About 50 years ago, the U.S. government used 30,000 pounds of explosives to turn a chunk of Arizona into a simulated moonscape for astronauts to practice picking up rocks on. Today, you can take your own truck out there and carve it up like a ski slope because it’s an off-road park ON THE MOON. Here’s how to do it.
IMPORTANT: If I tell you about this... you gotta promise to be cool.
We mentioned this amazing place in the Ram Rebel review, because it’s actually where we tested that truck. Then somebody at the U.S. Forestry Service was under the impression that we were doing donuts on a historic landmark and had beef.
So let me make it perfectly plain regarding the place discussed in this article: the Cinder Hills OHV Area, and frankly all other public spots zoned for off-road driving. This is a place designated by Uncle Sam for us to drive our toys on, but there are rules.
Basically: there are sections you can drive on and sections you cannot. The “preservation” areas are extremely well marked. In fact, they’re fenced off. Don’t be the asshole that ruins it for the rest of us by driving into the fenced-off area and we’ll be all good. Good? Good.
If you really don’t know how to behave while off-road driving on public land, the Tread Lightly organization has some good guidelines to live by.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Research Program was in charge of teaching astronauts how to moon in the 1960s. The Living Moon and LPL University of Arizona tell us the Cinder Lake volcanic fields were particularly suited to astro-cosplay thanks to lava flows that ravaged the area a few hundred years years prior to our space program.
This land was shaped by the nearby Sunset Crater Volcano, which the National Park Service puts says last erupted “between [the year] 1040 and 1100.” Apparently the planned landing site for Apollo missions was remarkably similar.
So, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the USGS used “1,153 pounds of dynamite and 28,650 pounds of nitro-carbo-nitrate” to blow 354 holes in the basaltic sediment surface. The result is an asteroid-attacked wasteland.
Apparently the Apollo 15 crew ended up being the first group to actually train at his spot, with the last “moon practice” running here in 1972 before the Apollo 17 mission. But people have been using it as a spot for space-simulation in a vaguely official capacity until at least as recently as the year 2000. And what’s stopping you from preparing for your own space mission!?
Cinder Hills makes up about 13,500 acres of the Coconino National Forest, and on that big ol’ patch of loose sediment “responsible cross country travel is permitted.” That means no road signs to follow, no painted lines, no slowpokes hogging the left lane to get stuck behind.
As I mentioned earlier, there are areas of historical significance that are closed-off to rascals like us, but there are still plenty of craters you can drive around, or in-and-out of if you’re brave enough!
Besides the big, open, meteor-blasted lava-fields there are some lots to climb up and down and forest all around to bob and weave through trees in, but the rules get a little stricter when you get out o the volcanic playpen. The 53,000 acres surrounding the off-road area is protected land and not to be trifled with. Don’t worry, you’re not gonna stumble onto it by accident.
You can (and should) download a free Motor Vehicle Use map from the Foresty Service right onto your Garmin GPS, phone, or computer right here to make sure you stay off the sensitive areas and keep places like Cinder Hills open for the rest of us.
There are camping options nearby, or the town of Flagstaff is just a few miles down the road.
The volcanic cinder field that makes up the “moon surface” looks and feels like sand, but a bit heavier. It’s not very deep so you don’t need colossal power or super-aggressive tires to move through it, but it definitely doesn’t hurt. You will need a lot of juice to power-over slide in this, and even more to make it up some of the steeper and heavily corrugated climbs.
That said, there are firm fireroads crisscrossing the park that you could make it down in a Corolla. So if you just want to have a look, hike around, or even go camping, don’t let your equipment hold you back!
Cinder Hills ranges from 6,600 to 7,800 feet of elevation depending on where you’re standing, so keep that in mind for your carb tune and altitude-sickness tolerance.
The short explanation is “it’s about eight miles east of Flagstaff right off Highway 89.” Just keep your eyes open for a sign on the right and you should find your way there in easily.
The Forestry Service would also like you to take a look at the map above and understand that there’s no “direct access between FR 776 and FR 545 (Sunset Crater-Wupatki Scenic Loop Drive)“ and that off-road travel between FR 545 and FR 776 isn’t allowed.
Cinder Hills is free to roll up on and it’s open year-round. We found the place pretty much empty when we explored the park on a weekday, but traffic is considered “medium to heavy” by the USFS so if you can avoid peak times like weekends it might be worth it! And don’t forget; Arizona’s not all arid desert, it can get cold and wet at this level of elevation.
Check it out, have fun, stay safe, and let us know what you find there!
Images via NASA, USGS, Coconino National Forest/Flickr, US Forest Service, USGS Astrogeology Science Center. Top image: Apollo 15 astronauts David Scott and James Irwin practice LRV operations in Arizona (NASA), accessed via Technology.org