July 26, 1995
Ten thousand years ago, the searing summer plains of northeastern New Mexico were alive with the fire and thunder of erupting volcanoes. Capulin National Monument (pronounced Cap-oo-leen, from the Spanish word for chokecherry) encompasses 700+ acres of one perfect specimen of volcanism, Capulin Mountain, a picturesque cinder cone with an ideal caldera sitting 1,800 feet above the primeval New Mexican landscape.
Capulin Volcano is 31 miles east of Raton, New Mexico via U.S. 87, near the town of Folsom, once one of the largest cattle towns in New Mexico (and a rival of Fort Worth), until it was wiped out by a flash flood in 1908. This pine-and-sage covered country is also home to “Folsom Man” discovered by African American cowboy George McJunkin in the year of the Folsom flood.
Folsom Man was the name given by archeologists to the ancient hominids responsible for the collection of spear points and gigantic woolly mammoth bones McJunkin found while riding the range. At the time, the archaeological analysis of George’s find was controversial; it pushed back the date of earliest human occupation of North America by thousands of years beyond contemporary estimates.
One can imagine Folsom Man and primitive hunter-gatherer tribes in awe and terror at Capulin’s eruptions. Modern-day tribes in mini-vans shouldn’t feel too safe; geologists classify any volcano under 25,000 years of age as “potentially active.” Don’t forget the camera or the Solarcaine!
Capulin Volcano is a moisture magnet. Surrounding hills are dry and barren, but Capulin thrives. Its pine and juniper trees, as well as the lava blocks (cinders that make the cinder cone) that compose the mountain, are covered with moss and lichen. Unlike the spare countryside around this towering oasis, wild flowers and shrubs compete for space.
In the early June morning of my visit, a halo of clouds sat atop Capulin’s peak, incongruous for an area so parched. Check the July 1995 National Geographic and you’ll see a lone white dot in northeastern New Mexico, which I’m sure is Capulin, on the great satellite photo of the Rocky Mountain Region (A must-have map and photo for “cyberwesterners.”)
Capulin National Monument Headquarters at the base features a small exhibit and shop area with a brief movie detailing the formation of the volcano and the wildlife that lives in the area. A narrow two-lane asphalt road leads to the parking area at the top. Mountain biking would be possible, but a little dangerous, as the road has no shoulder or guard rails. Hiking trails of about a mile take you around the top and into the caldera. It’s an easy hike around the rim of the volcano. Mule deer are abundant. Other residents of Capulin include horned owls, coyotes, bull and prairie rattlesnakes, bobcats, coyotes, porcupine and skunk. Pronghorn, or American antelope, North America’s fastest animal, are plentiful, but prefer the open grasslands around the mountain.
The top of Capulin Volcano provides fantastic views. To the east spreads the relentless descent of the plains to Oklahoma and Texas. To the northwest lie the white-capped Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado. To the south lies a small range of dormant volcanoes, smooth, rounded hillocks, devoid of the plant and animal life of Capulin. Also in view is the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail, the rough road thousands of pioneers used to reach the southwest frontier during the 19th century.
When planning your trip, be aware of the lack of accommodations in the immediate area around Capulin Volcano. The nearest, an RV/camping spot, is in the town of Capulin, a blink of a burg with one gas station on U.S. 87, just south of the volcano. Motels and restaurants can be found in Raton, a New Mexican town of 8,000, a half hour or so to the west, and Clayton, a smaller town on 87 to the east. If you go, take drinking water, food, and film as this area is appreciably devoid of convenience stores and factory outlet malls.
To the south of Capulin lies Roswell, the site of the infamous alleged 1947 UFO crash landing. If I were an alien looking to get away from it all, this is where I’d come – a peaceful landscape of hills and canyons, creaky windmills and twisted pines, friendly stray dogs and abandoned sod homes, and one green volcano rising above it all.
Other area attractions:
- Sugarite (pronounced sugar-eet) State Park.
- Sierra Grande, North America’s largest “free-standing” mountain, covering 50 square miles. Also here is an ancient volcano, rising 8,720 feet.
- Clayton Lake State Park, home to over 500 dinosaur footprints embedded in Cretaceous Dakota sandstone.
- Santa Fe, New Mexico, 199 miles southwest
Story and photos by Joseph Falco