Meteor Crater Floor Tour
Author: James Tobin [Google]
We would like to thank Meteor Crater Enterprises, Inc., for their generosity in letting us explore the crater area. We need to say at this point that this was a special tour. Tours around the rim and in the crater bottom are not permitted. Also, for scientific reasons collecting of meteorites within an area extending several miles around the crater is illegal and violators are vigorously prosecuted. To preserve the meteorites in situ for future study no more hunting of any kind is allowed. The text and photos may not be reproduced or distributed in any manner without the written permission of both The Meteorite Exchange, Inc. and Meteor Crater Enterprises, Inc.
We have been exceedingly lucky in our trips to Meteor Crater. The weather has always been beautiful. And that was how it was again on the morning of our descent to the bottom. We had an appointment to meet our guides at nine o’clock and we arrived a few minute early. Guess we were kind of excited.
Here our guide Richard starts us on our first steps down the Astronauts trail. We were loaded for bear as the saying goes. We had video cameras, film cameras, and digital cameras. Water, snacks, extra batteries, GPS units, handheld communicators, and a lot more stuff rounded out the contents of our packs. Of course I had my notes on where things were and I had spent the last couple weeks refreshing myself on the layout of the crater floor. We were going to use the familiar trail that runs rather gently down the western wall of the crater. It begins in the northwest corner just beyond the ruins of the original museum building. It is a little steep initially and has several tight switchbacks but quickly becomes an easy incline that runs all the way to the bottom edge of the talus.
I stood at the bottom of the trail for several moments just taking in the atmosphere of the place. The first thing that I noted would remain the most compelling of my impressions for the entire day. I was caught up in the utter stillness of the crater floor. It is profoundly quiet. The others were off to the left of me among the giant boulders at the foot of the north wall. I joined them for the obligatory picture beside the largest of the boulders.
The remains of the pipelines run through this area and they were easy to find. Going just a little east would put us in the spot where the lower camp had been. As we walked that way I wondered how much evidence would still be there. It is sort of funny how time can turn what was once trash into historic artifacts. The many rusting tin cans and bits china; broken pieces of glass purpled from exposure to the sun for nearly a hundred years told us we had arrived at the lower camp. This had for a few years been a bustling center of activity in the crater. Several large buildings had been on the site, workers had meals here, and they dreamed their dreams of El Dorado here. Old photographs of the lower camp are just like pictures of any of a hundred mining camps scattered across the southwest. Whether it was gold or meteoric iron probably made little difference to the miners, the work was the same. I like to believe the dreams were the same as well. There was certainly the same ghost town feel for me as I walked among the remains. The location of one of the early shafts is near the lower camp and we found it with little difficulty.
Looking straight across the crater from the lower camp one gets a good view of “Silica Hill”.
This mound rising several feet in height is much more noticeable than we thought it would be. The location of the workings that were once on Silica Hill is our next stop.
All the shafts on the floor have been refilled except number 2. They, like all abandoned mine shafts were a hazard and so were filled. But some settling of the fill has occurred and most can be found now as depressions a foot or two deep. The location of many of the drill sites can still be found by the bright white rock flour that covers those areas. Beyond Silica Hill as we head across the crater is the very center where most of the early activity was focused.
Mr. Barringer was convinced in the beginning that the round shape of the crater indicated that the asteroid had plunged straight down and was buried beneath the center. Several large and expensive excavations were conducted in this area. The remains of the machinery are still here.
The great boiler and winch can be seen from the rim of the crater and the pulverized rock dug up has marked the area clearly as a brilliant white spot. But, it was exciting to touch the machines and marvel at the wonderful state of preservation they are in.
Behind the fenced area in the crater center is the location of the main shaft that was designed by Barringer himself.
It was to be a two-compartment mineshaft. It was intended to be very efficient in moving vast amounts of nickel-iron to the surface. However, it like the previous shaft had to be abandoned because of the quicksand encountered at about two hundred feet.
Lying around the site are timbers, cables, and wheels, all now silently testifying about the determination of one man to find out what happens when an unstoppable object strikes the immovable barrier. A life size cutout of an astronaut in a spacesuit is there next to an American flag.
They provide the visitors at the museum far above a size reference. But, just so you will know the boiler is very large. It measures over fifteen feet in length and forty inches in diameter.
From the center of the crater we strike out toward the east wall and a visit to shaft number two which is the one still used for research. It is covered with a wooden lid.
There are solar panels nearby to charge batteries, which power lights in the shaft. On our way there we walk through the part of the crater floor called the Playa. This is an area easily seen in any aerial photograph. We note as we cross it that the vegetation changes from the scattered scruff of dry grass to a more abundant and greener small flowering plant. The location of the shaft is near the edge of this playa area but still well inside the edge of the talus. Around the shaft is the same characteristic mound of white powdered rock. But if you know to look you can see that some is white and some are different shades of a very light ivory color. As the miners dug they avoided creating a single great heap of material by piling what they brought up in several spots around the opening. This has preserved for scientists an easily accessible set of samples of the different layers beneath the crater floor. We leave shaft number two and make a loop to the north to where another shaft was located. There is very little remaining there and we soon pass by shaft number two again as we make our way beyond it to one of the better assemblages of old machinery.
