By Bonnie and Bill Neely
The Tularosa Basin in New Mexico, which has been inhabited by people since the end of the Ice Age, has some very unusual, protected areas which are not-to-miss. The first known people were Jornada Mongollon people in this area until about 1300 when drought made it impossible to stay. Later America Indians made home in this area until the European Americans began to be a threat in the 1600s. Then the arrival of the railroad in 1800s brought many permanent settlers. The town of Alamogordo is a central location to visit three amazing places: Three Rivers Petroglyphs National Monument, Tularosa Lava Flow National Monument, and White Sands National Park. We enjoyed several nights at the Alamogordo White Sands KOA, so we could see the wonders of each of these completely different places.
Alamogordo White Sands National Park, which covers an area of 275 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert, is the largest gypsum field in the world, the remains of the Permian Sea which dried up millions of years ago. In 1933 President Herbert Hoover first proclaimed this to be a National Monument, and the dune fields just outside the Monument were used as weapons testing sites. White Sands Missile Range now regularly conducts missile tests in the dunes. Before you go into the Park, check the site listed below to determine if the highway and Park are open because testing is still done for a couple of hours about two days a week, and the times are posted online. In 1945 during World War II Trinity Site 100 miles North of Alamogordo was used to test the first Atomic Bomb. The Park Entrance is on US 70, 54 miles east of Las Cruces, and 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo. At the Visitor Center you will learn the rules and history of the amazing white gypsum sands and a very good movie is free. You will receive information from the Rangers, programs, and activities.
At all times of the year, it is most important to wear hats, sunglasses, sun protection for skin , and take plenty of water with you, as there are no concessions. Dunes Drive which goes to the heart of the Park is a good road for cars. Signs and roadside exhibits indicate interesting places and information along the way, and there are paths for self-guided walking tours. Cars are not allowed off the road or through the dunes, but there are paved parking places. National Parks provide accessible paths, and there is a good boardwalk. Picnic areas are available in designated sites which have tables, shade, restrooms, and trash cans, but no water.
Bill has fond memories of visiting these sand dunes often as a child, and the stories of giant white lizards jumping up out of these huge white dunes to gobble up little children, was a favorite ghost story the adults always told with a chuckle. We looked for the bleached Apache lizards, which are small, but none were out while we were searching. We also wished to see the little pale pocket mice, which live here. We knew that desert animals are wise enough not to come out in hot periods and many, like the kit fox, are nocturnal.
We saw lots of family groups having fun with sleds, which are permitted on the dunes. Since these mountains of sand look like snow, why not?? Bring your own sled or buy sled and wax at the Park Gift Shop. Sand sledding is different that sledding on snow, so be sure to wax your sled rungs.
Sand hills are not easy to climb, since our feet either sank deeply or slid back a half-step for every step we took, but it was fun to climb up, leaving our footprints among the millions of others in the dunes. When we were there, in the hottest June in recorded weather records, we waited until after 6 p.m. to venture into the sand on foot, but the air temperature was still over 100 degrees. To our amazement, we could walk barefoot with no discomfort whatsoever! Shallow water always beneath these gypsum dunes keeps the sand temperatures always cool! Normally, I don’t like to walk in sand which always sticks to my feet and itches, but this gypsum does not stick to skin and is easily shaken off! What fun! The BIG SKY is ever above us in the South West, and the sunset was lovely. We had hoped to see the stars come out since there is no light pollution here, but, unfortunately, we could not stay late enough in Daylight Savings Time to see the magnificent night of diamonds sparkling all above. On some nights Park hours are extended for special events, such as full moon viewing.
Strong frequent southwesterly winds blow these dunes almost constantly, moving them, sweeping them down, rebuilding them in other places. In some areas we saw a plant residing on a tower of sand. This is because the roots of the skunk bush sumac extend deeply and keep the plant firmly in place even when the sands blow away around it. These are good hiding places for the kit foxes. Other plants like sand verbena are beautiful blooming in the sand, but these have shallow roots. However, they spread seeds and grow to flowering maturity in one season, so they continue to live delicately at White Sands. But dying soap yucca plants are seen leaning over in some places because although they can hold on with deep roots when the sand moves on, the exposure soon kills them. Seeing how nature adapts to harsh or difficult climates, we wonder how people could do so.
IF YOU GO:
For Special Events contact White Sands National Park (575)479 6124