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WHITE SANDS

NATIONAL MONUMENT

New Mexico is a state of fascinating landscapes. From the out of this world rock formations of Bisti/De-Na-Zin and City of Rocks, to horizons punctuated by dormant volcanos, to the alpine meadows of the Valles Caldera, to the massive caverns in Carlsbad, geological events, over millions of years, have sculpted a visually spectacular region with enormous variation. Regardless of where you are standing in New Mexico, if time were to collapse to a moment, the geologic forces on display would be wildly impressive and immediately fatal.

Geology of White Sands

 

Precambrian volcanic and metamorphic rocks over 1.5 billion years old have been found in New Mexico. These rocks form the core of the mountain ranges east of the Rio Grande, with the oldest found in the Brazos, Taos and Nacimiento.

 

During the Paleozoic era New Mexico was covered by the Permian Sea, a vast, shallow body of water that created beds of limestone, sandstone, gypsum and shale. As the Paleozoic era came to an end, the sea began to dissipate. In southern New Mexico, a great barrier reef formed, but as the water receded it was isolated from the sea. As the water evaporated, large deposits of salt, potash and gypsum remained.

 

In the Mesozoic era, the sea continued to recede, with dinosaurs roaming the region. Many of the vibrant sandstone and shale formations in the northern part of the state were created at this time. Rivers and streams transported sediment as the water flowed toward the retreating sea. Later in the Mesozoic era, the inland sea returned, with New Mexico sitting on the western shore of a large, shallow ocean that covered most of the Midwest.

 

Eventually North America broke away from what remained of the Pangaea land mass and drifted west, colliding with the Farallon plate. The collision produced massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, giving birth to the Rocky Mountains. Volcanic activity generated the thick layer of igneous rock that covers much of New Mexico today. Stress fractures in the earth’s mantle produced the Rio Grande rift that divides the state, with the mountains rising along the fault lines on both sides and the land between the two faults sinking, like a cake collapsing in the middle.

 

In the southern part of the state, the beds of sediment created by the Permian sea were pushed up along the fault lines, forming the San Andres Mountains to the west and the Sacramento Mountain to the east, with the Tularosa Basin forming a bowl between them.

 

Gypsum sand is rare, because it is water-soluble. Normally, rain would dissolve gypsum and the water solution created would drain to the ocean. However, when the Rio Grande Rift formed, the Tularosa Basin was isolated, cut off from the sea and ocean, with water runoff from the mountains pooling in the basin, forming a shallow, 1600 square mile lake that we now refer to as Lake Otero.

 

During the last ice age, 12,000-24,000 years ago, the climate was wetter. Rain and snowmelt was more abundant, washing vast quantities of gypsum from the mountains into the basin below. When the last ice age ended Lake Otero evaporated, becoming a dry lake bed, also known as a playa. The bed of the lake contained large amounts of selenite, the crystalline form of gypsum.

 

As the climate became warmer and drier, Lake Otero dried up completely, leaving large tracts of selenite crystals just beneath the surface layer of clay and silt. The sun, wind and erosion began to work their magic, gradually transforming the area into the Chihuahuan Desert. Lake Lucero and Alkali Flat formed in place of Lake Otero. The Selenite crystals of Alkali Flat were exposed when wind carried the clay and silt away, with crystals as large as three feet exposed. Freezing and thawing broke the large crystals into smaller pieces. As the crystals became smaller, wind blew them across the desert floor, grinding them into finer particles, eventually grinding them into the white sand we enjoy today.

 

Bands of gypsum are readily visible in the mountain ranges surrounding the Tularosa Basin. To this day rain and snow melt from the mountains surrounding White Sands fill Lake Lucero with gypsum-laden water, like a giant water puddle. When the water evaporates, new selenite crystals form in the mud, just beneath the surface. Though the volume of gypsum sand produced by Lake Lucero and Alkali Flat is significantly less than what Lake Otero generated, they continue to produce new dunes.

 

Unlike dunes composed of quartz-based sand, gypsum does not readily convert the sun's energy into heat. As a result, the surface temperature of White Sands doesn’t get as hot as sand on a beach would. The dunes can be comfortably traversed barefoot most of the year. Even when the surface of the sand gets too hot, it is cool just below the surface, because the gypsum retains moisture from the playa of the Alkali Flat.