Up near the talus on the eastern side of the crater lying presumably where originally left is much of one of the drill rigs.
This portion of the crater floor was the area where in a very short period of time many holes were drilled. We spend some time exploring here. None of us was familiar with drilling rigs to any degree, but I determine to take photos to show to someone that is knowledgeable and let them tell me more. We head back across the crater toward the center passing again through the comparatively lush Playa. When we arrive at the far side of the white mound we peer through the fence down into the top of shaft number three. It is unfilled at least for some distance down and we hold our cameras as high as possible up the fence and point them down into the shaft.
All just to try and get a picture of what the shafts looked like nearly a hundred years ago. This is a nice place to rest a minute and eat a snack, drink some water. We have done a lot of talking as we walked along, but as I sat eating the silence of the crater swept over me again. For several minutes I just absorbed it, till it was suddenly broken by the cries of a hawk circling above us. We watched the majestic creature work the thermals and currents of the crater for a long time as we finished our small lunch. But soon it was time to press on. A light plane crashed in the crater many years ago and we knew that the remains of it were along the western edge in the bottom of the talus. What we were really surprised about was how very little of the plane we would find. We had expected the majority of the craft to be there.
What was there was a short section of the fuselage and one other very tiny piece. We inquired about what happened to the rest and were told that some of it was lifted out by a Huey helicopter and the remainder was disposed of down the main shaft. There are many groupings of old timbers that have fallen into the crater along the western side. They are seen clumped in the gullies. We happened to actually pass a large group of timbers in an area where there was some drilling in the thirties after Barringer’s death. There was a wooden platform and I wondered if it was from that derrick.
We were in the area of the so-called Jakosky anomaly. Jakosky had done a geophysical study and thought something was buried in that area. But, studies since have not led to any conclusive determination that there is more of anything under the floor there than elsewhere. We leave behind the western wall and head across the talus toward the south wall and the horizontal tunnel. It sits well up near the top of the talus.
The waste rock pile of the horizontal tunnel is one of the most recognizable features on the entire wall of the crater. Except for the few visible trails there is little on the walls that is man made. The biggest exceptions are these two waste rock piles on the south wall. The nineteen-twenties found the crater again a buzz of activity with a great drilling program on the top of the south rim. The red streak is from that program.
During the beginnings of the drilling the drill stem broke and the drill tools were lost. It was determined that they might be recovered if a tunnel was dug back into the crater wall below the rig. Barringer thought this was a dangerous activity because of the shattered state of the rocks. But the tunnel was dug and the tools were recovered and the drilling continued. Obstacles were hit several times and some were drilled around but finally at 1376 feet the bit stuck in something and could not be freed. However, before the drill stuck fast it had gone through many feet of weathered meteoric material. Barringer was final convinced that the location of some of the great meteorite had been found. As I reached the flat top of the waste rock pile and stood in front of the opening of the tunnel I was just thrilled.
I don’t know if my companions realized that this was the high point for me or not. But, this was like the summit of Everest. I just lingered there taking video and stills and digital photos. It is also a wonderful vantage point to view the rest of the crater.
We could see where we had been only hours before and got a real appreciation for the size of the crater. Those locations now looked very far off. We did not venture into the tunnel for that is strictly forbidden.
But I could see in about forty feet. It was fully timbered; completely lined with wood. The desert environment and the darkness of the tunnel have left the wood light in color. Not unlike what you might find in a lumberyard new. However, Barringer’s fears of collapse have finally been realized. Sometime in the last few years with no one knowing the tunnel caved in. Originally 400 feet long it now goes in only about a hundred feet. Even more reason to be avoided by would be explorers.
Next to the waste rock pile of the horizontal tunnel is another pile. We hiked over there for a peek at what was dug.
There was the opening of a short tunnel that we were told was used for storage.
We had intended all day to leave the crater interior by the Zigzag Trail in the south east corner. But, as we stood near the top of the talus and at the foot of the steep wall we looked across to that trail and decided to hike out from where we were.pan I have over the last few years consciously made an effort to work on my fear of heights. He has delighted in watching me on the platform at the crater clinging to the railings for dear life. So I have to admit I was thrilled by the thought of climbing out right here just to the side of the south cliffs.
But, it was a thrill tempered by some remaining acrophobia. This is I think one of the steepest areas of the crater wall. There is a trail to be seen from a distance but up close it was easier just picking your way upward. I took some of the best photographs I have on the climb out.
It was a very rewarding choice of exit up to the rim. As we were climbing the cry of the hawk returned to our ears and yet when we looked we saw not one but a pair of the great birds circling in the air near us. A bit of rest and some water at the top; then the hike along the western part of the rim brought a close to our day on the crater floor. We completed my long list of things to see and added to it things I had no idea were there. We wish to thank Meteor Crater Enterprises once again for the opportunity to take the pictures that have made this website and story possible. We hope that you have enjoyed this and learned something new. We hope also that you have gotten a little of the air of history that permeates Meteor Crater.