“There is nothing to see in White Sands National Monument! It’s just sand!”, commented someone on my social media.
I agree. White Sands National Monument is basically what its name suggests – white sands. However, if you allow yourself to marvel at how and why’s, you will learn that science and nature truly do create wonders.
After a short but wonderful time in Austin, Texas, we moved on with our road trip and headed to our next stop: White Sands National Monument. We took a quick stop at Holloman Air Base which was only 8.5 miles from the white sands. The base was of course out of power on the day we visited! It’s just our luck.
From the park’s visitor center, the white dunes look nothing but a pile of white chalk, especially with some growth of vegetation. But as you drive farther along Dunes Drive, past the Playa trail, the dunes start to rise higher. It almost gave us the illusion that we are in the Middle East, or that there is a beach nearby. It also looked like a winter wonderland, but with sand instead of snow. There are 4 trails (Playa Trail, Dune Life Nature Trail, Backcountry Camping Trail, Alkali Flat Trail) and 1 boardwalk (Interdune Boardwalk) around White Sands National Monument. The Interdune Boardwalk is a half mile round trip trail located just along the Dunes Drive. It is a self-guided walk with 10 outdoor exhibits along the boardwalk. It was supposed to be an easy trail but at 4,235 feet elevation, it was hard to keep up. Thankfully, there is a shade structure with seating midway reserved for nature study, and at the time of our visit, there was a lecture conducted by the National Park Service. There are over 300 plants, 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, 7 amphibians, and 1 fish species at White Sands National Monument. We were willingly entertained by a lizard crawling on the sand to my husband’s amusement. At the shade structure, the park ranger was outstandingly accommodating. At the end of our boardwalk, I was already exhausted.
White Sands National Monument versus other deserts
GYPSUM – White Sands National Monument is a desert park in Tularosa Basin in New Mexico. It covers 275 sq mi (710 km2) field of white sand dunes. Unlike most desert sand which is composed of quartz, White Sands National Monument is covered with gypsum and calcium sulfate and that is what makes this desert special.
The gypsum (rocks) are from the surrounding mountains of the basin – San Andres on the West and Sacramento Mountains on the East. Gypsum rocks easily melt in water, so when it rains, gypsum dissolves and are carried by water and ends up in the Tularosa Basin which is where the White Sands National Monument is now located. The Tularosa Basin has no outlet, so the water is deposited into the lowest point of the park which is Lake Lucero. There is no actual lake in Lake Lucero. It is dry because as the water goes into Lake Lucero, factors like sunny and dry weather makes the water evaporate. When the water evaporates, gypsum rocks are left in a crystalline form called selenite or selenite cystals. When selenite crystals start to flake into grains because of weathing and erosion, its smaller grains are moved by the wind and they start to scratch each other. As these smaller selenite pieces scratch each other, they turn into sand, and as they accumulate, they form sand dunes. The Alkali Flat was formed when during the last ice age, a lake called Lake Otero covered the basin and when it dried, it left a large area of selenite crystals that is now Alkali Flat.
PLANTS – Because gypsum is water-soluble, when it is wet, it cements together thereby forming a layer of sand that is “hard” and can resist the force of wind. Unlike other sand dunes that constantly changes shape, gypsum White Sands is more solid and wind-resistant but not too wind-resistant, that sands are still able to cover plants. However, some species of plants grow fast enough to avoid being buried by the dunes.
HEAT – Unlike dunes made of quartz-based sand crystals, the gypsum does not readily convert the sun’s energy into heat and thus can be walked upon safely with bare feet, even in the hottest summer months. As a matter of fact, there were children sledding downhill on the sand dunes during our visit.
After the World War II Pearl Harbor bombing, the United States military created White Sands Proving Grounds, which is now called White Sands Missile Range. It also led to the creation of the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, known today as Holloman Air Force Base which is only few minutes away from the park. When my husband mentioned that White Sands National Park is within the White Sands Missile Range, I wondered about our safety! (I want to live!) White Sands Missile Range was and IS still currently and actively a United States Army military testing area for missiles! As a matter of fact, just 65 miles north of White Sands National Monument is where they detonated the FIRST ATOMIC BOMB in 1945 at the Trinity Site. After World War II, White Sands Missile Range became home of some of the German scientists, including Werner Von Braun, who were instrumental in the conception and development of the V-2 rocket, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile.
Because the park is inside the missile range, both the park and the US Route 70 between Las Cruces and Alamagordo are suject to road closures for safety reasons when missile tests are being conducted. On average, tests occur about twice a week, for a duration of one to two hours. YIKES!
On a brighter note, because of its spectacular landscape, White Sands National Park has been the location of numerous Hollywood motion pictures, documentary videos and television shows, music videos, car promotions and other promotional videos.
Yeah, White Sands National Monument is basically just sand, but a massive amount of sand with an equally massive amount of story (and science and history) to tell.