The Biggest Impact Crater in Arizona Looks Like Something Straight Out of Hollywood

Written by Drew Wood
Updated: June 8, 2023
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If Hollywood movies are any indication, people are intrigued by the idea of the world being destroyed by a meteor. It seems like every decade has its own version of this story. Deep Impact and Armageddon, which were both products of the 90s. In the early 2000s, Impact was released, and more recently, Greenland (2020) hit theatres (or quarantined living rooms).

These movies may seem far-fetched, but this particular meteor fear is based in fact. The Earth is actually covered in impact craters. They have mostly been worn down by erosion, glaciers, or volcanoes, so we don’t see them. But one place you can get a good look at a crater in the U.S. is Arizona, the home of Barringer Meteor Crater. Barringer is the biggest impact crater in Arizona, and it looks like something straight out of Hollywood. In this article, we’ll explore when this crater was formed, what the landscape was like, and whether it could happen again.

Key Facts

  • Barringer Meteor Crater was created about 50,000 years ago in what is today an Arizona desert between Flagstaff and Winslow.
  • It is about 3/4 mile across and 560 feet deep. It is the biggest impact crater in Arizona.
  • At the time it hit, no humans lived in the area, just woolly mammoths and giant sloths and camels.
  • It is well-preserved because the climate became drier in Arizona, and it did not have very much erosion.
  • It is privately owned and operated as a tourist attraction today.
  • Meteors of this size only hit about once every 10,000 years. For this reason, ordinary hazards like falling downstairs are much more likely to kill you than meteors.
Impact site of a nickel-iron meteorite that fell on earth 49,000 years ago.

Barringer Meteor Crater is the biggest impact crater in Arizona and the best-preserved one in the United States.

©Grindstone Media Group/Shutterstock.com

Description of Barringer Meteor Crater

If you want to see Barringer Crater, you’ll have to go 37 miles east of Flagstaff in the Arizona desert. It’s 3,900 feet in diameter, which is about 3/4 of a mile. Additionally, it’s 560 feet deep, and has a rim that rises up 148 feet higher than the plains around it.

The site is not an official U.S. national park or national monument, but this is because it is private land. The site is part of the Barringer family’s property. Their ancestors originally purchased it for a mining operation, hoping to find rich mineral deposits left over from the impact. However, the meteor that created it vaporized on impact, so they didn’t find much. Nowadays, the Barringer Crater Company has ceased mining operations and runs the crater site as a roadside tourist attraction. It has also been used for scientific research, including as a training ground for NASA’s Apollo astronauts. It simulates the environment of the moon!

The Explosion

Researchers are fairly certain the crater was formed 50,000 years ago at a period of time called the Pleistocene epoch. The meteorite that formed it was made of nickel and iron and measured about 160 feet in diameter. Scientists still aren’t clear on how fast the object was traveling. But it could have been in the range of 29,000 mph to 45,000 mph. At least half of the meteorite probably burned up in the atmosphere and the rest vaporized upon impact. But the explosion it created was still the equivalent of 10 megatons of TNT. This is about eight times bigger than the largest nuclear weapon in the American nuclear arsenal today. The crater has eroded some since it was originally created. However, the relatively dry climate of Arizona has preserved it better than craters in more geologically active and humid areas.

Iron meteorite from the Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona, USA. Weight 110g.

This is a fragment of the nickel-iron meteorite that formed the Barringer Meteor Crater.

©I. Pilon/Shutterstock.com

Where is Barringer Meteor Crater Located on a Map?

The Barringer Meteor Crater is located in northern Arizona, approximately 40 miles east of Flagstaff. It is situated within the Coconino National Forest and can be accessed via Interstate 40 and then taking exit 233 onto Highway 66. From there, visitors will need to travel about seven miles south on Meteor Crater Road until they reach the entrance to the crater.

On a map, you can easily locate the Barringer Meteor Crater by searching for Winslow, Arizona, and then traveling northeast toward Flagstaff. The crater itself will appear as a circular formation with distinct edges. It covers an area of roughly one mile in diameter and is surrounded by flat desert terrain.

