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Meteor Crater a sight to behold

The best-preserved meteor crater in the world is no hole in the ground.

The Meteor Crater in Arizona is the best-preserved such place in the world today.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET
The Holsinger meteorite is the biggest piece of the meteor that hit near Winslow, Ariz. 50,000 years ago. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

METEOR CRATER, Ariz.--Don't call this a hole in the ground. It hurts the guides' feelings.

Instead, call this the best-preserved meteor crater in the world. And to look at it, how could you think anything else?

About 50,000 years ago, a 150-foot-diameter chunk of rock slammed into the Earth about 26 miles from what would eventually become Winslow, Ariz., pulverizing the ground and leaving this 4,100-foot-wide crater. It is a sight to behold.

I flew over it once, on a flight from New York to San Diego, and I thought, holy cow, what is that?

Now, after stopping there on my Road Trip around the Southwest, I know. This is the result of a bit of rock breaking through the atmosphere at about 26,000 miles an hour, and leaving an, um, hole about 540 feet deep.

This is probably not the kind of event that would cause extinction. But my guide, Johnny Ayala, said it would nevertheless be a "catastrophic event" were it to happen today, likely vaporizing anyone within 30 miles of impact, just from the plasma fire caused by the meteor breaking through the atmosphere.

He also said the shock wave from impact would break windows in Flagstaff, Ariz., about 50 miles or so away.

For true extinction event-type impact, however, you have to look at the Chicxulub meteor crater in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, a 112-mile wide, 3,000-foot deep, er, hole. That, most likely, is what resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs. So, were something like that to happen again, it's safe to say any vacation plans you have after that are probably off. Then, too, so are all your bill payments. So, maybe it's a wash.