Sunday, July 17, 2022

Visit New Mexico's Plains During Summer Monsoon Rains


N.M. 72 between Raton and Folsom.

The summer monsoon season is a great time to visit New Mexico’s plains country as abundant rain prompts the prairie to green up and explode with colorful wildflowers.

And one of the best drives to enjoy the view is a 75-mile roundtrip from Raton over Johnson Mesa to the historic town of Folsom and on to Capulin Volcano and back.

But first you have to get out of Raton where the town’s Victorian architecture, downtown historic district and other attractions can draw and hold visitors.

The historic Shuler Theatre in downtown Raton.

During a recent visit to the area we stayed overnight at nearby Sugarite Canyon State Park where the hilltop Soda Pocket campground has good sites with great views. There’s also plenty of easy hiking trails and decent fishing at nearby Lakes Maloya, Alice and Dorothy.  For Outdoors New Mexico’s story about the Sugarite State Park  follow this link.

A campsite at Soda Pocket Campground in Sugarite Canyon State Park. 

But the road trip is why we came and it starts just off the road to the state park at the intersection of N.M. 72. This two-lane paved road winds its way up onto remote Johnson Mesa where miles of rolling grassland dominate the landscape.

At the turn of the last century the mesa top would have been dotted with 160-acre homesteads where hardy pioneers attempted to eke out a living. Despite ample rain and good soil, the cold, windy winters and lack of a steady water source conspired to drive off the many farmers that once lived there. Now cattle and horses are the primary residents of the lush fields and pastures.

Johnson Mesa.

Along the way visitors will find a sturdy, rock church by the roadside.  St. John's Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1897 and is listed on the state and national registers of historic places. It is well maintained by volunteers, still holds services and is frequently open for the public to visit.

Historic St. Johns Methodist Episcopal Church on Johnson Mesa.

Driving off the mesa and down towards the town of Folsom visitors could find a wall of wild flowers lining each side of the road.

A stop at the Folsom Museum will reveal plenty about why this sleepy little town has played such a big role in New Mexico history.

The Folsom Museum.

Among its many claims to fame is that it’s home to one of the most important archaeological discoveries in North America. Following an disasterous flood in 1908, a local black cowboy who also was a self-taught, amateur archaeologist and historian, George McJunkin, discovered an exposed trove of fossilized Bison bones protruding from a washed out arroyo. Upon further excavation by archaeologists years later numerous hunters’ spear points were found among the many bison skeletons. The discovery prompted the archaeology community to reevaluate their understanding of when humans first occupied North America, pushing back their estimates by at least 5,000 years to 12,000 years, according to published accounts.

McJunkin's hat and other items about him on display at the Folsom Museum.

Folsom once boasted several saloons, restaurants, hardware and merchandise stores, doctors and newspaper offices, schools and other establishments to serve the many farmers and ranchers from the surrounding area.

But recurring drought and other difficult economic conditions led many to leave the area and today Folsom is home to just 56 residents and some very old, historic buildings, according to the 2020 Census.

The old Folsom Hotel.

After exploring Folsom, visitors will find Capulin Volcano National Monument just down the road where they can drive two miles to the top of the 1,300 foot tall volcano and enjoy amazing views of the surrounding countryside. Pedestrians, bicyclists, trailers, towed vehicles and any vehicles over 26 feet long are not allowed on the steep, narrow road. 

A view from atop Capulin Volcano.

Visitors will find a strenuous hike at an elevation of over 8,100 feet if they wish to walk around the rim of the ancient volcano. Monument staff are typically on hand in the parking lot to provide information to inquisitive tourists.

To finish the roundtrip motorists drive 32 miles on U.S. 64 back to Raton.

The plains near Raton, N.M.

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