This was a natural stopping point to split our two day drive west from Carlsbad to Silver City and the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The white sands are actually pure gypsum, the same stuff drywall is made from. It’s not stark white like drywall but a very light tan, the same color new house interiors are painted.
The surrounding mountains have extensive gypsum deposits the resulted from sulphur dioxide emissions interacting with limestone millions of years ago. Rain dissolves the gypsum and the rain water is trapped in this large basin. As the water evaporates gypsum precipitates out in the form of large crystals, some two or three feet high. These are soft and weak and are easily broken up by the strong winds. As the wind blows the crystals are broken into smaller and smaller pieces until they are the size of very fine sand. (See, I paid attention at the visitor center movie). The few handfuls I picked up were extremely uniform, every grain identical, quite different from regular beach sand.
The drive over from Carlsbad was nice, rising from 3000′ to 8650′ at Cloudcroft, NM, and back down to 4000′ at Alamogordo. We first got a glimpse of the white sands coming down from the mountains. After nothing but desert brown for days the white band of sand really stood out.
We met up with Jim and Renee at our hotel and got lunch then traveled about 20 miles to White Sands National Monument. It’s not a national park so my expectations of grandeur were modest but even so I was a bit disappointed driving in. It looks just like the scrubby rolling dunes in the Florida panhandle. The visitor center is right off the highway and you drive into the dunes eight miles with interpretative signs and picnic spots along the way.
The further in we got the more grand the scenery became. The dune field is 27 square miles which means it stretches as far as you can see. This is one of those places that looks like the surface of another planet, just rolling featureless dunes all exactly the same color with not a bush or a tree to provide any contrast. Really beautiful in a weird sort of way.
The dunes aren’t very high, maybe 50′, but the view from the top of one was quite different from down on the road.
Sue and Renee about half way up:
Even the picnic tables were weird looking.
We returned to Alamogordo to sample the #1 rated dining spot in town, Caliche’s Frozen Custard. Very good.
When we could work up a modicum of hunger after the ice cream we sampled the #2 dining spot, Stella Vita.
This was unexpectedly fine dining with excellent food and attentive service. The prices weren’t too bad either.
The next morning we left for Silver City, NM, a staging point for going into the Gila Wilderness to see the Cliff dwellings. About 40 miles into the trip we came upon the Army’s White Sands Missle Test facility. The sign advertised a museum so we figured they would let us in. They did let us in but made us park the car and trailer outside the gate and walk in since we had no Army affiliation, my Army Aviation baseball hat not withstanding.
This is the place the Army, Air Force and Navy have been testing missiles ever since the German scientists came here after WWII.
They displayed a V2 which was impressively large and modern looking for a WWII rocket.
Germany shot 2,000 of these at London and Antwerp. It was so advanced it was the basis of US rocket exploration for several years.
Here’s the rocket park with everything from 50s technology to a modern missile battery deployed today.
And this is an example of the Nike missile, deployed outside of Marine City in the 60s to protect Detroit from a Russian missile attack.