Designated by President Woodrow Wilson as a national monument in 1916 and rising 8,182 feet above sea level, the imposing green mountainsides of Capulin Volcano stand as a reminder of the violent volcanic processes that shaped New Mexico tens of thousands of years ago. It’s one of the natural wonders of New Mexico and is noted as being one of the most easily accessible volcanoes in North America. And considering that a short drive and a few steps is all it takes to step foot into the volcano’s mouth, “accessible” sounds about right.
The volcano is an example of a fairly young cinder-cone volcano, one that erupted roughly six thousand years ago when now-extinct giant bison and mammoths roamed the nearby terrain. It was part of the expansive Raton-Clayton volcanic field, which is one of the largest volcanic fields on the continent and covers nearly 7,500 square miles of New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Eruptions occurred within this field as far back as nine million years ago and as recent as 45,000 years ago. Geologists estimate that a series of complicated eruptions and lava flows formed Capulin Volcano, giving it its distinct geology.
Today a paved road spirals around the extinct volcano, allowing visitors to drive their cars all the way up to the rim. In fact hiking trails with interpretive panels circle the rim and even ascend four hundred feet into the mouth of the volcano, allowing hikers to stand in what was once a dangerous epicenter of violent lava eruptions and explosions. In addition to that, from the rim you’ll also have outstanding panoramic views of lava-capped mesas that illustrate the rich volcanic history of the Capulin region. Due to the high elevation, it’s been noted that, on clear days, you can see all the way to Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and even Kansas before the horizon finally falls beneath the Earth’s curvature. The circular trail around the rim of the volcano does get a little steep at times, but it’s only a mile and shouldn’t take much longer than one hour to complete. Plenty of wildlife is often spotted at Capulin Volcano National Monument. Mule deer and pronghorn are occasionally spotted standing among the tall grasses. In late summer, black bears sometimes venture out from the wooded areas in search of food before they enter their winter hibernation. And, as one might expect, an array of snakes lurk and can be found basking in the sun on the warm rocks of the mountain. However, of all the creatures you might come across in the area, the most interesting life form at Capulin might very well be the convergent lady beetle, which makes its home at the highest points of the volcano. New generations of the beetles arrive each summer, resplendent with the bright orange shells, small black dots, and converging white lines, after which they’re named.
Every summer, swarms of these delicate lady beetles participate in a wind-carried migration, coating tree limbs near the volcanic rim with little reddish-orange bodies. Then after feasting during the summer, the insects hibernate through the winter before catching an early spring ride to wherever the wind takes them to lay their eggs. Sometimes the wind takes them to the nearby aphid fields and other times carries them as far away as the wheat fields in Texas. Yet, wherever their eggs end up being laid, these determined lady beetles somehow always find their way back to Capulin Volcano to reclaim their home and start the cycle all over again. So if you happen to get caught among the swarms of these convergent lady beetles, relish the experience. Think of it as you witnessing a rare natural phenomenon rather than enduring an unfathomable plague of hungry ladybugs.
Before you depart or when you arrive, be sure to stop by the visitor center. It’s a first-class operation with great staff and a nice gift shop that you’ll enjoy. Many recommend the visitor center’s short, informative film on the volcano plus the exhibits that focus on the geologic and human history of the area. At only $5 per vehicle for an admission fee, this site is a true bargain and a must-see attraction if you are passing through the area.