Around 50,000 years ago, wooly mammoths grazing on the grasslands of the Colorado Plateau looked up to see a ball of fire coming down towards them. A 50-meter rock of iron and nickel hurtled towards the ground of what would become Arizona at over 12 kilometers per second. The meteor slammed into the ground and vaporized, causing a huge explosion with a force equivalent to 150 times that of the nuclear weapon which flattened the city of Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War. Debris thrown up by the blast rained down from the sky while the ground shook and burned for miles around the impact site. When the dust and smoke had cleared, a hole over a kilometer wide and 170 meters deep marred the erstwhile flat and green grassland. Right there and then, a national landmark was born.
This landmark is the famed Meteor Crater, can be found in the northern Arizona desert nearly 70 kilometers from the city of Flagstaff. It is the best-known impact crater in the world and is a major tourist attraction thanks to its visual prominence; most other impact craters are well-hidden thanks to vegetation cover or their size – some craters are actually so large that they can only be identified as such from the air or from space. Geologists originally considered Meteor Crater a product of volcanic activity until a mining engineer named Daniel Barringer suggested that it was created by a meteorite. In his honor, Meteor Crater is often referred to by scientists as the Barringer Crater. Barringer’s hypothesis was ultimately proven in the 1960s by geologist Eugene Shoemaker.
A visit to Arizona is not complete without a stop at Meteor Crater. The site is presently owned by the Barringer family, and sightseers need to pay an admission fee to see the crater itself. Tourists are encouraged pass by the Meteor Crater Visitor Center on the crater’s north rim where they may see actual pieces of the meteorite that gouged out the crater thousands of years ago. There are also observation areas in the Visitor Center with good views from inside the rim of the crater.