Tag Archives: White Sands

White Sands

White Sands is not just a missile range but an amazing National Monument with some of the most unique sand dunes you’ll ever see.

White sand dunes extending into the distance

The 275 square miles (712 sq.kms. or 176,000 acres) of dunes at White Sands National Monument are the largest gypsum dunes in the world.  They are are not made of sand (silicon dioxide, Si02) but gypsum (hydrous calcium sulphate CaSO4•2H20).  Gypsum is the main ingredient in drywall (gypsum or plaster board) which is used to finish walls and ceilings.  Unlike sand, which tends to be brownish in colour (even the so called ‘white sand beaches’ are actually light brown), gypsum sand is pure white.

The top of a white motorhome seen above the white dunes in the distance

Gypsum is rarely found in a solid form as sand because it is water soluble and would normally wash away to the sea, but White Sands National Monument is located in the Tularosa Basin, a large depression in the New Mexico desert that 250-million years ago was at the bottom of shallow sea, and today is ringed with mountains, so no water courses drain it.  Crystals of gypsum (called selenite) up to 3 feet long form in beds at Alkali Flats along the shore of Lake Lucero.  The natural elements break these crystals down into small particles that migrate with the wind to form amazing dunes of soft white sand that feel look and feel like talcum powder.

Diane sitting at the top of a dune

Diane at the top of a dune

Since gypsum is water soluble, the sand that composes the dunes can dissolve and cement together forming a hard layer similar to drywall.  The road through the monument is made of gypsum and it’s like driving on a giant sheet of drywall.

Our white motorhome parked on a flat gypsum bed with white dunes in the distance

Parked on the gypsum

A great thing to do at White Sands is dune sledding.  Bring your own disc or purchase one at the visitor’s center, then head to the largest dunes.

Diane walking away across the white sand

Diane walking in the sand

Patrick in red shirt and hats and beige shorts sliding on a plastic disk down a white sand dune

Patrick sliding

Hiking up the sand dunes is a great workout, like extreme hiking.  With every step up you slide down one-half step. The soft footing requires all sorts of supporting muscles.

Diane walking up a white sand dune with a green plastic disc

Diane hiking a dune

After a couple of hours of hiking up and sliding down, I was exhausted

Patrick spread eagle on the sand

Diane seemed fine.  She couldn’t stop smiling and laughing, like a kid playing in the snow.

Diance cross-legged on her disc

Diane on her disc

At the close of the day, we still had enough energy to go on a sunset walk led by a ranger.  It was an informative and relaxing ending to a terrific day.

Sun setting over siloetted hills in the distance with a yucca flower int he foreground

White Sands Missile Range

With almost no concern for residual radiation, we approached the checkpoint guarding the entrance to the White Sands Missile Range.  We were directed toward a woodland of lethal sentinels rising from the desert.

Located in southern New Mexico along the Jornada del Muerto (‘route of the dead man’) Desert Basin, at 3200 square miles (8300 sq. kms) White Sands is the largest military installation in the United States.  Chosen because of its deserted but accessible location, clear skies, warm temperatures, and low vegetation, it was a bombing and gunnery range during World War II.

Dry desert with dry plats and not trees extending back to a mountain range in the background

Named ‘Route of the Dead Man’ by the Spanish because it was so dry

On July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated here at the Trinity Site (hence my ‘radiation’ comment). After victory was achieved in Europe, 300 railroad cars of superior confiscated German V-2 rocket components were delivered here, and White Sands became the place where America raced to develop and prove a wide range of missiles for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  White Sands is also used to launch and test technology for NASA and in 1982 the Space Shuttle Columbia landed here.

Many missiles, most standing, displayed in the desert

White Sands Missile Park

The White Sands Museum and Missile Park displays the family tree of American missilery.  Here you can view most of the deadly weapons systems whose given names we vaguely recognize from news reports (e.g. Patriot, Pershing, Lance, and Sidewinder).  Does the word ‘park’ in the name seem somewhat inappropriate for an arsenal?

Many missiles including one pointing upward on an angle in the foregorund

More missiles

Do you remember the SCUD missiles launched by Iraq into Israel and Saudi Arabia at the opening of the Persian Gulf War?  One of the many weapons systems on display here is the PATRIOT (‘Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept On Target’), one of America’s commonly used Surface to Air (‘SAM’) missiles.

Beige vehicle with missile launcher raised from the rear and tip of missile showing

Patriot Missile Launcher

PATRIOT is a ballistic missile defense system, an unproven military concept until the Gulf War, and is now widely used by America and its allies to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles.

Side of beige Patrior missile launcher with blank painted slogans "Scud Buster", If it Flies It Dies", and "First to Fire"

Scud Buster

The White Sand Museum and Missile Park is located off Highway 70 about 25 miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Admission is free but visitors must show identification to pass the military checkpoint.