New Mexico facilitates the wandering mind. Often when I am wandering in areas far from power lines and my species, I contemplate how many feet have touched the earth where I stand. No matter how remote a place may seem in a windswept moment, with no humans in sight, people have invariably trod the same ground. When the Spanish arrived, there were hundreds of pueblos, including several large villages, heavily concentrated on waterways due to reliance on irrigation. The Apaches, Navajo, Utes, and Comanche roamed the canyons, mountains, and plains; hunting, foraging, trading and raiding.
Overall, humans have been roaming this area for 15,000+ years, following the enormous, long extinct, mammals of the Cenozoic era into the region. New Mexico’s Cenozoic fauna was extraordinary, rivaling Australia in both variety and weirdness. Dire-wolves, giant sloths, giant short-nosed, massive camels, saber-tooth tigers, and a variety of other critters were early mankind’s predator and prey. Prior to humans, the dinosaurs left their footprints as earthquakes and volcanoes destroyed their habitat. Basically, if time collapsed, there is no good place to be standing in New Mexico.
The Jemez Lineament
New Mexico’s beautiful vistas have been sculpted by intense geological forces for millions of years. The plate tectonics that formed the Rio Grande Rift and the Colorado Plateau crafted the landscape that surrounds us today.
The Rio Grande Rift is an elongated valley that extends in a north-south direction from Colorado to central Mexico. The earth’s crust is thinner where the Continental Plate is being gradually pulled apart. Additionally, the Jemez Lineament is a deep fracture in the earth’s crust that has created a northeast-running line of volcanic features from Springerville and the White Mountains in Arizona to the Raton-Clayton volcanic field in northeastern New Mexico. The lineament crosses the rift zone. The thinner mantle combined with a deep, extensive network of fault lines provides conduits to the surface for pressurized pockets of magma.
A lot, though not all, of the state’s volcanic activity is associated with the Jemez Lineament; the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field, El Malpais, Mount Taylor, Ocate volcanic field, the Jemez, including New Mexico’s super-volcano, the Valles Caldera, and the Cerros del Rio volcanic field near Santa Fe. Volcanic fields are different from the impressive, ongoing, solo volcanoes, like those found in Hawaii and Iceland. Volcanic fields consist of clusters of volcanoes in a concentrated area, with dozens to hundreds of vents erupting over millions of years. Thousands of years may lapse between eruptions.
The Raton-Clayton volcanic field is the easternmost field in the western U.S., the last volcanic field until you get to the mid-Atlantic range. Most of the peaks are small, rising just a few hundred feet above the surrounding plain. The volcanic superstar in the field is the largest and best preserved cinder cone, Capulin Volcano, located between the small towns of Folsom and Capulin.
Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field
The Raton-Clayton volcanic field, aka RCVF, is a young, massive volcanic field at the northeastern end of the Jemez Lineament. The volcanic field is in a transition zone between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the high plains of western New Mexico and northern Texas. Overall, the RCVF encompasses almost 8000 square miles of New Mexico, Colorado and Oklahoma.
Most of the region is characterized by arid prairie, primarily ranch land rather than agriculture. Whereas geologists appreciate the buffet of vulcanism in the area, historians value the RCVF for the well-preserved segments of the Santa Fe trail, including many areas where the wheel ruts are readily visible. Many famous landmarks on the Santa Fe Trail, like Round Mound, Wagon Mound, and Rabbit Ears Mountains are old volcanoes.
The volcanic history of RCVF goes back 9 million years; however, the most recent volcanic activity was approximately 30,000-45,000 years ago. Whereas most of the volcanoes in the field are small cones and lava flows, there are a few larger volcanic specimens, like Sierra Grande.
Capulin Volcano National Monument is the best-known volcano in the field. Capulin is a classic cinder cone volcano. The eruption of Capulin, approximately 60,000 years ago, was one of the most recent eruptions. Overall, the RCVF is considered dormant and individual volcanic centers within the field, such as Capulin, are considered extinct.
The initial lava flows emitted from the volcanoes in the field covered the sediment that had eroded from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The land that wasn’t covered in a layer of hard, volcanic rock eroded, creating canyons and valleys. Subsequent eruptions sent rivers of lava into those low-lying areas, resulting in what is known as “inverted topographic valleys,” which means the oldest volcanic rock is at the highest elevation, with younger lava filling the lower levels.
