White Sands National Monument: One of The World's Great Natural Wonders
It's July 16th 1945, Soviet troops have already captured Berlin and it seems like an end is in sight for WWII. United States troops have completed the capture of Okinawa, which provided a secure base for the final assault on Japan. However, this day plays a particularly significant role, because it's the day that the world's first atomic bomb is successfully tested. In the middle of the White Sands Missile Range, at nearly the dead center of New Mexico, it detonated "The Gadget", a 13 pound plutonium bomb... and the rest is history.
It's been 70 years since the world witnessed the atrocities that occurred during WWII, but they were suddenly being relived in my mind as I drove down the desolate stretch of US 70 towards Alamogordo, New Mexico. It's here were not only history was made, but were one of the world's great natural wonders remains. As I got closer I saw patches of bright white, which at fist I thought was a mirage but as I got closer those patches began to grow. White Sands National Monument... the sign read, it was at that moment that I turned into a giddy child. The unbroken white landscape was unlike anything that I had ever seen.
As soon as I made my way into the park, I immediately wanted to kick off my shoes and walk, run... roll in the sand! Who am I kidding... I parked, got out of my car and casually strolled up and down the dunes, snapping away on my camera. However, I was acting like a giddy child in my mind.
White Sands National Monument is truly a surreal environment, sitting in-between two mountain ranges is 275 square miles of white sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals as far as the eye can see. It's the largest gypsum dune field in the world! It became a national monument on January of 1933 by order of President Herbert Hoover.
Efforts to preserve this area's brilliant gypsum dunes had begun as early as the late 1800's, but it was the enthusiasm of a man named Tom Charles that finally led to the park's creation. In his words: "Gypsum may be divided into two classes - Commercial and Inspirational. The former everybody has, but as for recreational gypsum, we have it all. No place else in the world do you find these alabaster dunes with the beauty and splendor of the Great White Sands."
It was a long and drawn out battle for Tom Charles to see his dream of making the dunes a national monument a reality, but it was eventually realized. He even held the first post of Custodian for White Sands with a salary of $1 per year until money was available for full-time National Park Service employees.
Throughout years of perseverance and dedication, Charles and his supporters never lost their focus. A statue of Tom and Bula Charles stands in Founders Park in Alamogordo. These kindred spirits are now immortalized, reminding us all that dreams are reachable through hard work and diligence. Because of Tom Charles, the White Sands Monument is a natural wonder that the whole world can enjoy.
THINGS TO DO IN WHITE SANDS:
There are no organized campgrounds within the monument, but backcountry camping is available. Campsite are located about one mile from the scenic drive. The trailhead to this campsite is located 6 miles from the visitor center. The campsites are primitive with no water or toilet facilities. No ground fires are permitted, and visitors must pack out all trash and biological waste.
A limited number of permits are required for backcountry use, and can be obtained on a first-come, first-served (no reservations) basis for $3 per person at the visitor center. During testing at White Sands Missle Range the backcountry is closed and no permits are issued. Since missile tests are subject to change, please call the park or check online the day before you plan to use the campsite to verify that the site will be available that night.
Visitors can roam freely over any area within the park, but should avoid walking on the crypobiotic crusts of the inter-dune areas. Entering the White Sands Missle Range is not allowed either, so be aware of your location. Marked trails include:
- Playa Trail (0.2 mile / 0.3 km round-trip). A very short trail to a dried lakebed.
- Big Dune Trail (1 mile / 1.6 km round-trip). A self-guided nature trail.
- Interdune Boardwalk (0.4 mile / 0.6 km round-trip). A wheelchair-accessible nature trail.
- Alkali Flat Trail (4.5 mile / 7.2 km round-trip). A backcountry trail through the heart of the dunes. This trail is marked by posts with orange tape on them and may be difficult to follow for inexperienced hikers.
There are also monthly ranger-led hikes to Lake Lucero (located in the Missle Range). The cost is $3 per person, and the round-trip takes three hours. Reservations are required and can be made by calling +1 505 479-6124 or 679-2599. The tour schedule is posted online, and is also available from the visitor center.
Most of the dunes toward the end of the Loop Drive are tall and steep enough to provide a good sled ride. Sleds and wax are available for purchase at the gift shop located behind the Visitor Center.
During the summer and early Fall, the park service has Friday Night Star Talks on most Fridays.
Dune photography is best in the morning and evening when the sun is low on the horizon, producing interesting shadows on the dunes (golden hour).
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About The Author
In 2015, Founder of TMDE Paul Martinez left a career in sales for a life of exploring. In just a matter of months he had visited over 10 countries, 30 cities, 10 states, countless national parks, taken thousands of photographs, and did a ton of soul-searching. His search uncovered a deep passion for exploration; which he now believes to be the essence of the human spirit, and led to the birth of The Modern Day Explorer. You can follow him on his personal journey by visiting his Instagram, and hopefully continue to support TMDE by following us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.