Dunes, Oryx and Rockets

On our way to see family in Texas, we decided to explore a little more of southern New Mexico. This time, the focus was on White Sands National Monument. We found comfortable and highly affordable lodging at nearby Holloman AFB.

The first morning we watched an excellent video at the WSNM Visitor's Center, then drove the Dunes Drive, stopping at the various pullouts and hiking the Nature Trail. The white sand reminded us of drifting show we had left behind in Colorado.

Trees overtaken by dunes on the Dunes Nature Trail

In the afternoon we took a tour of Lake Lucero. These guided tours are only offered one Saturday per month, traveling through adjacent White Sands Missile Range normally off limits to civilians. We were given instructions which included warnings not to pick up any metal debris. We liked seeing a sign for White Sands Space Harbor, the landing strip used by Columbia in 1982, as we caravanned to the trailhead with about two dozen other vehicles.

Other members of our tour group on Lake Lucero

We reached the dry lakebed after a short hike and found it glittering with gypsum crystals strewn all about. They crunched with a tinkle underfoot. The crystals continue to crumble, becoming "cornflakes" as they are blown across the Alkali Flat, eventually forming the largest gypsum sand dunes in the world.

Gypsum crystals glistening on the dry Lake Lucero lakebed

Along the trail we also spotted Oryx tracks and scat. The large African antelopes, also known as Gemsbok, were introduced as game animals in 1969. Their population needs to be kept in check because they have no predators in New Mexico and reproduce prolifically. The animals are found on the missile range, but are not supposed to be in the National Monument because they are not native and have a significant environmental impact. As our ranger guide told us, besides overgrazing the grasslands, the animals can easily dig down the 18 inches required to reach the water table, creating "Oryx Wells." The entire National Monument is fenced in to keep them out, but occasionally they get inside, not by jumping over the fence as you might expect, but by digging under it!

The first of several Oryx we would spot on the trip grazed along the roadside on our way out of WSMR. Within the missile range photos are prohibited, but we were lucky enough to see a small family group of Oryx along US Highway 70 at other times.

Oryx (aka Gemsbok) near White Sands Missile Range

Sunday we hiked the 5 mile Alkali Flats Trail across the heart of the dunes. The hikers and sledders thinned out quickly, and we found ourselves alone in this otherworldly area on a perfectly calm sunny day. In windy weather, hikers are advised to progress only if the next trail sign is visible. Earlier this month, a pair of hikers became lost and were rescued in a cooperative effort by the Park Service and Holloman AFB. Fortunately we had cell coverage virtually everywhere we hiked.

Dune Ripples

Dunes with San Andreas mountains on the horizon (Alkali Flats trail)

That night we returned to the dunes for sunset, which turned out to be quite a popular thing to do.

Evening light on the dunes

Monday we were the first visitors in the National Monument when it opened at 7am, and we took in the morning light twinkling on the dunes in the chilly 18 degree air. Solitary. Quiet. Awesome.

Morning dunes

We decided to spend the rest of the day to the west of National Monument, first visiting the interesting little White Sands Missile Range Museum, complete with a WWII era V-2 missile displayed in its own building adjacent to the rocket garden.

"Rocket Garden" at White Sands Missile Range Museum (Organ Mountains in background)

Mike with WWII-era V-2 missile

Next we took the pretty winding road up to the Aguirre Springs Campground in the Organ Mountains National Recreation Area.

We saved the 12 mile RT Baylor Pass trail for another time and instead hiked the 4.5 mile Pine Tree Trail Loop, where crumbly (no climbing allowed) spires loomed above.

A fair amount of ice and snow was still on the trail around the 6800' halfway point, where we enjoyed birdseye views down into the Tularosa Basin.

View of Tularosa Basin and White Sands Missile Range

By Tuesday we were ready to rest, so we slept in and only went out to visit the New Mexico Space History Museum and get BBQ at Can't Stop Smokin'. Both stops were well worth our time.

In case we got lost...
One final stop on our way out of town was to Sunspot, NM to visit the National Solar Observatory (NSO) at Sacramento Peak and the privately owned Apache Point Observatory.

As we drove along Highway 6563, a number which was deliberately chosen for its significance in solar astronomy, we passed fun Sunspot Solar Model System signs to scale for each planet's distance from the sun. New Mexico is doing a great job promoting education and tourism with its Space Trail campaign.

We did the self-guided walking tour of the NSO grounds, and we were able to go inside 2 of the domes. My favorite was the oldest and curiously named Grain Bin Dome. As told by the walking tour handout, it was built from a grain bin purchased from a Sears catalog and modified into a rotating structure to house a telescope. It would be worth returning to the NSO on a day when guided tours are offered and the visitor center is open.

Already in the works are plans for a return trip to WSNM during the full moon to hike, do photography, and attend a full moon concert on the dunes. Also of interest from the northern end of White Sands Missile Range would be a tour of the commercial spaceport, Spaceport America and a visit to the Trinity Site.

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