 

History of White Sands

 

The Tularosa Basin has been inhabited by humans for over 10,000 years. Long before the gypsum dunes formed, dire wolves, sabre-toothed cats, and herds of mammoths, camels, giant sloths and, later, bison grazed the lush grasslands around Lake Otero, attracting nomadic paleoindian hunters into the basin. Though little is known about the culture and customs of these people, we know they were outstanding stone tool makers and hunters based on spear and projectile points found throughout the basin. They hunted the region with hand-thrown spears for 2000 years. As the most recent ice age came to an end, Lake Otero dried up, the lush grassland died and the Tularosa Basin became increasingly arid. The mammoths, camels and giant sloths died, leaving fossils as evidence of their existence. The herds of bison migrated to more fertile grazing areas, forcing the early inhabitants to adapt or perish. This evolution from grassland to desert is referred to as the Archaic period, spanning 6000 years. There are Archaic sites from the mountain slopes to the basin floor, including in the dunes.

 

The inhabitants of the basin were forced to find new sources of food as the megafauna went extinct. They adapted new hunting techniques, including the use of the atlatl. The atlatl is a stick with a handle on one end and a hook or socket on the other to hold a dart shaft. The atlatl allowed hunters to launch smaller spear shafts faster and farther than a hand thrown spear.

 

As Lake Otero dried out, fierce winds swept the basin, creating an inhospitable dust bowl of fine gypsum sand for 3000 years. Archaeologists don’t know if the Archaic inhabitants stayed in the basin during that time, because any evidence of their presence has been buried under the dunes. However, when the dunes stabilized 4000 years ago, they returned to the area, possibly drawn by the Indian ricegrass that grows on the edge of the dunes. Indian ricegrass produces grains similar to wheat.

 

Among the archaeological evidence left behind by these early inhabitants are hearth mounds. They are the remains of prehistoric fires, often surrounded by other artifacts. The hearth mounds in the dunes are unlike any others in the world due to the chemical reaction between gypsum, heat and moisture. When gypsum is heated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, it becomes Plaster of Paris and hardens when moisture is added and subsequently evaporates. As a result, the hearth features in the dunes are cemented in place, which has preserved them for posterity. Agriculture emerged during this period, though it didn’t resemble the furrows and fields associated with modern horticultural practices. Survival required adaptation. Foraging evolved, with people tending to wild plants to induce more robust yields. By the time domesticated crops were imported from Central America over 3000 years ago, basic horticultural skills already existed, with these ancient farmers planting squash, corn and beans, establishing small villages so they could tend to their crops year around.

 

Over 1800 years ago the Jornada Mogollon occupied the basin. At first they lived in pithouses, which were circular houses dug into the ground and framed with wooden beams. They planted crops, but the dry, harsh environment required ongoing hunting and foraging in the nearby mountains to survive.

 

Later the Mogollon began to construct permanent adobe structures, establishing several villages in the basin, including Lake Lucero and Huntington Site at White Sands. The location of these sites, and number of artifacts discovered, implies that they were important villages. They are located on the shoreline of Lake Lucero and the Alkali Flat, giving them access to runoff from the San Andres Mountains and access to the salt and gypsum deposits left by Lake Otero. Salt was a vital commodity to these ancient people. It was used to preserve food. They used the gypsum like sheet rock to plaster the walls of their homes.

Contact Information

Occasionally the road into the monument can close due to missile testing. Check here for the latest information.

Mailing Address

White Sands National Monument

P.O. Box 1086

Holloman AFB, NM 88330

Physical Address

White Sands National Monument

19955 Highway 70 West

Alamogordo, NM 88310

Email

whsa_interpretation@nps.gov

Phone

(575) 479-6124

Safety

Desert Safety (pdf)

 

Drink plenty of water

1 gallon (4 liters) of water per person per day is recommended. Take high energy snacks.

Rest often

Take frequent breaks out of the sun to avoid heat stroke. All picnic tables are shaded.

Know where you are

Spring is windy. Wind moves dunes and erases footprints. GPS can be unreliable. Follow trail markers, carry a compass and fully charged cell phone, and keep landmarks in sight.

Be prepared

Wear a hat and sunglasses. The sand reflects the sun so apply sunscreen to all exposed areas even in winter. Wear loose, light-colored clothing to help keep your body cooler.

Dangerous digging

Digging holes in the dunes is fun but keep in mind that the dunes move and the sand is heavy. Holes can collapse leading to suffocation.

Beware of lightning

If you are in the dunefield during a lightning storm, take cover in a solid, closed-door building like our restrooms or in your vehicle. If you are not near any of these shelters, squat low to the ground and place your hands over your ears and your head between your knees.

