One unique formation only seen in 190 places around the globe may grab your attention. Giant space rocks, known as asteroids, meteors, and comets, fly through space. Occasionally they get caught in Earth’s gravitational pull and hurtle toward earth. North America just happens to have 60 impact craters. And the opportunity to visit one can stand out on any travel list. So let’s learn more about these earth-bending formations.
What Is an Impact Crater?
A meteorite or comet crashing into the surface creates a large depression in the earth’s crust called an impact crater. They can occur on any planet or moon due to a smaller body moving extremely fast, hitting a larger body in the solar system. Currently, Earth has 190 impact craters discovered on the many continents.
But because the ocean floors constantly change, scientists have difficulty surveying them. They don’t know how many impact craters might exist under the water. Scientists judge impact craters as large as 12 miles in diameter hit the earth at the rate of one to three every million years.
What Does an Impact Crater Look Like?
Impact craters can measure any size but usually have a raised rim. The floor of the crater lies lower than the surrounding land. They have a bowl shape and can have layers of rings. Existing impact craters can range in diameter from 50 feet to 190 miles. Their rounded shape is due to material flying out in all directions when a meteorite hits the earth. It’s not because the object always has a round shape. Sometimes you can’t see an impact crater because of sediment and geological changes over time.
Many times the best way to spot craters is from the air or with satellite imagery and topographical maps. Scientists then confirm the crater by taking core samples of rock and looking for evidence of the violent impact.
How Many Impact Craters Are in North America?
The Earth Impact Database (EID) was created in 1955 to keep track of confirmed impact craters on earth. Scientists have documented 60 impact craters in North America. Of those 60 craters, Canada has 31, the United States has 28, and Mexico has one.
Where Are the Most Impact Craters in North America?
The bulk of impact craters in North America lie in Canada, totaling 31. Of that number, the province of Quebec on the eastern side of the country has nine. But the United States follows closely with 28 craters, scattered mostly in the central part of the country. Scientists have found three in Texas, two in Missouri, two in Illinois, two in Tennessee, and two in North Dakota.
Pro Tip: Visit a volcanic crater-turned lake by using our guide on How to Plan Your Camping Trip to Crater Lake National Park.
7 Awesome Impact Craters That You Can Visit in North America
Visiting a meteorite crater can be other-worldly. So to narrow down the selections, we have provided a list of seven impact craters in North America. It should make planning your ‘space-age’ trip a little easier.
1. Barringer Crater in Winslow, Arizona
Location:18 miles west of Winslow, Arizona
About: By far this is the most stunning and well-preserved impact crater on earth. This impact crater, commonly known as “Meteor Crater,” lies on the private property of the Barringer Family, descendants of Daniel Barringer. He first suggested the big basin in the ground could be a crater made by a meteorite. The impact crater measures 3,900 feet in diameter and 560 feet deep. Scientists estimate that it landed approximately 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Era.
How to Visit: Drive west from Winslow, Ariz., on Interstate 40 (originally part of historic Route 66) for approximately 18 miles. Exit at Meteor Crater road and drive south for 8 miles to Meteor Crater Natural Landmark.
Morton Trip Rating: 10/10 as its the best-preserved crater in the world and its unique existence in an otherwise barren landscape. There is a fee to visit the crater, but it includes an educational visitors center. The crater is privately owned and not protected by the National Park Service. But visitors can walk around the edge of Meteor Crater and get a good idea about the size of the rock that made this imprint.
2. Manicouagan Crater in Quebec, Canada
Location: 381 miles northeast of Quebec City
About: You can easily see the Manicouagan Crater from satellite view on Google maps. It looks like a big round disc in the Canadian countryside. The crater measures 60 miles in diameter and 279 feet deep. It occurred more than 214 million years ago during the Triassic Period. The crater has multiple rings with an island in the middle. In the 1960s the crater was flooded to make a hydroelectric resivoir.
How to Visit: When driving from Quebec City, head northeast on Highway 138 to Tadoussac, where a ferry ride will take you across the Riviere Saguenay. Continue on 138 to Chute-aux-Outardes (a 114-mile trek), turning onto Highway 389. You will arrive at Manicouagan Crater in 135 miles.
Morton Trip Rating: 7/10 because of its easy-to-spot shape on a satellite photo and the unique lake that fills the inner crater ring. Visiting it by road it doesn’t look like much more than a lake, but its still a neat experience.