Capulin was recognized as a resource 15 years before the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, with Congress withdrawing the volcano and surrounding land from settlement in 1891. A decade after the Antiquities Act, Woodrow Wilson established Capulin Mountain National Monument on August 9, 1916. The name was later changed.
The monument, administered by the National Park Service, is a scant 1.2 square miles, specifically protecting the well-preserved Capulin cinder cone. The park’s visitor center features exhibits about the volcano, as well as the geologic and human history of the area. The region around Capulin Volcano is an important source of archaeological material from the prehistoric Folsom culture. More recently, Apollo 16’s astronauts, John Young and Charlie Duke, did some of their geologic training at Capulin in May, 1971.
Located 30 miles east of Raton, Capulin towers 1300 feet above the surrounding plain. The name, “Capulin,” comes from the Spanish name for a type of choke cherry found on the steep slopes and on the rim of the volcano. The symmetrical cinder cone is one of the few places to safely explore the crater and rim of an extinct volcano. The rim is 8182 feet above sea level. On a clear day, visitors can see five states from the top (New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Colorado). Additionally, the crater is 415 feet deep and 1450 feet in diameter and the base of the volcano has a 4-mile circumference, surrounded by lava flows.
Though Capulin volcano is considered extinct, the surrounding volcanic field is dormant, which means the magma beneath the surface may find a new crack to exploit elsewhere in the field. The volcanic field surrounding Capulin contains at least 100 recognizable volcanoes; however, Capulin is the only one that still has a visible crater.
Geologic History of Capulin Volcano
Based on field work by geologists from the College of Santa Fe, Northern Arizona University, and the National Park Service, Capulin initially erupted about 62,000 years ago and last erupted approximately 56,000 years ago. Like other volcanoes, Capulin began as a fracture in the earth’s mantle, extending deep beneath the crust to a magma chamber. As pressure in the magma chamber increased, the fissure provided a release. Gas and rock burst through the crack, enlarging it to what is known as a vent. The eruption spewed gas and ash high into the atmosphere, with heavier cinders settling around the vent to form a cone. Winds from the southwest during the eruption caused a larger buildup of cinders on the northeastern side of the vent, creating the crater’s lopsided appearance.
After the initial explosion of pressurized gas, there were three successive lava flows, possibly separated by thousands of years. However, instead of blowing out the crater of the cinder cone, the subsequent lava flows broke through a weak spot at the base of the cone. The “boca,” Spanish for mouth, allowed the molten lava to spread readily across the surrounding landscape. During these eruptions, lava lakes formed at the base of the cinder cone, surrounding the volcano like a fiery moat. Portions of the cone were “rafted” away on the surface of the flows. In total, the Capulin eruptions blanketed 15 square miles around the volcano with lava.
Although Capulin is primarily known for its volcanic past, the park hosts a rich variety of plant and animal life. The combination of lava fields, lichen, and a whole LOT of time creates unique eco-systems in unusual places. For example, Capulin is shrouded in a dense cloak of pinon and juniper bushes, with chokecherry trees, which inspired the name “Capulin,” along the crater trails.
As lichens and mosses grow on the surface of basalt, they decompose the rock, creating soil. As soil forms, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees take root. The surface vegetation stabilizes and preserves the slopes of the cinder cone by slowing the process of erosion.
Creatures at Capulin
Capulin’s unique habitat is home to 73 species of birds, as well as a plethora of other critters, big and small. The visitor’s log for wildlife includes big beasts, like black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, pronghorns, elk, and an abundance of mule deer, as well as smaller creatures, like badgers, ring-tailed cats, desert cottontails, porcupines, and Mexican free-tailed bats. In the cold-blooded category, Capulin is home to a variety of reptiles, including the prairie rattlesnake and bullsnake, western fence lizards, horned lizards, and the occasional tiger salamander.
For the birdwatchers, there are songbirds, like the mountain bluebird and Bullock’s oriole, larger birds, like wild turkey, red-tailed hawk, and New Mexico’s state bird, the Greater Roadrunner, as well as five species of hummingbird that utilize Capulin as a pit stop during their summer migration.
