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 and the massive caverns in Carlsbad, geological events, over millions of years, have sculpted a visually spectacular region. 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. Morbid thought. It served as the backdrop for a futuristic short story I wrote years ago.
White Sands is one of the most beautiful geological anomalies to explore in New Mexico. 275 square miles of undulating, white dunes are a testament to the ancient sea that filled the basin long ago. It is certainly one of the most commonly photographed landscapes in the state.
Geology of White Sands
Geologists have found precambrian volcanic and metamorphic rocks over 1.5 billion years old in New Mexico. These rocks form the core of the mountain ranges east of the Rio Grande, with the oldest stone found in the Brazos, Taos and Nacimiento.
New Mexico was covered by the Permian Sea during the Paleozoic era , a vast, shallow body of water that created beds of limestone, sandstone, gypsum and shale. The sea dissipated at the end of the Paleozoic era and a great barrier reef formed in southern New Mexico. 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 briefly, 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 left by the Permian sea were pushed up along the fault lines. The San Andres Mountains formed to the west and the Sacramento Mountain formed to the east. The Tularosa Basin is 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 call Lake Otero.
During the last ice age, 12,000-24,000 years ago, the climate was wetter. Rain and snow melt was abundant, washing vast quantities of gypsum from the mountains into the basin. Lake Otero evaporated when the last ice age ended, 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. Wind blew the clay and silt away, exposing the Selenite crystals of Alkali Flat. Some crystals were three feet tall. 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 and 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 gypsum sand.
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. Walking barefoot on the dunes is comfortable 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
Humans have inhabited the Tularosa Basin 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. They hunted the region with hand-thrown spears for two thousand years. Lake Otero dried up as the most recent ice age came to an end. The lush grassland died, the Tularosa Basin became increasingly arid, and the mammoths, camels and giant sloths died, leaving fossils as evidence of their existence. The 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 and it spanned six thousand years. There are Archaic sites in the Tularosa Basin from the mountain slopes to the basin floor, including several found 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 spears faster and farther than a hand thrown spear.
Fierce winds swept the basin as Lake Otero dried up, creating an inhospitable dust bowl of fine gypsum sand for three thousand years. Archaeologists don’t know if the Archaic inhabitants stayed during that time. The dunes buried any evidence. However, when the dunes stabilized four thousand years ago, humans returned, possibly drawn by the Indian ricegrass that grows on the edge of the dunes. It 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 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. It hardens when moisture is added and evaporates. As a result, the hearth features in the dunes are gypsum cement, preserved for posterity.
Agriculture emerged during this period, though it didn’t resemble the furrows and fields associated with later horticulture. Foraging evolved, with people cultivating wild plants to induce more robust yields. By the time domesticated crops arrived from Central America over three thousand years ago, basic horticultural skills existed. Ancient farmers planted squash, corn and beans, establishing small villages so they could tend crops year around.
Over 1800 years ago the Jornada Mogollon occupied the basin. Initially, 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.
Later, the Mogollon began to construct permanent adobe structures, establishing small 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 villagers access to runoff from the San Andres Mountains and access to the salt and gypsum deposits by Lake Otero. Salt was a vital commodity to these ancient people. They used salt to preserve food and used gypsum to plaster the walls of their homes, like sheet rock.
Pottery and archery distinguish the Mogollon 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 and the bows propelled them faster, further and more accurately, all of which was essential for people hunting small game.
The Mogollon migrated west by 1350 AD, after over a thousand years in the region. They left abandoned villages and pottery shards behind. There are many theories about why they left, including crop failure and prolonged drought. Their departure coincides with migration occurring throughout the region; however, the Apache filled the power vacuum immediately, which makes me wonder if that was one of the mitigating variables. Perhaps there is no correlation. Ultimately, there are many theories by people who know far more about it than I do.
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 the land surrounding 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 gathered salt from the basin.
The Apache were known for their fighting skills, 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) and engaged in trade. However, the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s changed the dynamic in the region. Spanish slave traders hunted them, using captives to serve as labor in the silver mines in Chihuahua, Mexico. In response, the Apache raided Spanish settlements, seized livestock, firearms, and captives of their own.
