On a weekend when we had not much to do, we decided to explore “locally” within the US.
We had researched the White Sands National Monument based on our friend, Bhavna’s experiences there, and it seemed interesting and worthwhile to go there.
So, one bright Saturday morning, we took a flight to El Paso, Texas, which was the closest airport to White Sands. El Paso is the 6th largest city in Texas, and is the only major city in Texas that is in Mountain Time Zone, the rest of Texas being in Central Time. El Paso and the whole area including White Sands are part of the northern end of the Chihuahua Desert, which extends into Chihuahua state in Mexico. EL Paso is home to Ft Bliss, one of the largest military complexes of the United States Army.
We rented a car in El Paso, and the first stop was brunch at El Taquito, a small Mexican hole in the wall place in a strip center by a lavenderia, near the El Paso airport. Their specialties were Flautas, and we had some of the best flautas we have ever had.
Driving north from El Paso to get to White Sands, we drove north along Hwy 54. Just a few miles north of El Paso, we crossed into New Mexico state; White Sands is 85 miles north of El Paso just outside Alamogordo, which is where we would be staying the night. B&B’s here were quite expensive, so we decided to stay at the Holiday Inn Alamogordo.
Hwy 54 was quite deserted, and being a desert area and windy, there was a lot of dust flying around. We passed Orogrande a small town that had seen better days; initially we thought it was deserted but then saw that there were people living there. This and several other gold mining towns in the area are mostly deserted ghost towns as the gold found here was not in as abundance as originally thought
Shortly after we passed Orogrande, we saw a huge area that was used by Fort Bliss, between the road and the distant Sacramento Mountains; a desert area. We did see the presence of military vehicles here so it was definitely in use.
The ride was flat with desert brush, so not very interesting; and we soon arrived at Alamogordo. After checking in at the hotel and dropping our stuff, we headed to White Sands National Monument, which was 13 miles south of Alamogordo on Hwy 70. We passed Hollman Air Force Base, and then arrived at White Sands Visitor Center. Went in and got educated on the geography, formation, wildlife etc of this place. The Visitor center was well worth stopping over at.
Turns out This National Monument is within the Tularosa Basin, that was used by the US govt after the Pearl Harbor bombing to set up a Bombing & Gunnery range, and for testing weapons, and is still in use by the US Govt. So the National Monument is completely surrounded by the Hollman AFB and the White Sand missile testing range; to the extent that the National Monument gets closed when missiles are being tested. And to boot, just 65 miles north, is the Trinity site, where the world’s first atom bomb was detonated as a test of the Manhattan Project.
White Sands is one of the world’s great natural wonders. Great wave-like dunes of pure white gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert, creating the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The gypsum from the surrounding San Andreas and Sacramento mountains get dissolved in rain and make its way down to this basin. The water evaporates leaving behind white Gypsum crystals which with wind forces, become worn down into fine white sand-like crystals. This then gets blown around by the desert winds to form large sand dunes. You can drive into this area and then hike around. See pics below of this beautiful landscape
Video showing the vastness and natural beauty of White Sands, surrounded by mountains
Main thing to do here is to hike and admire the beauty, though many families with small children were sledding down the dunes on round plastic snow saucers. Hiking on these gypsum dunes is not easy when climbing the dunes as you sink into the soft gypsum all the time, and this makes it harder to get your legs moving. Fortunately, the gypsum (unlike quartz sand) does not stick to you and stays cool to the skin even though it is very sunny and hot here in the Chihuahua desert.
When you hike here, you basically hike from one marker pole to the next parker pole, and keep going that way. When you get to a situation where you cannot see the next marker pole (because the dunes are constantly moving and cover up markers); then you go back the way you came, because it is very easy to get lost here in the dunes. We came across this very situation and backtracked as we could see how easy it was to get lost here.
After the nice hike and admiring the beauty here, we went for a guided walk in the desert at sundown, to understand about the flora and fauna here. The walk was guided by the Park Ranger and started at 6:30PM. We got educated here with some interesting facts
- There is water (lake) under the gypsum dunes, and at the bottom of the dunes, if you dig, you come across fresh water about 12-18 inches deep
- Even at the top of the dune, you can dig 6-12 inches and get wet gypsum, because gypsum wicks up the moisture from the lake below
- The vegetation seeds here can stay dormant for years and comes back to life easily under the right conditions
- Some of the vegetation here grows up to 6 inches in a day to keep from getting overtaken and buried by the shifting dunes
- There are multiple insects (beetles etc) and wildlife (mice, foxes) that live and survive here
Below are some scenes from the evening
We then drove back to Alamogordo to the hotel, freshened up, and went to find a decent restaurant. After some searching, we quickly realized that there are very few restaurants that are open past 9PM in this small town; and it was getting close to 9PM. Fortunately, we found a nice Asian restaurant (Asian Garden), which had a few patrons, and which closed at 9:30PM. So got our dinner here, and went to sleep. Not much action in Alamogordo.
Next morning, due to flight seat restrictions, we needed to be on a noon flight back to Dallas from El Paso, so we went for breakfast at Rizo’s which is a very nice Mexican family-run restaurant for Ranchero Huevo and Spanish omelet breakfast. We were the first patrons there at 9AM, so we had great service. The food took a little time to prepare since everything was made fresh here. Definitely worth a stop here.
After breakfast, we started driving back to El Paso on Hwy 54. Upon reaching El Paso, we discovered that the flight was delayed by about 1hr, so since we had a little time to kill, we decide to check out the scenic drive over El Paso, which is a drive into the Franklin mountains. This area turned out to be a lookout where you can see all of El Paso below you and across the Rio Grande, you see Juarez, Mexico. See image and video below
Vista views from Franklin Mountains, El Paso
Trivia 1: What is the difference between a National Monument and a National Park?
- National Monuments are decreed by a President, whereas National Parks can only be established by an Act of Congress
Trivia 2: What is the difference between a basin and a valley?
- A basin is where there is no place for water to drain away from, whereas valleys always have lower ground available for water to drain to.
Whites Sands National Monument is definitely worth visiting; and it only takes a 1-2 days to check it out. You can also camp here overnight if you desire.This entry was posted in USA, White Sands National Monument