Capulin Volcano National Monument

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Capulin Volcano National Monument in northeastern New Mexico is significant in a variety of ways. This monument has several stories wrapped around it: geological, archaeological, and historical. Our visit was during the pandemic and the Visitor Center was not open but we took the drive to the volcano rim where we hiked. Chokecherry trees are common along the crater trails and inspired the volcano’s name. Capulin is a Mexican-Spanish word for chokecherry.

The Capulin Volcano landscape was set aside as a natural preserve as early as 1891 and in 1916 became a part of the young National Park Service.  This inactive cinder cone volcano lies in the Raton section of the Great Plains and within the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field. The eruption of Capulin Volcano – 60,000 years ago – is one of the more recent in this area.

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The volcano rises to a height of 8182 feet above sea level or 1300 feet above the surrounding plains. The crater is 415 feet deep and 1450 feet in diameter. There is a winding, narrow 2-mile road to the top of the crater. In August 2019 heavy rain washed out a section of the road. When we visited in the fall of 2020, there remained a 90-yard section of the road that was one lane only. Since there was limited sight around that corner, you had to proceed slowly and hope no one was coming from the other side at the same time.

At the top of the volcano there are two trails. The Crater Rim Trial is a paved, 1 mile loop around the rim and the Crater Vent Trail is a 0.2 mile (one-way) paved trail to the bottom of the crater with an elevation change of 100 feet. From the rim, it’s possible to view four different states.

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Archaeologically the Capulin vicinity is particularly important as evidence discovered by George McJunkin showed that ancient man had roamed the area 5,000 years earlier than previously believed. In 1908, a massive rain caused a devastating flood in the town of Folsom, killing 17 people and leaving ruin in its wake. McJunkin, a former slave, was a legendary cowboy with insatiable curiosity and desire to learn. Riding along Wild Horse Arroyo after the flood, he noticed white bones that had been exposed. He knew they weren’t cattle or buffalo bones and took some of them home.  He told others about his find but it wasn’t until after his death that an actual archaeological excavation was done and his find was verified. George McJunkin had found skeletons of bison antiquus, an extinct bison 50% larger than modern bison. Lodged in rib bones were found stone points, weapons of people who came to be known as Folsom Man, proving that humans had lived in North America thousands of years earlier than previously thought. It was one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century.

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Historically, this area has gone through many permutations. In the time since Paleoindians roamed the landscape around Capulin Volcano groups of Native Americans, such as the Jicarilla Apache and the Ute used this region as hunting grounds. The Spanish arrived in 1541 and early explorers Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and Juan de Padilla passed through in search of riches and regions to conquer. Spain controlled New Mexico until 1821 when Mexico declared independence. Traders used the Santa Fe Trail and other trails through the region. The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially made New Mexico a territory of the United States. Military forts were established in the area and railroads expanded to the west. Ranching became a prime industry.

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Jessie Foote Jack, a widow who assumed the responsibilities for Crowfoot Cattle Company after her husband’s death, and other local ranchers valued Capulin Volcano as a prime grazing land. In order to ensure grazing rights, in 1916 she secured the position of custodian for the monument. Serving until 1921, she was the first custodian for Capulin Volcano as well as the first female custodian in the National Park Service.

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In 1921, Homer Farr would unofficially become the custodian of the monument at the request of Mrs. Jack. Farr officially took over the position in 1923 and served the National Park Service until 1955. He is credited with building the road to the rim, originally working with mules to do so. During the Great Depression he secured a Civil Works Project to stabilize the road and build retaining walls. The photos of early road-building make you wonder what motivated Homer Farr to undertake the task.

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