Dress appropriately

Temperatures often exceed 100 degrees in the summer and drop drastically after sunset, from 20 to 30 degrees. Wear clothing that is appropriate for the weather and carry warmer clothing if you are staying for the sunset.

Beware of Icy Roads and Frozen Dunes

The dunes freeze during the winter. This makes sledding faster but it also makes falls more dangerous. It is hard to spot ice on the dunes. For safety reasons, decrease your speed and brake gently to avoid skidding.

Pottery and archery distinguish Mogollon sites from their archaic predecessors. The paleoindians made woven fiber baskets, whereas the Mogollon made clay pottery. The Mogollon replaced the archaic atlatl with the bow and arrow. Arrows were lighter than the spears used by their predecessors and the bows propelled them faster, farther and more accurately, all of which was essential for people hunting deer, rabbit and birds. Despite occupying the basin for 1200 years, the Mogollon migrated west by 1350, leaving abandoned villages and pottery shards behind. They never returned. There are many theories about why they left, including crop failure and drought; however, their departure occurred shortly after the arrival of the Apache in the basin. Perhaps there is no correlation between the arrival of the Apache and the departure of the Mogollon. Perhaps the two co-existed peacefully; however, resources were scarce and historically the Apache have not been receptive to sharing their hunting grounds. When the Apache want you to leave, staying is not a good idea unless you are prepared for a fierce fight. Ultimately this is merely one more theory. No one knows why the Mogollon migrated.

 

The Apache followed herds of bison from the Great Plains to the Tularosa Basin over 700 years ago, moving their camps from the mountains to the dunes to hunt game and to harvest a variety of wild plants. Their homeland encompassed the Tularosa Basin and all of the land surrounding their four sacred mountains: Sierra Blanca, Three Sisters Mountains, Oscura Mountain and the Guadalupe Mountains. There are two historic Apache trails that cross White Sands. One passes through tsetosayanela tuseka, a salt lake located south of the malpais lava flows, indicating they also gathered salt from the basin.

 

The Apache were well known for their fighting acumen, fiercely defending encroachment on their land, raiding as needed to provide for their families or to retaliate for attacks against them. Usually they got along with the neighboring pueblos (not always), actively engaging in trade. However, the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s changed that. Spanish slave traders hunted them, using captives to serve as labor in the silver mines in Chihuahua, Mexico. The Apache, in turn, raided the Spanish settlements to seize cattle, horses, firearms and captives of their own.

 

The prowess of Apache warriors is legendary. They were described as having the stamina of endurance athletes; marathoners capable of running 50 miles without stopping, traveling faster than a troop of mounted soldiers. In the late 1800's, one U.S. Army general engaged in the Apache Wars described the Apache as "tigers of the human species." Their staunch resistance to colonial control, and the fear they inspired, allowed them to retain their independence far longer than other tribes in the Southwest. Due to their presence, Europeans did not settle the basin until the 1850s, shortly after the Mexican-American war. Prior to the 1800s the Spanish expeditions occasionally ventured into the basin to mine salt, but otherwise traversed the lethal section of the Camino Real known as La Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the dead one) on the western slopes of the San Andres and Organ Mountains to avoid them. “Oh, that’s Apache land? Thanks, we’ll go around.”

 

Shortly after Mexico ceded the region to the United States, discoveries of gold and silver prompted a mining boom, with numerous mining towns established in Apache territory. Apache groups, led by Victorio and Geronimo, raided the settlements, engaging in frequent battles with the Buffalo Soldiers stationed at several forts in the region. They weren’t simply defending their territory. They were defending their way of life, resisting the government’s attempt to force them off their land. The Apache Wars raged from 1849 to 1924, ending with the forceful removal of the Apache from their ancestral homeland and the creation of the Mescalero Apache reservation. The Chiricahua, the fiercest of the Apache tribes, including Geronimo and his compatriots, were sent to a reservation in Florida.

 

Though the Spanish arrived in New Mexico in 1540, they avoided the Tularosa Basin, which they referred to as the “Land Without Water.” Between the dearth of water and the abundance of Apache, they preferred to travel La Jornada del Muerto. That they perceived a route named “Journey of the Dead One” as more appealing than traversing the basin seems a resounding testament to the harsh environment around the dunes. It isn’t that the Spanish never entered the dunes. They did. They followed the trails to the salt flats north of Alkali Flat, got what they needed and got out. Like others before them, they needed the salt for themselves and their livestock. It was also a critical ingredient for processing silver ore, with the salt from White Sands used to process the ore extracted in the silver mines in Mexico.

