I guess this is a start of a tradition, as this was the second year in a row I headed out of state chasing new National Park excitement over Presidents Day weekend! This year I got the crazy idea to make a big loop down to Amarillo, Texas. I don’t think most people seek out Amarillo as a vacation destination, but I had never been to the panhandle of Texas, and this would give me the chance to visit a few more National Park Service units. As a bonus, on the way home I could go to Oklahoma, one of the few remaining U.S. states I have not been to, and hike to the high point, Black Mesa. I even sold this amazing road trip to a friend, who agreed to come along!
We departed early Friday morning, getting caught in the usual I-25 traffic that plagues the entire Front Range of Colorado nowadays. I oogled Pikes Peak, chatted about all sorts of random topics, and made a quick pit stop outside of Pueblo. Luckily the scenery opened up south of Pueblo, and I took to being fascinated by the Spanish Peaks that loomed on the southern horizon. It did not take me long to whip out Google and see if I could hike them (forever chasing tall things to stand on… and yes, you can, with the taller West Spanish Peak being the bit easier one). I had not traveled this part of I-25 through southern Colorado in nearly seventeen years, so I tried to soak it all in.
Capulin Volcano National Monument was the main destination for the day. Established in 1916, this NPS unit protects the Capulin Volcano, a cinder cone which erupted 60,000 years ago and is part of the 8,000 square mile Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field. Wait… volcanoes in New Mexico?! Yep! This area experienced regional volcanism starting 9 million years ago. Capulin is not the only volcano in the area – most of the things dotting the landscape are volcanoes, including the impressive Sierra Grande, a shield volcano that dominates the scenery. An estimated 125 volcanoes dot this dorment volcanic field! Capulin is considered one of the most perfect cinder cones in the world due to its uniform circular shape.
After being closed for two days due to a winter storm, I was happy that the monument had reopened and I did not have to pivot the plans for the trip. We swung into the visitor center, where the ranger, seeing me hauling in three national park passport books (yes, I am now up to stamping three different versions!) immediately pointed me to the stamping table. The gift shop is quite impressive, and I took to picking out a survey marker magnet and a patch, along with a pocket volcano that you add baking soda and vinegar to for an eruption. I also watched the park video, which described the geology and ecology of the area, and was needed for completing my Junior Ranger book. (Capulin Volcano National Monument does charge an entry fee, which was $20 in February 2023. I showed my America the Beautiful Pass to the ranger at the visitor center.)
Satisfied with visitor center activities for now and debating whether Yellowstone would have an explosive eruption or merely lava flow eruption with the ranger in the future (he was Team Supervolcano Explosion of Doom and I’m Team Lava Flow That Won’t End The World), we headed up Volcano Road, which leads to the summit crater. There is a small parking lot, vault toilets, two hiking trails, and countless panoramic views all the way to Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. The first hiking trail is the one-mile trail around the crater rim, which includes the summit of Capulin Mountain at 8,182 feet. The second trail is 0.4 mile roundtrip, and goes down into the vent of the crater.
We would combine the two trails into a lovely (albeit windy) hike, started off with tailgate roast beef sandwich and Will Ferrell’s “Volcano Man” annoyingly stuck in my head which led to a dance party in the crater filmed for our friend James, the true dancing man. My Garmin watch recorded the hike at 1.27 miles with 443 feet of elevation gain total. Not just a simple stroll in the park, but still a very casual, doable hike.
After the hike, I scrambled to finish out my Junior Ranger book, which I had started ahead of the trip since they make the book available online (it’s the only way I can do all those damn word finds in a timely manner). The ranger was tough on me, and quizzed me on several volcano facts. I am proud to report I got all the questions correct! We also learned exactly how busy the national monument is in the summer, with 1000-1500 visitors per day – because of this, they often have wait times up to ninety minutes long to drive Volcano Road since the parking lot up top is limited in space. There are a few hiking trails that start from the base of the volcano, including the Lave Flow Trail and Boca Trail, which give some options besides the summit. Due to snowy conditions and time constraints, I wasn’t able to hike them. Overall, I was happy I was here in the off season and got to enjoy some snowy scenery.
