Today, Capulin is said to be an extinct volcano, but no one knows for sure if it’s done erupting. Its last major blow was about 60,000 years ago. As an active basalt volcano, Capulin ejected rocks and bombs over a wide area. Usually cinder cones like Capulin erupt for a period of time but then die. Several eruptions created Capulin, which now stands alone and innocent looking in northeastern New Mexico.
Capulin has been a National Monument since 1916. It’s in the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field that is about the size of the current state of Massachusetts. It was active as a volcano until about 3 million years ago. It became a National Monument because it represents a perfectly shaped cinder cone and survives alone as such. Volcanoes like Capulin once heaved rocks upward, and ash and cinders fell back to Earth to blanket a wide area. The larger chunks of lava fragments are now called volcanic bombs. Up to the size of a car, these lava bombs piled up around the volcano’s vent to build the cone. Capulin’s cone was perfectly shaped over time.
There are said to be 1,500 possibly active volcanoes in the entire world. The states of Alaska and Hawaii have especially active ones, and the United States has about 160 of the 1,500. From the house that Ruth & I live in, we can sometimes see what is left from the eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980. This mountain is destined to move again. In fact a lot of people in the US Northwest live within sight of potentially active volcanoes like Mont Rainier. Every major mountain in the Cascade Range is a possible volcano. That includes Mount Hood, which we see most days and is incredibly beautiful. Some think it’s stupid to live this close to danger but many do.
Capulin has a rim trail that completely circles its so-called extinct cone. You can drive up to its top. Moderately strenuous, the trail around this cone varies in elevation and offers great views of the surrounding land. It’s easy on this trail to appreciate Capulin’s perfect cone, wildflowers, and spectacular distant views. You can also easily hike down into its crater.
We explored Capulin’s visitor center before driving up to its top where one sign says your elevation is exactly 7,877 feet. The visitor center predictably offers examples of lava that some consider sacred because it comes from the center of the Earth. Many of Capulin’s visitors are school-aged children who seem indifferent to gigantic examples of lava but do appreciate the film called “Evolution of a Mountain”. This was declared a National Monument largely because Capulin is considered the perfect specimen of an extinct volcano in North America. Its steep slopes are unusual for an area that is considered transitional between plains and mountains.
Potential exists for future Capulin eruptions, but for now it’s considered extinct and a place to appreciate wild birds, star-gazing, and perfect conical symmetry. Such large volcanic fields are not rare in New Mexico, but for now things are quiet and eruptions are unheard of.