 

New Mexico became a territory of the United States after the Mexican-American war (1846-1848). Prior to becoming part of the U.S. the Hispano population was allowed to gather salt from the salinas. The land was considered public property; however, after becoming a territory American settlers made private claims to the land, intending to profit from salt mining on their property. That didn’t go well. A man named James Magoffin purchased the salt flats north of Lake Lucero. In 1854 he heard that there was a group of Hispanos from Doña Ana heading to Lake Lucero to gather salt. He intercepted them, killing three members of the party. In response to his use of force, the courts decided to dissolve his property claim, once again granting public access to the salt deposits.

 

The U.S. Army established military posts throughout the basin. During the Civil War, these military forts repelled the invading confederate forces from Texas. After the Civil War, as the United States expanded westward, the soldiers stationed at these became responsible for protecting the settlers establishing homesteads on the western frontier. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at several forts in the area. They were dispatched to quell lawlessness in the rowdy mining communities and to protect the settlers and miners from the Apache.

 

In the 1880s, the lush grasslands returned to the Tularosa Basin due to heavy rainfall, attracting Texans seeking grazing land for their livestock. Homesteaders established ranches throughout the basin. For 60 years ranching became the dominant industry. In 1897 the Lucero brothers began ranching on the south shore of the lake that would eventually be named after them. By 1940 the family’s ranches, totaling 20,000 acres, was consolidated. Shortly afterward the National Park Service took over ownership with the appropriation of Lake Lucero and Alkali Flats.

 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the discovery of oil, silver, coal, gold and other mineral deposits generated a flurry of mining claims. By 1904, over 114 people had established mineral claims to 10,400 acres around Lake Lucero. Most of the prospect mining occurred on the edges of the Tularosa Basin, with numerous small boom towns established, like Orogrande and White Oaks.

 

Herbert Hoover declared White Sands a national monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906, setting aside 142,987 acres for "additional features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest." Over 4,000 people attended the opening day ceremony on April 29, 1934. Construction of the visitor center, museum, restrooms, residences for park staff, an administration building and maintenance shed was initiated in 1935. Funding and labor came from the largest agency of President Roosevelt's New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The facilities, completed in 1938, are still in use today.

 

In response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. military established the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range and White Sands Proving Grounds, known today as Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range. The first atomic bomb was detonated at Trinity Site on the northernmost boundary of White Sands Missile Range on July 16, 1945.

 

As World War II came to a close, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, with enormous resources invested into space exploration, rocket technology and missile development. In 1963, NASA established White Sands Test Facility on White Sands Missile Range. White Sands Test Facility operates White Sands Space Harbor, which includes a runway for the space shuttle.

 

White Sands was placed on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on January 22, 2008. The application generated controversy in Otero County, with those opposed expressing concern that the UNESCO designation would threaten military operations in the area. Currently White Sands is the only place in the United States, other than the White House, with protected air space from the ground to infinity. The security associated with White Sands airspace is what attracted Spaceport America, built west of the San Andres mountains.

Road Trips

JEMEZ MOUNTAINS

Explore the natural resources and history of the Jemez mountains, from the Giusewa Mission Ruins in Jemez Springs to the Valles Caldera, the third largest super volcano in the U.S.

TURQUOISE TRAIL

Mining history from prehistoric turquoise mining to the site of the first gold rush west of the Mississippi. Galleries and gastronomy of Madrid. Hiking, biking and horseback riding options.

SALT MISSIONS SCENIC BYWAY

Heading south from Albuquerque, the Salt Missions Scenic Byway provides the opportunity to explore the ruins of three communities that thrived on the ancient salt trade.

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KASHA-KATUWE | TENT ROCKS

Between Albuquerque and Santa Fe on Cochiti Pueblo, the volcanic tuff and slot canyons of the Jemez volcanic field are a local favorite for hiking and glorious views.

NEW MEXICO DARK SKIES

The absence of humidity and light make New Mexico skies ideal for astronomers and star gazers. Observatories statewide make celestial admiration easy and accessible.

ROADRUNNERS

Learn more about New Mexico's flightless state bird; a charismatic, fearless little raptor that can eat anything from a black widow to a rattlesnake.

