The Amboy Crater in southern California is, according to the park service, not a unique feature. It’s simply a cinder cone in the middle of a lava field. And yet, it is rather interesting. For one thing, you get to walk into a volcano—I don’t know about you, but that’s not something that I get to do every day. Also, the views from the top are quite impressive. The crater is surrounded by lava fields, which is a fairly interesting if you like desolate landscapes. And, if you’re into trains, there’s a railroad that is very visible from the top of the crater, so you can watch whole trains go by. There’s also a picnic area at the bottom, so if you’re traveling down I-40 through Southern California and are looking for a place to stop for lunch (or breakfast or supper—the crater would be hot in the middle of the day!), this would be a great place to do it!
Key GPS Coordinates:
Parking Area: 34.557031N / -115.781066W (34N 33′ 25.3116″ / -115W 46′ 51.837″)
Entrance to the Crater: 34.544784 N / -115.792293 W (34N 32′ 41.2218″ / -115W 47′ 32.2548″)
Getting to Amboy Crater
The Amboy Crater is, as you might expect, near the town of Amboy! It is also a skip and a jump off of I-40, so access from the interstate is fairly easy. If you’re visiting Mojave National Preserve, it’s just south of that park. To get to the crater itself from the east, from I-40 take exit 78; turn left at the bottom of the exit ramp. This is fairly desolate country, so don’t expect a town to great you at the exit. Drive for 11.5 miles through the town of Amboy and then turn right onto National Trails Hwy. Drive another 7.7 miles, and then turn left on Crater Road. Signs should mark this junction, and you will be able to see the Amboy Crater from this point. The parking area is at the end of the road. If you’re coming from the west, take Exit 50 off of I-40. You are in the “town” of Ludlow here, so you’ll at least see a restaurant. Now that’s civilization! Turn right off of the exit ramp and then make a quick left onto National Trails Hwy. You don’t want to go to Ludlow itself; you want to parallel the highway for a while. Drive 26.3 miles on this road and then turn right onto Crater Road. Again, this junction should be marked; follow the road to its end in the parking area. According to the park brochure, the roads to Amboy Crater some of the more interesting sections of Historic Route 66, so sit back and enjoy the ride!
The parking area for Amboy Crater is paved and has a primitive toilet and picnic tables. These are ADA accessible. There is also an ADA accessible shaded platform 250 feet from the parking area that will allow you to view the crater. It’s not the same as walking inside, but if it’s the middle of the summer, it’s far better than being out in the desert’s extreme heat. The trail to the crater itself is not shaded and is very exposed; it is recommended that all hiking in and around the crater be done only in the months between October and April. (We were there on a very cold day in December—it was wet and windy and miserable; not at all what it’s like on a sunny day in the summer!) Speaking of recommendations, in the spring wildflowers bloom, making the trail a favorite spot for photographers. In December, we could see the remains of last year’s flowers, but none had begun to bloom yet.
The trail to the crater is 1.1 miles long (one way). It begins from the right side of the parking area (if you’re facing the picnic tables). It isn’t much of a trail, just a track off through the desert, but it is apparent enough that it isn’t easily missed. The trail itself is fairly sandy and winds its way over the sand and volcanic rock to the crater and then around to the western side. It’s fairly flat, and it’s well enough used that it isn’t hard to follow most of the time. Look for trains out across the road to your right as you hike along. Also, enjoy the lava rocks around you. These are from a real eruption, and may have come from Amboy Crater itself. Some desert foliage has grown up in the sand between the lava rocks, but it is no more than waist-high in most places. Another thing to watch for is army jets beyond the crater. You are very near an active bombing range, so stay on the trail. The crater itself isn’t near enough to the range to be hazardous, but don’t go wondering off over the lava in that direction, either! A map of the trail can be found at: http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/ca/pdf/pdfs/needles_pdfs.Par.52076feb.File.dat/amboy.pdf
The last bit of the trail before the crater is very steep and leads up into the crater itself. You might want to rest a minute at the bottom before you begin this hike, because it’s not a stroll in the park. However, it is very doable, even for those who aren’t in great shape, so don’t give up! You’re almost to the point where you can walk into the volcano itself. And remember, it’s all downhill on the way back! Finally, you’ll get up into the caldera of the crater itself. Here we found a couple of small ponds that had formed in low spots inside the caldera (the center of the crater, where the lava and cinders came out of). Amboy Crater is a cinder cone, so the sides of it are mostly cinders that were thrown up into the air during an eruption, but which fell nearby. The lava field surrounding the crater was likely formed in a similar, although more forceful, eruption. More information can be read at the interpretive signs in the parking area.
From riff in the side of the crater that you’ve just walked through, you can follow a trail up to the rim, or you can walk around the small ponds to the other side of the crater and follow the trail up to the rim from that side. Either way, I highly recommend that you walk around the rim of the crater. The trail up to the rim is steep, since it goes almost straight up, but it’s worth the climb. From the rim, you get a birds-eye view of the surrounding lava field, the bombing range (very unimpressive), and the surrounding area, including train tracks, roads, mountains, etc. It would be very nice in the sunshine, but even in the rain and grey clouds, it was nice. Some members of my group really enjoyed seeing the trains go by on the train track; others of us were more excited about the lava field stretched out below us.
Return by the way you came. The crater isn’t a place to spend a whole day, but it makes for a very nice couple-hour break while driving down I-40. And, unlike what the park service says, it is a rather “unique” place to visit.
Round Trip Trail Length: To just walk into the crater, 2.2 miles; to go all the way around the rim and back to the parking area, 3 miles.
Facilities: Primitive restrooms, shaded picnic tables, interpretive signs
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
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- 2:45 PM PDT on April 23, 2017
- 8:00 PM PDT on April 23, 2017
Sun Apr 23
Mainly clear and windy. Lows overnight in the upper 60s.
Mon Apr 24
Mostly sunny early then partly cloudy and windy later in the day. High 94F. Winds WNW at 25 to 35 mph. Winds could occasionally gust over 50 mph.
Tue Apr 25
A few clouds from time to time. Gusty winds diminishing in the afternoon. High 88F. Winds NW at 20 to 30 mph.
Wed Apr 26
Except for a few afternoon clouds, mainly sunny. High 94F. Winds WNW at 15 to 25 mph.
Thu Apr 27
Intervals of clouds and sunshine. High 93F. Winds WNW at 15 to 25 mph.