3. Sudbury Basin in Ontario, Canada
Location: About 290 miles north of Toronto, Ontario
About: Sudbury Basin measures 39 miles long by 18 miles wide. It had an original depth of over 9 miles. But due to erosion over 1.8 billion years, the modern ground surface of the crater is much less. Scientists believe that the catalyst for Sudbury Basin was a comet. The speed and power with which it hit the earth drove up magma from under the crust. There have been dozens of copper, nickel, palladium, and gold mines along the crater’s rim. Today
How to Visit: From Toronto, travel north on Highway 400, approximately 270 miles to Oja. Turn right onto Highway 144 and drive 18 miles to arrive at Sudbury Basin.
Morton Trip Rating: 6/10 because its less viewable, but has an entire town in it!
4. Chicxulub Crater on Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico
Location: Merida, Yucatan
About: The Chicxulub Crater shoulders the blame for the event that made dinosaurs extinct. It is the third largest impact crater in the world, with a diameter of 110 miles and an impact depth of 12 miles. Chicxulub formed due to an asteroid, 6 miles in diameter, traveling 12 miles per second when it struck the earth.
Scientists believe the energy generated when it hit equaled 4.5 billion times more than that of an atomic bomb. It generated winds up to 620 miles per hour. This sent a cloud of hot dust, ash, and steam around the globe. It then caused a seismic event that triggered mega-tsunamis, with waves as high as 330 feet.
It blocked all sunlight for almost a decade, lowering temperatures dramatically and leading to the extinction of many of earth’s flora and fauna. Much of the original crater lies under the ocean off the Yucatan Peninsula, which sediment then covered.
How to Visit: You can visit the Chicxulub Science Museum in Merida, Mexico.
Morton Trip Rating: 10/10 While you can’t see the impact crater, many sink holes formed around its edge. These are known as cenotes, which many people visit every year when they visit the Yucatan peninsula.
5. Manson Crater in Des Moines, Iowa
Location: Manson, Iowa
About: The Manson Crater occurred 74 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous Period. A mountain-sized meteorite struck what was then a shallow sea. The impact site today lies under about 70 feet of dirt and rock. Drillers discovered it when looking for water in 1912. The crater measures 24 miles wide. Scientists once thought it caused the dinosaur extinction, but they discovered it was too old. It now lies 66 to 295 feet under glacial till, forming a flat surface.
How to Visit: Traveling from Des Moines, take Highway 169 north to Fort Dodge. Turn west on Highway 7 (also known as 190th Street), traveling to Manson, Iowa. There is nothing to see here, as the entire crater has been buried by sediment.
Morton Trip Rating: 6/10 as there is nothing to see here. But the crater is worth noting as its creation changed the region’s water table, turning hard water from limestone aquifers into soft water.
6. Middlesboro Impact Crater in Middlesboro, Kentucky
Location: Middlesboro, Kentucky
About: The town of Middlesboro was established in 1886, long before scientists discovered the impact crater below it. The Middlesboro Crater measures 3.7 miles in diameter and occurred during the Permian Era. It is no coincidence that it lies adjacent to the Cumberland Gap. Its geologic makeup created a natural break in the Appalachian Mountains allowing travelers to head west.
How to Visit: From Lexington, head south on Interstate 75 until you reach Corbin, Ky. Turn south onto Highway 35E, which will take you directly to the town and crater of Middlesboro.
Morton Trip Rating: 9/10 It’s kind of cool to say you actually live or have stayed in an impact crater.
7. Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Location: 22 miles southwest of Moab, Utah
About: The Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park has quite the controversy. Some scientists believe this unique formation formed from a build-up of salt under other sedimentary layers. When it collapsed, it created the upheaval dome. However, other scientists now believe a meteor caused the impact crater. It has a round shape, a diameter of 6 miles, and is less than 170 million years old. Scientists believe the unique shape is due to the erosion of the meteorite and surrounding land over time.
How to Visit: From the visitor center in the “Island in the Sky” District of Canyonlands National Park, travel south on Grandview Point Road. Drive for approximately 6 miles to Upheaval Dome Road. Turn right and follow the road five miles to its end. A short but steep hike of less than a mile will take you to the overlook point.
Morton Trip Rating: 9/10 due to its unusual appearance and the ability to see the entire rim and crater. The Upheaval Dome is well worth the effort to visit. Plus canyonlands is just amazing!
Pro Tip: Canyonlands National Park isn’t the only amazing national park in Utah. Find out What Are The Best Utah National Parks?
Is It Worth Visiting Impact Craters in North America?
How many people get to say they’ve hung out in a meteorite crater, where outer space meets earthly hospitality? Standing in a crater that may have been responsible for ending the lives of velociraptors and stegosauruses would make a great show-and-tell topic. And knowing that you have visited a place where an enormous crash changed the world around it permanently is outrageous. A visit to any of the impact craters in North America can give you a whole new outlook on the rest of the world.
Which impact crater would you want to explore first? Tell us in the comments!
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