Destinations

How To Spend An Amazing Day At Capulin Volcano National Monument In New Mexico

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I make one or two road trips from Texas each year to visit family and friends in Montana. I add a few days to check out interesting places on the way. The bonus stops along the way keep the journey interesting.

I recently explored Capulin Volcano National Monument in New Mexico, 32 miles east of Raton, New Mexico, and 188 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas.

If you’ve driven on U.S. Highway 87 in this corner of northeastern New Mexico, you’ve driven through a valley rimmed by volcanoes, including Capulin. The underground turmoil is not as obvious as in Yellowstone National Park’s geothermal areas where the earth lets off steam and mud pots boil. But should all the dormant volcanoes conspire to awaken and erupt it would be hasta la vista, baby.

The tiny town of Capulin (but not the highway patrolman) is easy to miss. It has no gas station and no restaurant. A little general store, houses scattered along each side of U.S. Highway 87, and a discrete brown sign pointing the way to a volcano just three miles away is what you’ll see of Capulin.

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A lava bomb on display at the Capulin Volcano National Monument. Lava bombs are rocks ejected from volcanoes during eruptions. (Photo Credit: Teresa Otto)

Start At The Visitor Center

The visitor center video gives a brief introduction to the history, geology, flora, and fauna of the area. The volcano, along with all those you see from the highway in northeastern New Mexico, is in the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field and considered extinct. Its last eruption occurred 56,000 years ago.

You can check out the small museum, collection of historic photographs, or gift shop while you wait for the next video to start. This is the only place to buy snacks and water within the park.

Pro Tip: Park entrance fees are paid inside the visitor center. A day pass is $20 per car. Annual, military, and lifetime (senior and disabled persons) passes are honored. For more information on fees, visit its website.

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Drive Up The Volcano

The volcano road is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day and from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year. The road snakes around the volcano’s cone, offering sweeping views of the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field and a preview of the scene that unfolds from the top.

The number of parking spaces on the volcano rim is limited, meaning you may need to wait your turn to make the drive to the top.

The vehicle length is limited to 26 feet on Volcano Road. No pedestrians or bicyclists are allowed, except after the road is closed each evening.

Pro Tip: To minimize crowds and heat, make driving the volcano one of your early activities.

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Crater Rim Trail atop the Capulin volcano (Photo Credit: Teresa Otto)

Hike Atop The Volcano

When you arrive at the top, you can choose two hikes. The Crater Vent Trail is a 0.2-mile paved trail to the inside of the volcano, with a 100-foot elevation change. An impressive lava flow is still visible.

The Crater Rim Trail circles the entire rim with a paved 1-mile-long path. It has steep areas and is rated moderately difficult. Educational placards talk about the area’s geologic history, landmarks, flora, and fauna. Benches line the trail, too, and provide a great place to view the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field. Solidified waves of lava that spilled from Capulin are visible from this vantage point. You’ll see the towns of Capulin and Folsom, and the many buttes and volcanoes in the valley, as well.

Pro Tip: There are toilets but no other facilities. Bring plenty of water if you plan to do either hike. Neither trail allows pets.

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A view from inside the Capulin volcano on Crater Vent Trail (Photo Credit: Teresa Otto)

Take A Ranger-Led Hike

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, rangers lead hikes or offer educational programs most days.

Pro Tip: Check with the visitor center about the time and location of these free events.

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Teresa Otto

Hike On Your Own

In addition to the two hikes at the top of Capulin, several other trails introduce visitors to the volcano.

The easy, ADA-accessible Nature Trail, adjacent to the visitor center, gives a nice introduction to the plants and animals you can see in the area. This trail is dog-friendly.

The Lava Flow Trail leaves from the visitor center parking lot and makes a loop providing views of the Raton-Clayton valley. The 1-mile unpaved trail has very little shade, so plan accordingly. No pets are allowed on the trail.

The Boca Trail is a strenuous 2-mile loop around the volcano’s vent where lava poured out. Signs mark remnants of collapsed lava tunnels that left a jumble of massive basalt blocks. The trail passes through prairies that support a number of different wildflowers in the spring and early summer.