One U.S. Army general engaged in the Apache Wars described them as “tigers of the human species.” They had the stamina of endurance athletes; marathoners capable of traveling faster than a troop of mounted soldiers, running 50 miles/day. Their staunch resistance and the fear they inspired allowed them to retain their independence far longer than other tribes. Due to their presence, Europeans did not settle the basin until after the Mexican-American war. The Spanish expeditions occasionally ventured into the basin to mine salt, but otherwise traveled the section of the Camino Real known as La Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the dead one) San Andres and Organ Mountains to avoid the Apache.
New Mexico Territory
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 a route named “Journey of the Dead One” was more appealing seems a resounding testament to the harsh environment around the dunes.
The Spanish conquistadors explored the dunes. 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 salt for themselves and their livestock. Also, salt was a critical component for processing silver ore. The Spanish needed it for the extensive mining operations in northern Mexico.
New Mexico became a territory of the United States after the Mexican-American war (1846-1848). The Hispano population gathered salt from the salinas prior to becoming a part of the United States. They considered the land public property. However, American settlers made private claims to the land, intending to profit from salt mining.
James Magoffin purchased the salt flats north of Lake Lucero. He heard that there was a group of Hispanos from Doña Ana heading to Lake Lucero to gather salt in 1854 and intercepted them, killing three members of the party. The courts dissolved his property claim, again granting public access to the salt deposits.
The U.S. Army established outposts throughout the basin. During the Civil War, these forts repelled Confederate forces from Texas. As the United States expanded westward after the Civil War, soldiers stationed at these became responsible for protecting settlers. The U.S. Army stationed Buffalo Soldiers at forts throughout the territory. Fort commanders dispatched them to quell lawlessness and to protect settlers and miners from the Apaches.
Lush grasslands returned to the Tularosa Basin in the late 1880s due to heavy rainfall. Homesteaders established ranches throughout the basin and ranching became the dominant industry for sixty years. The Lucero brothers started ranching on the south shore of the lake that would eventually be named after them in 1897. The National Park Service consolidated the family’s 20,000 acres by 1940 and took over management, adding Lake Lucero and Alkali Flats.
The discovery of oil, silver, coal, gold and other mineral deposits generated a flurry of mining claims at the turn of the century. Most of the prospect mining occurred on the edges of the Tularosa Basin, with numerous small boom towns established, like Orogrande and White Oaks.
White Sands National Monument
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 four thousand people attended the opening day ceremony on April 29, 1934.
The Park Service started construction of the visitor center, museum, restrooms, residences for park staff, an administration building and maintenance shed 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.
The U.S. military established the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range and White Sands Proving Grounds in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The facilities are 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. The test facility operates White Sands Space Harbor, which includes a runway for the space shuttle.
White Sands was placed on a tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on January 22, 2008. The application generated controversy, with those opposed expressing concern that it would impede military operations in the area. 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 is what attracted Spaceport America, built west of the San Andres mountains.
White Sands National Monument
P.O. Box 1086
Holloman AFB, NM 88330
White Sands National Monument
19955 Highway 70 West
Alamogordo, NM 88310
Occasionally the road into the monument can close due to missile testing. Check here for the latest information.
Things to do at White Sands
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. Purchase passes 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 and they don’t allow ground fires, but camp stoves using containerized fuel are permitted. They require an entrance fees as well as camping fees. They offer a 50% discount on camping fees for 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.
Sledding the dunes is a popular activity. Waxed plastic snow saucers work best. You can buy them at the monument gift shop (new or used). 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.
There are five 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.
The park does not recommend hiking alone. 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. The park allows pets, but make sure you take enough water for them. 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.
The park allows bikes on Dunes Drive. The route is 16 miles round trip. They do not permit off-road travel. The first four miles of the road is paved, but the last four miles is hard-packed gypsum sand. The road frequently has a “washboard” surface, potholes and sand drifts. Mountain and beach cruiser bikes with wide tires work well.
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