Courtesy National Park Service.
New Mexico is a land of constant change, with numerous environmental and geologic provinces meeting right along the Rio Grande. One of the more dominant forces that sets New Mexico apart from other states is its relatively recent volcanic activity. Outside a few notable examples in Hawaii, many of the nation's youngest lava flows are to be found here. In this series, we'll guide you to some of the most fantastic spots to find evidence of volcanism in the Western US!
Iconic for it's prominence on the western edge of the Great Plains and it's hypnotic spiral road, the Capulin Volcano is a dominant feature along the horizon in the northeastern portion of the state. Protected since 1916, this landmark for west-bound travelers in the 18 and 1900s has been a recreation destination for decades. While the boundaries of the park are miniscule compared to other sites, there is a wealth of geologic and cultural history to find here.
In The Geology of Northern New Mexico's Parks, Monuments, and Public Lands, William & Sally Muehlberger and L. Greer Price note that "Capulin Mountain is part of the Raton-Clayton volcanic field, which covers over 8,000 square miles." The cinders accumulated from millennia of intermittent explosions gradually created a landscape dotted with volcanic rocks and vents, and large flows that, though weathered and full of life now, would have poured across the landscape while erupting. Capulin Mountain itself is a result of these eruptions, being formed by layer after layer of ash and cinders spread by this cycle. These layers are clearly visible as you ascend the road to the rim. From the ridge on the summit, the other prominent volcanoes in the Raton-Clayton Volcanic field become more noticeable.
The National Monument has three short trails to explore that guide you through different volcanic landscape features. The Crater Rim & Vent Trails follow the circular ridge of the volcano's summit and guide you directly to the prominent vent responsible for much of the volcano's construction. The views of the surrounding volcanic field and the Great Plains make for an astonishing reward for a hike of around a mile. The prominent Sierra Grande to the southeast is one of the largest volcanic peaks in the vicinity.
Below the volcano, the Boca Trail is a 2-mile loop traversing the areas of younger lava flow. The rough landscape is full of life, and you may find some wildlife as you make your way towards the lower vents of the volcano.
Finally, the short Lava Flow Trail and its connections allow visitors to traverse the flows resulting from the eruptions thought to be the oldest from this volcano. This easy stroll will get you great views of the surrounding plains.
Though small in it's footprint, the Capulin Volcano National Monument served as a cultural landmark for Indigenous peoples as far back as 10,000 years ago, when the infamous Folsom Man (whose remains were excavated only 8 miles away) was living.
For more about the history and culture tied to this landscape from the National Park Service, click here.
For in-depth resources about the geology of the Monument from the NM Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, click here.