White Sands National Monument



And now for something completely different given the usual diaries that I post. I say 'unusual' without exaggeration, because this monument is conceivably the most singular in all respects. For one thing, the word "DUCK!" comes to mind, that is, when missiles launched from the nearby missile range track across the sky. For another, here are sand dunes that you can actually hike during the hottest weather and never, ever burn your footsies. Do you know why? Well, to find out that answer, and lots of other peripherally related information connected to this site, including the most famous (or by some accounts, infamous) big blast of all time, the first of its kind, this tour promises at least one thing: adventure. Do bring water, however, because anytime sun and sand are in the picture a psychological need for drinking water arises. Make that copious swallows of water.

In central New Mexico, Western Otero and northeastern Dona Ana counties: Closest town: Alamogordo (Spanish for "cottonwood" or "big fat tree"). Area: 143,733 acres (224.5 square miles). Elevation 4,235 feet. Setting entirely within the Tularosa Basin Valley and ringed by the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains.

Gypsum sand dunes. Air Force testing missile range. Historical “Trinity ground zero” (premiere atomic bomb blast) as part of the sprawling monument.

White Sands NM with its glistening white setting was founded in 1936 and governed by the NPS, who later added to the monument's repertoire of scenic places. Today, White Sands comprises the southern sector of 275 square miles of dunes composed entirely of gypsum crystals. Located on the northernmost boundaries of White Sands Missile Range is the famous Trinity Site. During the mid-1940s, this sector of White Sands was used for detonation of the first atomic bomb (a/k/a/ "ground zero"). The site remains a popular tourist attraction when it's open and traffic jams are said to be nearly as awesome as the first atom bomb explosion, which was very small in relation to what followed.

Guided Tour Essentials
In 1849, a party of U. S. Army officers explored the dunes while Mescalero Apaches were already living in the region. Later in 1861, Hispanic families formed small farming communities at Tularosa and two years later at La Luz. Toward the end of the 19th Century, a group from El Paso proposed calling the unusual site Mescalero Park, mainly as a game preserve. Instead, the Department of the Interior in tandem with the Secretary of the Interior worked out a different scheme: a national park. In 1933, President Herbert Hoover refused to go that far and declared, instead, that it receive a national monument protection status. Entirely surrounded by military installations (White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base), this gorgeous setting has always had a dubious relationship with the military (errant missiles off course and causing damage, or jet noise conflicting with White Sands' otherwise tranquil setting). At one time, White Sands was proposed as a World Heritage Site (in 2008); however, the idea met with opposition by locals and the military. (The answer for such opposition should also be patent!)

Despite such relative and close proximity to the national monument, there is still a lot of terrain to hike and explore.

Some folks might also enjoy just sitting and taking in the view from these makeshift shaded pavilion outposts. . .

Of course, any shade during the heat of day is preferable to typical sun glare that reflects and radiates from this so-called white desert. . .

Of course, for those who simply can't abide with the heavy heat, there's always A/C places to hang out and peruse the many displays and learn about the monument's many fascinating facets. . .

By evening, the sun turns down its lamp, the dry air dissipates it heavy heat, and the sunsets over the monument are simply outrageous to see and admire. . .

Flora And Fauna
Some people believe no living critter could possibly exist and endure in such a formidable environment. However, creatures large and small can and will survive in such a typically desiccated environment, including the oryx, which is one of a few large antelope species. Because these handsome unicorn-like critters (make that bi-corn) have no natural predators, they tend to be invasive and populate the region. Naturally, they compete with native species for forage. (In other words, oryx were originally introduced into this landscape by humans.) In recent years, hunters from all over the world apply for permits to help cull the ranks of oryx herds.)

In addition to the hardy plants (mostly yuccas) and trees and wild grass that manages to anchor roots and thrive throughout the monument, there are other critters that are commonly seen. Biologists classify both plants and animals as drought resistant, meaning each species is able to compete and hold its own given the usual arid conditions throughout the monument.

Gypsum, from the Greek word chalk or plaster, is popularly known as plaster of Paris (drywall in the construction industry). Gypsum (chemical formula CaSO4·2H2O is a very soft mineral composed of calcium sulfate (dihydrate). As a common mineral, gypsum has multiple uses in industry, with foot creams and shampoos chief among them. Its thick, extensive evaporite beds are associated with sedimentary rocks, and its deposits often occur in strata from the early Permian Age (from 300 to 250 million years ago). These deposits are in lake and sea water, but also hot springs (from volcanic vapors and sulfate solutions found in veins). Hydrothermal anhydrite (also in veins) is commonly hydrated to gypsum by groundwater (in near surface exposures) and often associated with the minerals halite and sulfur. The presence of gypsum throughout the monument is an oddity because, as a water-soluble substance, it is so rarely found as sand. The reason for this happening is rain would dissolve the mineral. Since the Tularosa Basin has no outlet to the sea, dissolved gypsum from the surrounding mountains is trapped within the basin. Either the rain sinks into the ground or forms shallow pools that subsequently dry out. This leaves surface gypsum in a crystalline form called selenite. Gypsum can be granular or very compact. It can also be transparent-to-opaque. Gypsum forms some of the largest crystals found in nature (called "selenite"). Indeed, if left alone for thousands of years, crystals can grow into huge translucent specimens more than 30 feet tall, such as these in the Cave of Crystals in Naica, Chihuahua, Mexico.

