Once again we encountered more of the contrasts of New Mexico. White Sands National Monument is a beautiful place with soft white dunes and beautiful vistas. It happens to be surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range, whose mission is to “provide Army, Navy, Air Force, DoD, and other customers with high quality services for experimentation, test, research, assessment, development, and training in support of the Nation at war”. In fact, the road leading to White Sands National Monument and between Las Cruces and Alamagordo is regularly closed due to due to testing of missiles and other scary devices. The Trinity SIte, where the first nuclear bomb was detonated, is located at the far north end of the missile range (closed to the public).
Interesting that when approaching the national monument, all cars were diverted to an immigration checkpoint. The monument is about 100 miles from the border with Mexico, and we drove from Las Cruces, which is south and west of there. The guard just gave us “the look” and asked about our citizenship. When we replied “U.S.”, he waved us off. He didn’t ask Angel, who was in the back seat, any questions.
As we got closer, I was amazed at how suddenly the landscape changed and mounds of white seemed to appear out of nowhere. We had arrived at the world’s largest gypsum dune field, covering 275 square miles.
This area was covered by a shallow sea 250 million years ago. Pressure from colliding tectonic plates pushed up land eventually forming the Rocky Mountain Range about 70 million years ago. Millions of years later, part of the mountains collapsed, creating what is now the Tularosa Basin.
Gypsum, which is dissolved by rain and snow from the mountains, is normally carried out to the sea in rivers. Since the Tularosa Basin had no outlet to the sea, this mix of water and snow carrying gypsum was trapped in the ground and also formed pools. At the lowest point of the basin, it formed Lake Otero, which eventually became a mostly dry bed, called a playa, and now named Lake Lucero.
When the water that had accumulated in the lake evaporated, it left gypsum in a crystalline form, called selenite, on the lake floor. The selenite was eventually broken down by the elements into smaller and smaller particles and ultimately eroded to sand. This sand was then moved by the prevailing winds which eventually formed dunes as the sand accumulated.
As the sand continued to accumulate in the dunes, their steep edges were eventually pulled down by gravity, moving them forward. Strong winds in the area, at their strongest in the spring, continue to cause many of the dunes to move around the park. Some travel between twelve to thirteen feet per year, others, on the edges of the dune field, move inches to a few feet per year and are firmly held in place by a various desert plants.
We visited the National Monument on two different days. The monument has a visitor center housed in a historic adobe building, and a gift shop offering authentic Native American crafts and other items.
A loop road leads from the visitor center eight miles into the heart of the dunes and to four marked trails, all of them manageable in less than one day. Getting out into the dunes reveals a different world. The one down side is that most wildlife generally stay in burrows during the day, with the exception of lizards and some birds.
In fact, the only evidence of life we saw in two days was two dead crickets and some tracks. This attests to the harsh living conditions in this area. The (few) plants and animals that do live here have had to adapt to the conditions.
In the case of plants, some grow extremely high so when dunes collapse they are able to remain in place, others create an anchor at the base of the dune so they can remain on the “sand pedestal” when the dune moves.
Many of the animals here, mostly small and medium mammals (there is not enough food source for large mammals), snakes, lizards, birds and many insects, have also adapted. Some of the mice and lizards have developed lighter skin to blend in with the sand.
The first day we visited was clear, cool and lovely. Although we didn’t do it, a fun thing to do here is to buy or rent (or bring) a sledding disk and slide down the dunes. This is allowed as long as you don’t roll over any vegetation. We saw both small and big kids enjoying this activity.
Another thing the park allows is pets on a leash throughout the trails. This is because of the lack of wildlife, and the ability to see for miles around you. Absolutely a great perk for a national park.
We also discovered that “backcountry” camping is available. The trail to the camping area is just over two miles long so it’s a short way to the sites. This is something I’d love to do one day, to hear and maybe see some of the wildlife as they come out during the night. And the dunes must be beautiful at dawn. But not recommended in the summer.
On our second visit, there was a storm rolling in and some pretty interesting clouds rolled in. I’m not sure how much (if any) rain eventually came down, but the preview was the same as if a huge rainstorm was to follow.
It’s interesting how this place changes its look based on the weather and time of day. I imagine it’s just a little bit different each day, especially with the dunes moving. The park service does have to plow parts of the loop road frequently (both days we were there).
I’ve never been in this type of environment, and that feeling of being surrounded by sand and nothing else was pretty amazing. I could imagine what it must be like to be stranded in a desert with no end in sight. This national monument is truly like entering another world.
Although we were staying in Las Cruces, which we thought was a better location for our varied interests in the area, Alamagordo is the closest town to the park. We drove to the town for lunch one day. It’s a pretty small town, but close to the national monument.
There is a large military presence as it’s adjacent to an Air Force Base, which is the largest employer there. As we toured the town we discovered both a Cuba AND a Puerto Rico Avenue, and couldn’t resist getting a photo by them.
Then, as a last quick tour, we visited the New Mexico Museum of Space History, reflecting the importance of this area in space research and systems testing.
There is an interesting space park outside with displays of rockets, missiles and rocket engines. Inside, the museum exhibits include events across New Mexico that advanced exploration and knowledge of space, artifacts including a “moon rock”, scale models of spacefaring craft, spacesuits, a space toilet, a shuttle lander simulator (Hector crashed twice), pioneers of space, satellites, and the SpaceShipOne competition.
There is also a small museum, the Museum & Missile Park, at the entrance to the White Sands Missile Range Army base. Security is tight, no photos except for narrowly defined areas, show ID, etc. If it is pointy and rocket powered and explosive, they have tested it here.
Military ordinance, space craft rocket elements, rocket science, targeting etc. It all started after WWII when over 300 boxcars full of German V2 missile components were delivered to White Sands. These components as well as the German scientists such as Werner Von Braun and others helped start the U.S. efforts that led to the space program.
And, once again, the desert of New Mexico continued to reveal its contrasts. We were duly impressed.