What Was Arizona Like When the Meteor Struck?

The meteor impact happened about 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene epoch. At that time, Arizona was a cool and damp grassland with some forested land. People had not arrived in North America yet, but fossils of other large and advanced mammals have been discovered there. These include woolly mammoths, giant ground sloths, mastodons, rodents, and giant camels.

The impact of the meteor locally was catastrophic. But it was not large enough to have long-term effects on the Earth’s climate or cause any kind of extinction. It was simply a very bad day to live in Arizona.

Illustration of a Mastodon on a white background

Mastodons may have been casualties of the meteor that created the biggest impact crater in Arizona.

©Liliya Butenko/Shutterstock.com

What Can You Do at Barringer Meteor Crater?

If you stop at Barringer Meteor Crater, you’ll have a shared experience with at least 270,000 other people. That’s how many people stop by the Meteor Crater Visitor Center every year, on the north rim of the crater. They have interactive exhibits about meteorites and space, some artifacts of the U.S. Space Program, and opportunities to handle meteorite specimens from the crater. The Visitor Center also has a movie theater, gift shop, and observation area to look inside the rim of the crater, or you can take a guided tour of the rim. There just aren’t many places in the world where you can get this up close and personal with a major impact crater. It’s an other-worldly experience, for sure.

Arizona Meteor Crater, USA

From the visitors’ center at Barringer Meteor Crater you can view the crater and learn more about meteors and the space program.

©turtix/Shutterstock.com

What Would Happen if the Meteor Hit Today?

If the same impact occurred today, it would make a fireball about three miles in diameter. Anyone living within a 20-mile radius of the impact could get severely burned or blinded by the flash of the explosion. Fortunately, the impact site is far enough away from populated areas that not very many people would be hurt directly by it. The nearest towns are Leum to the north and Winslow to the east. Residents there would certainly see and hear the explosion but would not be hurt by it.

Flagstaff, to the west, is far enough away not to sustain any damage. However, it is possible that any of these communities could be hit by secondary impacts from blasted bedrock or meteorite fragments thrown high into the atmosphere. You can use the tool at this site to see what an explosion of this size would do if it happened near the place you live.

meteor hitting earth

If a meteor of 1,200 feet hit Arizona today the effects would be felt across the continent and around the world.

©solarseven/Shutterstock.com

How Worried Should You Be About a Meteor Impact?

So how worried should you be? Not very. Each and every day, about 100 tons of rock and metal fragments fall down to Earth from space, mostly as tiny dust specks. So, the next time you dust or vacuum, think about all those tiny meteorites you’re sweeping up! As for meteorites as big as the one that created the largest impact crater in Arizona, those happen only about once every 10,000 years or so. Considering that the Earth is 70% water and that people live on only 50% of the available land, there’s an 85% chance that any meteor that hits the Earth will strike a place where humans don’t live, which is exactly what happened at Barringer Meteor Crater. The odds of you being struck by lightning, or falling down the stairs, are much, much higher. So be careful!

The threat of a meteor killing any individual person is extremely low, but in the long-term picture of the human race, it is a threat we have to take seriously. Very rarely, a meteor is large enough that no matter where on Earth it might hit, it can cause mass extinctions, such as the one that killed the dinosaurs 63 million years ago. Governments around the world are working to track and catalog known objects in space and calculate their orbits to give us plenty of advance warning if one will strike our planet. And the United States successfully carried out an operation to use a targeted explosion to change the orbit of an asteroid, proving the technology could be used for this purpose. So those Hollywood movies may yet turn out to be not science fiction, but science fact.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © solarseven/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Drew Wood is a writer at A-Z Animals focusing on mammals, geography, and world cultures. Drew has worked in research and writing for over 20 years and holds a Masters in Foreign Affairs (1992) and a Doctorate in Religion (2009). A resident of Nebraska, Drew enjoys Brazilian jiu-jitsu, movies, and being an emotional support human to four dogs.

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