Bonus Details
How did the area get so much gypsum? During the last great ice age, which represents the Pleistocene (110,000 to 10,000 years ago), Lake Otero covered much of the Tularosa Basin. When it dried out, it left an extensive exposed flat area of selenite crystals now called Alkali Flat. Yet another lake, Lucero, at the southwest corner of the monument became a dry lake bed at the lowest points of the basin. Occasionally it fills with water here at Alkali Flat and along Lake Lucero's shoreline. Otherwise, the ground is covered with selenite crystals that can reach lengths of up to 3 feet. Weathering and natural erosion eventually break the crystals into sand-size grains which are in turn carried away by prevailing winds from the southwest. Erosion therefore creates the impressive white sand dunes. Naturally, the dunes tend to move with the shifting winds, slowly reaching downwind. Some of the more hardy plant species covered by the shifting sands manage to grow quick enough to avoid being altogether buried by the dunes.

Exploring The Dunes
From the entrance, the Dunes Drive covers 8 miles into the monument. There are four well-marked trails to explore by foot. For the more vigorous visitors, the dunes can be used for downhill sledding. Because gypsum, unlike dunes made of quartz-based sand crystals, its mineral does not convert the sun's energy into heat. (Now you know the answer to the opening question about walking barefoot on the dunes.) Visitors can therefore feel comfortable walking the dunes in their bare feet regardless how hot the weather gets during the summer.

Cautionary Advice
Heads up! White Sands National Monument lies completely within the White Sands Missile Range. Both the monument and U. S. Route 70 (between Las Cruces and Alamogordo) are sometimes subject to closure for safety reasons when tests are conducted. The average is about two missile tests a week, and each lasts anywhere from one to two hours.

Thus visitors have ample warning about where they can go, as well as when they can go. . .

Where it is permissible to visit, there is plenty of stuff to see. . .what some might call the backbone of homeland missile defense security. . .

Of course, the missiles fly high overhead and there’s really no need to duck, though the noise and exhaust trails may be exciting to hear and see.

Those A-Bomb Folks From The 40s
I suggest reading a biography on Robert Oppenheimer, who played a key role inventing the atomic bomb; also, watch the movie Fat Man and Little Boy, which is a narrative about the science of the atomic bomb and where it was tested and later used in war. On December 21, 1965, the 51,500-acre (20,800 ha) area Trinity Site was declared a National Historic Landmark district and, on October 15, 1966, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site remains a popular destination for those interested in atomic tourism, though it is only open to the public twice a year during open houses, on the first Saturdays of April and October. (No worries; the fallout from radiation.)

On July 16, 1945, the 'gadget' was exploded at 05:29:21 (plus or minus 2 seconds) local time (Mountain War Time) with an energy equivalent to around 20 kilotons of TNT (84 TJ). It left a crater of radioactive glass in the desert 10 feet deep and 1,100 feet wide. At the time of detonation, the surrounding mountains were illuminated "brighter than daytime" for one to two seconds, and the heat was reported as "being as hot as an oven" at the base camp. The observed colors of the illumination ranged from purple to green and eventually to white. The roar of the shock wave took 40 seconds to reach the observers. The shock wave was felt over 100 miles away, and the mushroom cloud reached 7.5 miles in height. After the initial euphoria of witnessing the explosion had passed, test director Kenneth Bainbridge commented to Los Alamos director J. Robert Oppenheimer, "Now we are all sons of bitches." Oppenheimer later stated that, while watching the test, he was reminded of a line from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

At the time, the secret weapon was known only as "the gadget."

As seen from this historical archive photo, it was truly an epic and terrifying sight to behold. A blast 'bubble burst' 16 ms after detonation:

Then came the towering mushroom blast and cloud:

The only color photo of the first atomic bomb explosion:

Words can't quite describe what went on here in the late 1940s...but the blast officially inaugurates what Pink Floyd dubbed "Atom Birth Babies" (that's everyone of us since).

Of course, the recipients of the gadget were literally blasted in kingdom come, whose memorials today hopefully remind all of us the consequence of an atomic-nuclear war is nothing less than hell on Earth:

Lest we forget the ultimate and initial purpose for the gadget and what Oppenheimer's quote had wrought: the Hiroshima Memorial.

Nagasaki: "Ground Zero" memorial:

Besides the horror and haunting of this world-famous test site, there are reminders (actual displays and pictures) everywhere of what the embryonic atomic research and legacy looked like some sixty years ago (in its making). . .

The McDonald Ranch House where the plutonium "gadget" was assembled:

Visitor Center is located on Hwy. 70, 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo and 52 miles east of Las Cruces. From Carlsbad, follow Hwy. 82 through the Sacramento Mountains.

Contact Information
White Sands National Monument, P. O. Box 1086, Holloman AFB NM 88330. Phone (park information): 575-679.2599. No fax. Email embedded in NPS site’s URL (click on “Email Us”)

Parting shots:

Sand, mountains and clouds. . .

And so we come to the end of another trail, another armchair tour. There will be other scenic places to tour and more supplemental topics to read and think about, so stay tuned for a continuation in this series.

As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.

Happy Trails!