The Molding of New Mexico’s Capulin Volcano

August 7, 2017Landscapes
– National Park Service
New Mexico’s Capulin Volcano: Formation and History

Capulin Volcano cuts an imposing figure above the stark New Mexico plains. The remnants of an extinct cinder cone that last erupted around 60,000 years ago, its 8,182-foot summit presents a unique landscape for visitors to explore. After all, you don't get to drive to the top of a volcano every day. 

At New Mexico’s Capulin Volcano National Monument, you can walk nearly 5 miles of rugged hiking trails, explore the volcano's ancient lava flow, drive the Volcano Road to the rim, and catch a glimpse of the Rocky Mountains from the summit. You can also learn more about the volcano's long history, which dates back millennia before the first human being ever laid eyes on it.

Volcanic Formation

The Milky Way in the dark night sky over the Capulin Volcano
National Park Service

Capulin Volcano was created between 56,000 and 62,000 years ago, in a period of widespread volcanic activity during which a large area of present-day New Mexico was blanketed in lava and ash. Like all cinder cones, Capulin Volcano formed around a single vent, with its symmetrical, cone-shaped sides growing over time as the cinders, ash, and other rock debris ejected from the volcano settled around it. 

Standing about 1,000 feet above the surrounding plains and with a deep crater at its center, Capulin Volcano blanketed more than 15 square miles in lava during its heyday. Today it is considered extinct, but the same cannot be said for every volcano in the region. 

Volcanic Fields

Yellow grass and green shrubbery with a red dirt path leading up to the short mountain that is Capulin Volcano National Monument

Capulin Volcano is a part of the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, which spans roughly 8,000 square miles. This volcanic field began erupting about 9 million years ago, drawing molten magma from a single source to create numerous cinder cones and volcanic domes, along with one enormous andesite-shield volcano known as Sierra Grande. Although most of these volcanic features are now extinct, some are only dormant, which means that future eruptions are possible. 

History and Culture

It's impossible to say with certainty who the first people to see Capulin Volcano were, but archaeological evidence points to Paleoindians traversing the region as many as 10,000 years ago, likely hunting Pleistocene bison. For centuries, the region surrounding the volcano continued to be a vital hunting ground for various Native Americans, including the Ute and the Apache.

Native American dressed in a neon pink dress spinning during a performance at Capulin Volcano National Monument
National Park Service

The arrival of the Spanish in 1541 changed the American continent forever, beginning the process of pushing out Native Americans from this and other areas across the Southwest. Early Spanish explorers like Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and Juan de Padilla were among the first new arrivals to the region, followed by countless settlers over the next 350 years. 

Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1921, the same year that the Santa Fe Trail was blazed across the region to open the door to westward expansion. As a result of the Mexican-American War, which began in 1846 and ended in 1848, Capulin Volcano joined the United States as part of the newly formed New Mexico territory. For many years following the war, the most common visitors to the volcano would have been cattle herders driving their livestock through New Mexico to markets in Colorado. 

The next significant event in the volcano’s history occurred on August 9, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson designated it a national monument. The declaration occurred just 10 years after the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, which gave the president the authority to set aside and protect any federal lands deemed to have historical or scientific importance. The spiral road giving visitors access to the volcano's summit was opened in 1925.

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