Thousands of ladybugs cover trees and bushes at the top of Capulin volcano from late June to early August, a phenomenon called hill-topping. Every summer the beetles ride the wind to high points, where there are few natural predators. At Capulin, they cover the highest point of the rim. After feeding all summer, they hibernate through the winter. The ladybugs that survive the hibernation ride a warm current off the rim in February, riding the winds south to mate. Though their lifespan is brief, a matter of months rather than years, the females lay up to 500 eggs on leaves and twigs.
Capulin has served as a landmark for centuries, looming over travelers on the Santa Fe Trail and the Granada-Fort Union Military Freight Route in the late 19th century. The prominent peak probably provided a point of reference for much longer considering the first Folsom point was found about 10 miles from the volcano. Folsom points established the presence of paleoindians in the area up to 10,000 years ago. They were probably hunting Pleistocene Bison.
Various indigenous tribes, like the Jicarilla Apache and the Ute, hunted in the region until the Spanish arrived looking for gold in 1540. Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado passed through Capulin area on his misguided quest for gold in Kansas. Pecos Pueblo had sent them on a wild goose chase, probably hoping the Comanche or Osage would take care of the uninvited guests. However, Coronado and his troops survived, albeit with no gold. They returned to Mexico empty handed in 1542, the expedition panned as a failure. However, the Coronado expedition, and detailed notes about the region, paved the way for an influx of conquistadors, Franciscans, and settlers over the following centuries.
Spain controlled the region until Mexico declared independence in August, 1821. Whereas Spain had limited the trading relationship with the United States, Mexico opened the flood gates. William Becknell blazed the Santa Fe Trail in September, 1821, followed by thousands of people seeking opportunity and profit in the west.
For the next two decades, traders developed numerous routes to Santa Fe. However, by the 1840s, the newly minted Mexican government was having internal issues, economic issues, and frequent, intense disputes with their neighbor, the United States. Conflict became war in 1846, with the U.S. dispatching troops into Mexico. Suddenly the trade routes became critical military routes, transporting soldiers and supplies throughout the southwest.
The war with Mexico ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and New Mexico officially became a territory of the United States. The U.S. Government established military forts, like Fort Union, Fort Larned, and others, along the Santa Fe Trail to protect the supply route and to protect the deluge of settlers moving into the area. The prevalence of forts, and large population of soldiers, created a new industry in the region…ranching.
The War Department was authorized to pay top dollar for cattle. As a result, two cattlemen from Texas, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, forged the Goodnight-Loving trail from Texas to New Mexico, a harrowing route involving long stretches across dry, sparsely populated, often hostile, territory. When they didn’t sell all of their cattle to the forts, they continued north, passing by Capulin, to sell the remaining cows in the Colorado markets. The cattle industry rapidly became a profitable gig, establishing a core component of the regional economy that remains today.
44 Volcano Road
Capulin, NM 88414
P.O. Box 40
Des Moines, NM 88418
Elevations in the park range from 7,000 feet to 8,182 feet on the crater rim. It is usually windy on top of the volcano, particularly on the rim. Summers are mild (highs in the mid-80sF/approximately 30C). Thunderstorms are common in July and August and winters are cold. Blizzards may result in temporary park closures. An extra layer or a light jacket is often useful, even during the summer, and warm, layered clothing should be worn the rest of the year.
Capulin Volcano National Monument is open from sunrise to sunset with the exception of the night sky viewing area. That area is open all night. The Visitor Center and Volcano Road opens daily at 8 AM, closing at 5 PM from May 1st to September 30th. 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM October 1st to April 30th. The Visitor Center includes exhibits, a park film, and a bookstore. Hours are from 8am to 5pm summer, and 8:30am to 4:30pm winter. The Monument is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day
The main activity is driving to the top of the volcano to walk the rim and explore the crater. Wind during the last eruption pushed cinders to the east, so the east rim is 300-feet higher than the west.
Lodging and camping are not available within Capulin Volcano National Monument; however, the village of Capulin is 3 miles from the park. They have an RV and tent campground, as well as cabin rentals. Raton and Clayton have numerous lodging options, as well as commercial campgrounds and state park camping options.
Food service is not available within the park boundaries. The park store has some select snacks and a water bottle refilling station. The closest restaurant is The Sierra Grande Restaurant in Des Moines, NM, which is open year round for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Other restaurants and fast food are available in Raton and Clayton.
