Capulin Volcano National Monument
East of Raton, New Mexico
Capulin Volcano National Monument is one of the few places where one can safely explore the crater and rim of an extinct volcano. Located 30 miles east of Raton, New Mexico, in the far northeastern portion of the state, the cinder cone rises over 1300 feet above the surrounding landscape in the perfect symmetry expected of such a dynamic landmark.
Nine million years ago a great period of volcanism disrupted this area of the country creating what is known as the Raton-Clayton volcanic field. Geologist have identified three main periods of volcanic action in this field, each episode separated by thousands of years of silence. Sierra Grande, the largest volcano in this field, is one example of this activity. But with its graceful slopes and eroded top it appears as just another mountain in the neighborhood. Many other peaks surrounding Capulin, all of volcanic origin, fit in the landscape much like Sierra Grande blending into the vista like so many other typical mountains.
But Capulin is different. Representing the most recent burst of activity dating back approximately 56,000 years, it has retained its steep sides and distinct crater.
Capulin, like other volcanoes, started as a fracture in the ground that extended deep inside the earth to a magma chamber. Much like the nozzle on a balloon, the pressurized magma now had an avenue to relief pressure to the surface, and did so, often violently and explosively. Gas and rock, blown into small pieces called cinders, burst through the fissure enlarging it to what is known as a vent. As debris exited the vent it carried gas and ash high into the atmosphere and deposited the heavier cinders around itself in the form of a cone. Prevailing winds from the southwest tended to cause a larger buildup on the northeasterly side of the developing cone causing the crater’s lopsided appearance. Once the pressurized gas was relieved from the magma chamber a succession of four different lava flows, separated by many thousands of years, covered the landscape. But instead of blowing out the crater of the cinder cone, these lava flows oozed through a weak spot at the base of Capulin. The boca, Spanish for mouth, made a ready avenue for molten rock to flow freely to the surrounding countryside. And spread it did, covering over 15 square miles in the process.
Crater seen from lower rim parking lot.
Once the eruptions ceased, lichens formed on the exposed rock and began the soil building process. Eventually plants and trees took root to create a unique biodiversity on the steep slopes and surrounding lava fields of the volcano. Because of the quick vegetative growth, the mountain retained its original appearance without the extensive erosion found on its neighbors. Such is the attraction of Capulin today, an opportunity to explore the bottom and top of a volcano, and the joy of observing the plant and wildlife associated with it.
Capulin Volcano National Monument was established in 1916 by Woodrow Wilson to protect this special environment. A two mile roadway from the visitor’s center winds to the crater’s rim and gives a breathtaking view of the surrounding lava flows and distant landscape covering four states. At the top is a small parking area where one can take in the endless views of surrounding peaks and distant mountain ranges. Two hiking trails are available at the top. The first leads to the bottom of the crater where one can contemplate the large basalt boulders plugging the vent. The second climbs quickly from the parking area and follows the crater rim making a complete loop around the top. Benches and informational plaques are strategically placed along the path, usually where one wants to stop for a breather anyway.
View from top of crater rim.
A keen observer at strategic spots along the rim can note the four different types of lava flows with the help of the informational plaques. Each flow has unique characteristics that can easily be seen from the high elevation of the rim. Ripple marks on the surface of the lava that are perpendicular to flow direction were formed as the crust cooled but lava continued to flow underneath. Lava mounds called tumuli (squeeze-ups) formed where the lava crust broke and lava spewed out under pressure. There is also evidence of lava tubes, those subterranean conduits for molten rock to travel underground.
As with all parks in the federal system, there is a nominal entrance fee. Pay the five dollars at the Visitor Center, and while there, enjoy the short video presentation explaining the origin and development of the volcano. Also, a number of fine books can also be perused for purchase on a variety of related subjects. Use the restrooms and fill the water jugs before venturing up the circular drive to the rim as facilities are limited to primitive restrooms with no water at the top.
Animals are not permitted on the trails but can be led on a leash in the picnic grounds and by the Visitors Center. If the rim trail is chosen for travel, be prepared for many stops, both for breathtaking views and breathtaking in general.
Capulin Volcano National Monument is an extraordinary opportunity to safely visit a once harsh and explosive environment of our past. The incredible vistas intermixed with the natural aromas from an assortment of plants give one clarity of mind to mull over the deep earth processes that created this remote but beautiful landscape.
Weather and Climate
Elevations in the park range from approximately 7,000 feet to 8,182 feet on the crater rim. Summers are mild (highs in the mid-80s). Thunderstorms are common in July and August. Winters are cold, and blizzards may result in temporary park closures. Light jackets may be needed during the summer, and warm and layered clothing should be worn the rest of the year.
Hotels/Motels There are hotels and motels in Raton, NM with something for every taste and price range. For more information and a complete list. Click Herefor Rates, availability and reservation online
For a PDF of the park Click Here
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Text and photos by Curtis Von Fange
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