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White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument

The name of the White Sands National Monument is well chosen. The sparkling white grains of gypsum that cover the whole area gives off an eerie glow as the wind brushes over them. But there is much more that is inviting about this natural wonder in New Mexico.

Located in the Tularosa Basin, it offers one of the most unusual environments for lovers of U.S. national parks. Technically, White Sands is a National Monument, a ‘step below’ the National Park designation. But the difference is only bureaucratic. The area itself is the equal of many, such as Joshua Tree, that already has that honor.

One of the most notable aspects of the region is that it has served as a missile testing ground for decades. In fact, it continues to be used for that purpose. Visitors should check for any announcements at http://www.nps.gov/archive/whsa/home.htm for any restrictions on the use of certain areas.

That’s rare, though, and the road called Dunes Drive is one of the most heavily trafficked routes. Through this winding desert road, visitors will find a natural wonderland of sights.

At the White Sands Visitors Center near the start, tourists can visit the museum and learn all about the monument. Along with lectures on astronomy, a popular activity thanks to the clear night skies, there is information on local plant and animal life.

The area west of Alamogordo includes the famed Trinity site, the location of the test for the first atomic bomb, which exploded in July 1945.

Covering 100 miles by 40 miles, one can see forever in every direction. At the center is a simple stone monument noting the event that changed the world forever. Just east is Holloman Air Force Base and only a few miles north of the area is one of the sites used to land the space shuttle. With good planning, visitors can watch a landing.

In Alamogordo itself, tourists can enjoy the International Space Hall of Fame and the IMAX Space Theater.

But if the desert landscape is more your style, you can easily enjoy a lot of it. The white dunes of White Sands National Monument cover over 275 square miles, 60 miles south of Alamogordo. Because of the winds, which vary from gentle to vigorous, any footprints are often quickly erased. It’s easy to walk across the dunes and imagine you are the first person ever to have been here.

At sunset, the red glow turns the dunes into an enormous natural work of art. Look closely and you’ll see that canvas cut with tiny tracks from some of the many lizards who make the area their home. At night, set up the telescope and you’ll enjoy some of the clearest star-filled skies anywhere in the southwest.

Camping is allowed, but there are no facilities. Enjoy the Big Dune Trail and the Interdune Boardwalk, which have signs posted with information. For camping facilities, drive five miles further east on US 82 to Lincoln National Forest. There is also a Holiday Inn Express Hotel in Alamogordo that offers plenty of rooms.

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