Pets are prohibited in all buildings and on all trails other than the Nature Trail, which is the short 10 minute trail next to the Visitor Center. Pets must be kept on a leash.
Internet is not available in the area. Cell phone reception depends on carrier. Sometimes you can get a signal at the base around the visitor center, but there is no signal on top.
Visitors can hike several trails throughout the monument. All trails, other than the Nature Trail, are hiking only. No vehicles, including strollers, are allowed.
There are two different trails accessible from the top of the volcano: the Crater Rim trail which is a one-mile loop that goes around the entirety of the rim of the volcano and the Crater Vent trail which goes 200 yards into the crater itself.
Crater Rim Trail
The Crater Rim Trail is a paved, 1-mile loop around the rim of the volcano. Though it is short, it can be moderately difficult due to elevation, strong wind, and steep climbs and descents. The rim offers good views of distant lands in all directions, including various lava flows, now mostly grass-covered and difficult to identify from ground level. No pets.
Crater Vent Trail
This is a paved, short (.4 mile round trip) trail leading down into Capulin’s crater. There is an elevation change of about 100 feet. Again, no pets.
Located at the base of the volcano, Lava Flow Trail is an unimproved, mile long loop that runs along the southern portion of the park, crossing one of Capulin’s lava flows. The park doesn’t allow pets on this trail.
An unimproved, 1.7-mile loop that runs along the western base of the volcano to the Boca area. The boca is the vent at the base from which the lava flows originated. The trail provides close up views of numerous geologic features. Again, the park doesn’t allow pets on this trail However, keep reading. They do allow pets on the next trail.
Adjacent to the visitor center, the Nature Trail is a figure eight sidewalk trail that is handicap accessible. There are interpretive signs discussing plant life, geology, and wildlife on this short walk around a volcanic “squeeze up.” This trail is dog friendly.
Catch the 1-mile long Prairie Trail by following the Nature Trail to the amphitheatre area. The trail ambles through the grasslands. It is a good option for wildlife viewing. Like the Nature Trail above, this trail is dog friendly.
The International Dark Sky Association named Capulin a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park in 2016. The park hosts Dark Sky viewing most Saturday nights during the summer. Additionally, they schedule less frequent nights during the fall, winter, and spring months. The rangers provide telescopes to view planets, galaxies, nebula, and other galactic sights. Dark Sky Viewing Area is open all night for visitors using telescopes or binoculars. They recommend a jacket, long pants, and closed toe shoes for the Dark Sky program. No reservations are needed. Call (575) 278-2201 for more information.
- No “camping”
- No Fires
- Please clean up after yourself
- No outdoors music or sound systems
- Please respect Park Staff privacy
The maximum size of vehicle allowed on the Volcano Road is 26 feet in length and/or 8 feet in width. In order to accommodate large vehicles (motorhomes, buses, etc.), they have to stop traffic.
Trailer and Towed Vehicles
The Forest Service does not allow trailers or towed vehicle on the Volcano Road. If you are towing a trailer it will have to be unhitched and left at the Visitor Center. If you are driving an RV towing a vehicle, you will have to unhitch and drive the smaller vehicle to the volcano rim. Semi-tractors with trailers. Additionally, turns in the visitor center area are tight and narrow. It is easier to unhook the trailer on the gravel patch outside the park boundary fence.
Capulin Volcano is located 34 miles east of Raton, 60 miles west of Clayton, on NM325 North of US64. There is no public transportation available. The park’s picnic area is open year round and has tables, restrooms, and trash containers. Restrooms are closed from mid-October to mid-May.
From Raton – US-64 E/Clayton Road toward Clayton for approx. 31 miles to Capulin. Left on NM-325. Head north for approximately 3 miles. The park entrance will be on the right. Alternate, scenic route, is NM-72 across Johnson Mesa, head south in Folsom.
From Clayton – US-64 W/US-87 N toward Raton for approx. 53 miles to Capulin. Turn right on NM-325 and head north for approximately 3 miles. The park entrance will be on the right.
From Branson, CO – CO-389 S until it become NM-551 S. Continue for approx. 8 miles. Take a right at the fork to catch NM-456 W. Follow for approx. 8 miles to Folsom. Turn right on Grand Avenue for 1/4 mile, then left on Bayley Street for 1/4 mile. Turn right on NM-325 and head southwest for approx. 6 miles. The park entrance will be on the left.