaming down the hill faster than you wanted. (and that in itself is kind of a rush too!)

The quads and motorcycles have a much higher HP to weight ratio and so are much more able to climb these very steep hills.  I’m still not sure if I can get use to an  off-road motorcycle that sports a paddle tire on the rear; it does look kind of strange.  Here is a digital movie (655 KB) of a motorcycle attempting to climb out of Janis, but doesn’t quite make it.  The driver is going up a very steep section of the crater.  In defense of the driver, he went easily out of the mouth after he rainbowed in this movie and headed back towards the mouth.

The picture above was taken by me while up on Janis’s red face….the ground there is red colored and as you can see, there are no tracks on it.  It can not be climbed, at least not with anything that exists in today’s off-road arena.   Joe got on the CB and pretty soon, a bunch of his old buddies all joined up for a reunion at the bottom of the Crater.  There were members from several different clubs that Joe has rode with over the years. 

This is a picture of Joe on his way down to join the guys at the bottom of the crater.  This is the face of the bowl where the big V-8s climb out of the crater bottom.  Sorry for the low quality picture.  A large forest fire that was burning NW of Flagstaff all during the weekend was dumping smoke right into our area.  The haze is the wood smoke from the fire.

Here are a few more photos we took while up in the area.  These were taken while we were out driving around, checking out the surrounding trails and countryside.

Here I am sitting on an old dead Ponderosa pine.  Joe took us over to the Strawberry Crater area.  He had hiked to the the crater on his birthday, the previous day, while Donna and I were driving up to Flagstaff.  If you feel up to the challenge, Joe says the view is mighty impressive from the top of the crater.

While out snooping around, we interrupted some of the local residents.   We saw one of them as we were driving up to the bush they were under.  It was not until we were driving away that Donna saw the second one tucked in close to the base of the bush.  So we stopped, backed up the TJ, and snapped another picture before heading out. 

Here was another little fellow that was kind enough to let us take his picutre.  I used the camera zoom on him to get him to look a bit bigger than he really was.  In fact, he is about 3 inches long or so, but I think this photo of him is much more impressive.  Donna thanked the locals for being so kind hearted and letting us take their pictures before we headed back to camp.