Park entrance

The entrance to the park. Located 35 miles east of Raton, NM it is definitely off the beaten path. It’s not hard to get to. It’s just not on the way to anything. The GPS coordinates of the visitor center are N36.778739°, W103.980068°. (Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google map.) The really cool thing is that you can drive to the top and hike around the crater. The word “capulín” is Spanish for chokecherry, which grow in abundance here.

February 1943. Against the backdrop of a world at war, a monumental geological event is taking place in Mexico. In the small village of Paracutín about 200 miles west of Mexico City, a volcano is about to be born. A peasant farmer named Dionisio Pulido is working in his corn field. The ground has been rumbling for weeks and a six foot wide fissure has opened up in his field. At 4:00 PM on February 20 all Hell broke loose. Señor Pulido was there to see it – and lived to tell about it.

First came the hissing of superheated steam and sulphur fumes. Then ash and rocks. By nightfall, rooster tails of lava and red hot rocks were shooting over 1,000 feet into the air. Smoke and ash went much higher and fell as far away as Mexico City. Lightning from static electricity flashed through the dense black clouds. As the lava, rocks and dirt came back to earth, they started to form a cone shaped cylinder around the fissure. It grew with amazing speed. Within 24 hours, it was 150 feet high. Within a week, it was 500 feet and visible for miles.

Paracutín Volcano eruption

Filmed as it happened – the eruption of Paracutín. Date unknown but probably in the first months after the initial blast. The cone has grown substantially and is still going strong.

The violent eruptions continued unabated for several months. Then things quieted down. The Paracutín Volcano continued to erupt at irregular intervals for nine years. Then on February 25, 1952, it quit as suddenly as it had started. Its magma chamber was completely spent. When it died, it was 1,345 feet above Pulido’s old corn field. Its lava flow had destroyed 100 square miles, including two towns. Miraculously, no one was killed.

The Paracutín event was the one and only time in human history where a volcano was scientifically observed for its entire life cycle. Otherwise, it was far from unique. 60,000 years earlier, the exact same thing happened in present-day northeastern New Mexico near the of town of Capulin.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

From the National Park Service, an aerial overview of the 800 acre Capulin Volcano National Monument. Annotations added by yours truly.The highly symmetrical cinder cone rises almost 1,400 feet above the prairie, reaching an altitude of 8,182 feet above sea level. It was designated a National Monument by President Woodrow Wilson in April 1916 and gets about 50,000 visitors a year.

Sixty thousand years ago, the climate here was a colder, wetter Ice Age environment. Thick pines and junipers covered the land. Giant bison, camels and mammoths roamed, preyed upon by sabre tooth tigers. Man was still 50,000 years away. Millions of years before that, rivers of lava pooled underground creating a volatile and unstable region that covered 8,500 square miles in southeast Colorado and northeast New Mexico. Geologists now call it the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field. Over the course of many millennia, there were hundreds – probably thousands – of Paracutín Volcanoes. Evidence of this activity is everywhere. The oldest ones are worn down to almost nothing, but Capulin is still young and in good shape.

Capulin crater view

This is a photo taken from the highest point on the crater rim. The crater is 1,500 feet wide and 400 feet deep. The rim parking area is towards the center of the image as is the trail down to the bottom of the crater. Down and back is ½ mile. The crater rim trail is about one mile long and has some steep climbs that get your attention with the 8,000+ feet of altitude. Clearly visible off in the distance are extinct cinder cone volcanoes as far as the eye can see. The ridges, cuts and mesas in between them are old lava flows. Capulin Volcano is in the center of the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field and surrounded by these ancient geological sentries. The field is still considered geologically active, but the chances of another eruption anytime soon are very slim.

Capulin and all the other remnants in the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field are a type of volcano called cinder cone or scoria volcanoes. They start as flat ground. Pressure from magma and ground shifting eventually causes a fissure, then an explosive eruption to relieve the pressure. Secondary vents open as the crater builds and lava flows. Cinder cone volcanoes are monogenetic . They erupt once, then go dead. The eruptions typically last only a few years. Along the way, they create their own mountain – just like at Paracutín. The mountains tend to be symmetrical because all the debris falls back around a single original fissure. Made up of small cinders, the cones are unstable in the early stages. Eventually, plant life takes root and stabilizes it. That’s where Capulin is now. Eventually, weather and erosion take their toll. In a million years or so, Capulin Volcano will be no more. But for now, it’s worth checking out.

Distant view of Capulin Volcano

These cinder peaks have been used as navigation landmarks for centuries. In our more recent past, both branches of the Santa Fe Trail came right through here. In fact, this is the best area for exploring the trail. Some of the original wagon ruts are still visible.

Capulin Volcano National Monument is the perfect Off the Beaten Path destination. In a one or two day road trip, you can explore Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, the Santa Fe Historical Trail, ghost towns, old railroad towns and more. If you like exploring along back roads with lots of history, geocaches, more cows than cars and the occasional bullet-ridden stop sign, you’ve come to the right place.

Capulin Volcano Visitor Center

If you like your volcano monuments quiet and austere, you’ll love Capulin. The Visitor Center has some displays, a small gift shop, restrooms (of course). No food, no camping but some great picnic areas and hiking trails. But let’s face it – the reason you come out here is to drive the two miles to the top of the volcano. It’s very cool. (BTW, you’re not allowed to walk it. No RV’s either.) For us, the park also had a couple of geocaches, munzees and NPS Passport stamps. So we got the off-the-beaten-path hat trick.

Much of what you see in the park is due to the efforts of one man – Homer Farr. A Kansas farm boy, he bought 160 acres of land just south of the cinder cone around 1910. For the next decade, he ran several successful businesses and promoted his little slice of heaven, which became the town of Capulin. He was the postmaster. The volcano became a national monument in 1916 and he became the superintendent in 1921. In 1925, he dug the first road to the crater summit using a horse and plow. It’s the same route used today. Superintendent Farr got the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) out to the monument in the 1930’s. They improved the road as well as building walls, trails and other infrastructure that are still in use. Homer Farr served as the superintendent at Capulin until 1955.

That’s all for now.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha