Capulin National Monument, NM  (2) Bob Leverett
June 10, 2009



            The second trip report will cover Monicaís and my trip to Capulin National Monument in northeastern New Mexico.   Capulin is pronounced cah-poo-LEEN and is Spanish for chokecherry.

As with the first trip report, I will describe a site visit, as opposed to following the format of last year, which was more of a diary account. There will be some of that type of presentation in this series, but it wonít be the primary format.

From our route across southern Kansas on U.S. Route 160,   we detoured down into northwestern Oklahoma to visit the Ouchita Mountains. I had always wanted to visit the region since I read an article about the Ouchitas in an old National Geographic. I particularly wanted to visit 4,973-foot Black Mesa, Oklahomaís highest point. But upon reaching the region, Monica and I found that, all in all, the Ouchitas are pretty subdued and have less to offer than the lands farther west Ė our real destination. So our time spent in Oklahoma was minimal.   We saw what we need to see on some rural roads through the Ouchitas and headed westward, crossing into northeastern New Mexico through a region that is predominantly flat. Small variations in elevation occur around stream corridors. But the real changes come with the volcanic formations that initially appear on the distant horizon as vertically oriented oddities.

I usually try to concentrate on the good of a place, but as a whole, northeastern New Mexico has limited scenic offerings. For the most part, the land has been horribly over grazed and two horrendously smelly cattle feeding lots make the town of Clayton, a place to get through as fast as possible.   But north of Clayton, scenic wonders await the traveler as the land changes from flat to one punctuated with numerous volcanic cones and extensive lava fields. I was reminded of the lava flows of southeastern Idaho.

North of Clayton, the land begins to change. Sierra Grande looms as the dominant feature. It is an extinct shield volcano that rises about 2,200 feet above the surrounding land. Its sides reflect a uniform slope and are fairly gentle. Its 8,720-foot summit is pleasing to the eye in a geometrical sense except for the damned cell towers there. Fortunately, the other volcanic peaks in the vicinity have been left alone.

As we drove farther north on U.S. 64, we saw many antelope and often close to the road.   It was the most we had seen outside Wyoming. Antelope like to mix in with small herds of cattle, both for the water source provided the cattle, and for the protection from would-be poachers.   Antelope are smart.

Eventually we approached the cinder cone of Capulin, which is seen off to the east and is only a short drive from the main highway. The route by Capulin goes to Folsom, NM.   I had been to Capulin on 3 previous occasions and probably would have passed it by, but Monica was curious and expressed a desire to see Capulin, so we headed in that direction and in short order reached the visitorís center Ė a great source of information on not only Capulin, but many other scenic wonders, plants, and animals.

Leaving the visitorís center, we headed up the road to a spot 30r vertical feet below the summit. The road is paved, good, but narrow. There are no guard rails and it can be slightly unnerving if you arenít used to western mountain roads. The exposure factor is high.

According to the geologic information, Capulin erupted somewhere between 56,000 and 62,000 years ago Ė a mere baby.   Capulin was one of the last volcanos to erupt in an area of 8,000 square miles known as the Clayton-Raton volcanic field. The field includes Sierra Grande, mentioned above. The eruption period dates to 9,000,000 years ago. The area is technically within the province of the high plains, just east of the Rocky Mountain uplift.

Capulin rises abruptly and conspicuously about 1,300 feet above the surrounding terrain. Its summit reaches a height of 8,182 feet.   A mile-long loop trail circles the rim, and goes up to a point that is 305 vertical feet above a parking lot.   A second trail drops 105 vertical feet into the crater from the parking lot. From the sides of Capulin, one sees volcanic formations appearing everywhere.   The scene is dramatic.

            From the summit of Capulin, one is treated to a panorama that is truly magnificent. One has unobstructed views of other cinder cones and shield volcanoes.   They are generously scattered around, with Sierra Grande being the most prominent. On a clear day, features in New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and even Texas are visible.

The mix of high plains and volcanic forms as seen from the summit of Capulin is visually appealing, but there is more. On the distant horizon one sees a line of snow-capped peaks that form the Culebra sub-range of the lofty Sangre de Cristos, a main range of the Colorado Rockies and the subject of the next trip report.   One of those distant, snowcapped summits is Culebra Peak , which just makes 14,000 feet and is the southern most of the nine fourteeners of the Sangres.

Given the fairly limited botanical diversity one sees a short distance from its base (mostly a few grasses), Capulin is a botanical oasis. Over 60 species of plants can be observed on Capulin independent of the grasses. Ancient junipers of two species (Rocky Mountain and one-seeded), ponderosa pine, pinyon pine, Gambelís oak, and aspen are the principal tree species. Common shrubs include mountain mahogany, sumac, wavyleaf oak, a couple of species of current, chokecherry, ninebark, fourwing saltbush, and others. But it was the old junipers and pinyons that caught my attention near the top of Capulin and the old ponderosas near its base.  

In looking at Capulin from a geological standpoint, its origin seems obvious.   It is a cinder cone Ė the product of a violent eruption. However, Capulin is located within a geographical region that includes many complex volcanic landforms, the origins of which are not obvious. I find that I have to really strain to visualize the processes explained by geologists even in the simplified material they offer for public consumption. Iím sure technical material would be completely opaque to my struggling mindís eye.

I think that geology must be a highly intuitive science that requires a lot of imagination. I am envious of those who are really good geologists. One must be able to visualize the workings of immense natural forces operating over vast periods of time. Consider that the volcanic activity that produced Capulin, Sierra Grande, Black Mesa and the many other cones and flows of the area occurred over 9,000,000 years in four major periods of activity. Distinguishing the four periods is not obvious in the least. To make matters worse, different kinds of volcanic activity were involved to include explosions and the more gentle processes that form lava fields.   With good explanation, understanding the raw processes is manageable, but once the proceeses are mixed Ė oh boy. The impacts of later events on landforms that were created by previous events, along with the continual erosion, piles one event on top of another.   Looking at the end product, so to speak, and then trying to visualize how the present landscape came to be through 9,000,000 years of geological activity puts my simple brain into overload mode, but I find that I cannot resist trying to understand the processes.  

In summary, I will say that the region including Capulin offers endless visualization challenges. If the visitor does not choose to accept the challenge, he/she can be content with the exceptional physical beauty of the current landscape. I highly recommend that anyone traveling in the northeastern corner of New Mexico take the time to visit Capulin National Monument.


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