White Sands National Monument
and Missile Range

Alamogordo, NM

March 10, 2001

There is a terrific story just outside an otherwise unimpressive community in the middle of nowhere called Alamogordo. The story of the white sands of New Mexico started millions of years ago when a giant inland sea that covered this part of the planet, evaporated, leaving behind a layer of a form of calcium sulfate called gypsum. As time passed the earth suffered a great upheaval and a giant mound was pushed up. Later the center of the mound collapsed, forming the Tularosa Basin with the walls becoming what is now the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. One of the properties of gypsum is that it can exist in a crystal, a sand, or in a liquid state as dissolved in water. In relatively recent times, rain running down from the mountains, dissolved the gypsum, carrying it into the basin. As the basin has no outlet, water remains trapped in low areas. One such area is known as Lake Lucero. With no way out, the water eventually evaporates leaving the gypsum in a crystal form along the banks of the lake. Weather conditions soon begin to break up the crystals into small particles resembling sand. A relatively constant wind out of the Southwest picks up the granules and blows them northeast until they form the largest gypsum dune field on earth, covering some 275 square miles. A portion of this dune field is made up of the White Sands National Monument, with its entrance some 13 miles west of Alamogordo. This phenomena is something to see. As we drove along the only access road, a stretch of 8 miles or so into the middle of the field, the stark contrast between the dunes and the chaparral around them was reminiscent of a star wars movie set. We stopped at the first trail, which was about a mile in length across a section of the dunes which had more vegetation than many of the other locations. Although most plants cannot survive the rapid movement of the dunes and are subsequently destroyed as they are covered up, others like the soaptree yucca have adapted by growing faster then the movement of the sand, extending their leaves as much as a foot per year. Other plants can anchor part of the dune with their roots and continue to grow on a pedestal of sand after the dune moves on. The sand itself fooled me. I expected to sink deep into the ridges as if it were ocean sand. Not so. Not only did I stay on top; I was unable to embed a spiked walking stick sufficiently to allow it to stand by itself. Although completely dry, the density was unbelievable. Running around on it was fairly easy. Another remarkable quality was the purity of the sand, especially near the top of a dune where the wind deposited only the lightest of particles. Gypsum is white, the whitest that white can get. On a bright day you can get cooked both ways. As one of the great natural wonders of North America, I found the whole scene fantastic. We completed the mile walk and went on to other places, and other dunes where I climbed, photographed and wandered. As big as the area is, and without any controls over one's movement, getting lost could be a problem. Some kind of orientation should be considered if you intend to walk outside shouting range of the main traveling area. Although they are all quite beautiful and each one unique in shape, most dunes do look alike and getting turned around is easy.

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