You may spot wildlife. Hikers have reported seeing black bears and deer. My wildlife spotting was limited to a yellow-bellied marmot that announced my presence to every living creature around. No pets are allowed on this trail.

Pro Tip: Visit the park’s Facebook page for scheduled sunset and moonlight hikes.

Gaze At Stars

During the summer months, rangers wheel telescopes out to the visitor center parking lot for visitors to enjoy the heavens. Capulin Volcano National Monument was named a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park in 2016 because of the absence of light pollution.

Rangers are on hand to introduce you to astronomy and point out the Milky Way, planets, nebula, and constellations.

Rangers recommend dressing in layers. The high altitude makes for cool temperatures at night, even during the summer months.

Pro Tip: Visit the park’s website or Facebook page for upcoming night sky programs.

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Arrowhead replicas at the Folsom Museum in Folsom, New Mexico (Photo Credit: Teresa Otto)

Visit Folsom Museum

Those of you who have read my articles, won’t be surprised that I found a museum in the area. I’m like a homing pigeon that way. The Folsom Museum in Folsom, New Mexico, is 6.4 miles northeast of Capulin Volcano on N.M. 325 North, a paved, two-lane road.

The story of the Folsom Point’s discovery is laid out in the museum and the very knowledgeable docent was happy to bring the story to life.

In 1908, as floodwaters from a devastating flash flood receded, George McJunkin, a former slave, cowboy, and self-taught naturalist, discovered prehistoric bones jutting out of an arroyo.

In the 1920s, a group of scientists began to excavate the area. They found bones of prehistoric bison and evidence the animals had been hunted by early man using arrowheads. The arrowheads, named “Folsom Points,” proved Paleoindians lived in North America during the last Ice Age that ended more than 11,000 years ago.

The museum is loaded with other artifacts dating to the town’s early days, including photographs and household goods.

Pro Tip: For current hours, check the museum’s website and consider giving them a call, as it is volunteer-run. Allow about an hour for your visit.

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St. John’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Raton, New Mexico (Photo Credit: Teresa Otto)

Take A Scenic Drive

After leaving Folsom, rather than backtracking to U.S. Highway 87 to get to Raton, I opted to take N.M. 72 West. The road travels atop Johnson Mesa. The panoramic views alone make the trip on this two-lane paved highway worthwhile.

For added interest, pay your respects at the still-functioning St. John’s Methodist Episcopal Church built with stone, and the nearby cemetery.

Tumbled-down homesteads coexist with modern farm and ranch operations and add interest to the already beautiful landscape.

I was treated to a wildlife show starring antelope, deer, coyotes, and elk along the way.

Pro Tip: If you’re staying in Raton and taking a day trip to Capulin Volcano, I recommend taking U.S. Highway 87 one way and N.M. 72 the other way. Wildlife are more active at dawn or dusk.

Spend A Night In Raton

Raton is the nearest town with a selection of restaurants and accommodations. Most are located near the junction of U.S. Highway 87 and Interstate 25.

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Breakfast tacos at Alfonso’s in Raton, New Mexico (Photo Credit: Teresa Otto)

I would encourage you, though, to explore Raton’s historic downtown for both food and lodging. I can vouch for the breakfast tacos at Alfonso’s (it’s located in a gas station, but don’t underestimate it) and the cranberry-walnut-grilled chicken salad at 111 Park.

Top off the day by staying at the retro Raton Pass Motor Inn. The lobby is sure to bring back childhood memories — think 8-track player, a Bob’s Big Boy figurine, and a burnt orange fireplace.

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The Raton Pass Motor Inn in Raton, New Mexico (Photo Credit: Teresa Otto)

Each themed room is loaded with vintage decor — everything from kitschy black velvet paintings in the El Matador room to a glamorous silver dressing table in the Pin Up room. I stayed in the Reveille room surrounded by military memorabilia — and felt quite at home.

Pro Tip: Both cats and dogs are welcomed. Let them know when you make reservations.

New Mexico attractions are not as well-known as some in other states, but there are things that visitors will find interesting:

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