After Capulin, all we really had to left to do was drive to Amarillo. The volcanic field gave away to some unnervingly flat terrain. I knew there were some Santa Fe National Historic Trail passport stamps at the Kiowa & Rita Blanca National Grasslands office in Clayton, so we swung in. The woman who greeted us seemed quite excited to have visitors, and grabbed the stamps out of the back office and eagerly offered up dispersed camping suggestions, along with other things to see in the region. I filled her in on our plan for the trip, and she excitedly announced we might see her and her family near Black Mesa and the dinosaur tracks there. An unexpected visit for sure, usually people in places like this aren’t completely thrilled to dig out passport stamps.
Soon we crossed into Texas, a place I feel safe saying is definitely a league of their own. My mom had warned me it would be super flat. I am not sure I was quite prepared for exactly how flat it would be. As a mountain girl, the flatness of the panhandle was hard to comprehend. “There’s no topography!” I announced, along with a countless number of comments out of my mouth about the flatness. Not only is this region of Texas one of the flattest places in the world, it is also one of the windiest regions in the U.S. Like they say, everything is bigger in Texas… the wind, the flatness, the steaks…
I also have to talk about the chuckle we had at the Texas border… the border sign proudly announces “Drive Friendly, The Texas Way!” As we saw this sign, we see pickup truck barreling down the grassy median before flipping a U-turn into the lane next to us.
Gigantic high school football stadiums, Toot-n-Totum gas stations, grasslands, and cows dotted the rest of the drive as we drove through the sunset to Amarillo, listening to an agricultural radio station (sheep numbers are on the decline in the U.S., but horse prices are elevated due to the supposed effects of the TV show Yellowstone and everyone wanting to be a cowboy, to summarize what we learned!). I traded in some Hilton Honors points for a room at Homewood Suites, so we headed there first to unload the car before heading out for a late dinner at the Big Texan Steak Ranch. Because when in Amarillo, you have to do a touristy thing! But first we had to get lost, as frontage roads are one-way in Amarillo and we just had no idea how to get anywhere…
The Big Texan Steak Ranch opened up in 1960 on Route 66, and moved to its present-day location off of I-40 in 1970. This restaurant is most famously known for it’s “free” 72 ounce steak – only free if you eat it along with a roll, salad, potato, and shrimp cocktail within one hour (apparently 10,000 people out of 70,000 who have tried the challenge have been successful). If you are not successful in the challenge, the meal will cost you $72. The whole place is a gigantic ball of gaudy touristy awesomeness and riddled in single-use plastic items (from the drinking cups to ranch dressing to the fixings for a loaded baked potato), complete with a large gift shop where you can buy tee shirts, gigantic cowboy hats, steak dishware, and plenty of Texas & 2nd amendment themed stickers.
We decided on fried pickles for an appetizer, which were some of the best I’ve ever had. Then we each ordered the 8 ounce sirloin. With hopes set high after the pickles, overall our entrees were disappointing. The steaks were wayyyyy overcooked (my medium well was beyond well, and Tom’s medium rare was definitely medium well), and the mac n’ cheese was bland. Nothing was terrible, and I still cleaned my plate, but definitely this is not a restaurant I’d return to if in Amarillo and wanted a steak. If I wanted some fried pickles, I’d definitely stop again! In fact, if for some reason I was ever in Amarillo again, I’d eat here and have two orders of fried pickles for my meal! Is that blasphemy?! Maybe they can start a 72 ounces of fried pickles challenge?!
The first day of the adventure was great, but long and tiring, with nearly nine hours of time sitting in a car for me (including traveling completely across Colorado)! It was an early night once we were back in the hotel. The next day would be jammed pack with activities, so lights out!
2 thoughts on “Presidential Adventure 23: Day 1 – Capulin Volcano National Monument”
When I think of how to describe Texas, everything in the Big Texan Steak Ranch pictures is what I think of.
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I think it is a pretty good cliff notes version of Texas for sure!!