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PECOS PUEBLO

The fascinating history of this ancient village 28 miles east of Santa Fe is an exploration of culture and trade; offering insight into the impact of early colonialism in New Mexico.

NEW MEXICO'S WORLD HERITAGE SITES

3 of the 23 UNESCO world heritage sites in the United States are located in New Mexico, with White Sands currently being considered. Have you visited all of them?

CONTINENTAL DIVIDE TRAIL

Many hikers attempting to thru-hike the CDT start at the Southern border of New Mexico in March or April. Learn more about the most challenging of America's triple crown distance trails.

New Mexico Places
White Sands National Monument
New Mexico Places
Sledding White Sands
New Mexico Places
Stunning White Sands

Things to do at White Sands

 

Camping

 

10 primitive campsites are available on the Backcountry Loop on a first come, first serve basis. The trail is approximately 2.2 miles (3.5 km) round-trip. Passes can be purchased at the visitor center. Due to the possibility of unexpected closures associated with missile testing, they do not accept reservations. It is easy to get lost in the dunes after dark. As a result, permits must be purchased by a certain time each day so you have time to hike to your campsite before the sun goes down completely. The time varies throughout the year based on sunset.

 

Campsites are located between 3/4 of a mile to 1.1 miles from the start of the trailhead. There are no water or toilet facilities at the campsites. Ground fires are not allowed but camp stoves that use containerized fuel are permitted. Campers are required to pay entrance fees as well as camping fees. There is a 50% discount on camping fees for holders of the Access and Senior inter-agency passes.

 

Practice “leave no trace” principles. Go prepared. Avoid walking on vegetation and fragile biological soil crust. Don’t remove sand, plants, animals, natural or historic objects. Pack all trash out with you.

 

Additional camping is available nearby: Oliver Lee State Park, Aguirre Springs Recreation Area and several campgrounds in the Lincoln National Forest.

 

Sledding

 

Sledding the dunes is a popular activity. Waxed plastic snow saucers work best. They can be purchased at the monument gift shop. Visitors can also bring their own sleds. Unlike snow, the sand is not slippery. Sledding down the face of the dunes may require a few test runs to master the technique.

 

Hiking

 

There are 5 established trails of varying distance and difficulty. Each trail is marked with a different colored post (green, blue, orange, red) and symbol (hearts, diamonds, clubs, spades). Maps are available at the visitor center.

 

Hiking alone is not recommended. Wandering from the trail is a bad idea. It is easy to become disoriented. Wind shifts the sand, rapidly erasing footprints. There is no water, no bathroom and no shade. Take at least a gallon of water per person. Pets are allowed, but make sure you take enough water for them as well. It is very easy to become dehydrated without realizing it. Water evaporates quickly in this environment. Not sweating doesn’t mean that you aren’t dehydrating.

 

Apply sunscreen. Wear a hat. Sunglasses are a must. The sand is blinding. Due to the proximity to the missile range, you may find unexploded ordinance buried in the dunes. Let park rangers know, but don’t touch it.

 

Practice “leave no trace” principles. Go prepared. Avoid walking on vegetation and fragile biological soil crust. Don’t remove sand, plants, animals, natural or historic objects. Don't leave your trash in the dunes.

 

Full moon hikes are offered monthly from May - October. Sunsets are usually gorgeous at White Sands.

 

Biking

 

Bikes are allowed on Dunes Drive. The route is 16 miles round trip. Off-road travel is not permitted. The first four miles are paved, the last four miles are hard-packed gypsum sand. The road frequently has a "washboard" surface, potholes and sand drifts, making it slightly challenging. Mountain and beach cruiser bikes with wide tires are well suited to the terrain.

 

Lodging

 

Lodging is available in Alamogordo, Cloudcroft or Las Cruces. During the summer months it can be very hot in southern New Mexico, making Cloudcroft the most appealing of the three from June – September. Cloudcroft is approximately ½ hour from Alamogordo. At an elevation of 9000 feet, the temperature is always 15-30 degrees cooler in Cloudcroft. My preference during the summer is to stay in Cloudcroft, go to White Sands for the sunset, take a full moon hike and scamper back to higher elevation, and cooler temperatures, before the sun comes back up.

 

Other sights nearby

 

Aguirre Spring Campground

Alameda Park Zoo

Lincoln National Forest

Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation

New Mexico Museum of Space History and IMAX Theater

Oliver Lee Memorial State Park

White Sands Missile Range Museum and Missile Park

New Mexico Nomad

WHITE SANDS

NATIONAL MONUMENT