White Sands National Monument (and Missile Range)
FFFZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZTTTT! An F-15 screams overhead, followed by another. They rapidly climb, then nosedive, looping, banking, firing smoke bombs at each other in a mock dog-fight. We’re not watching some airshow. We’re in the middle of White Sands National Monument, which is in the middle of the White Sands Missile Range.
This mid-missile range location puts some unusual constraints on the park. It’s only open from a little after sunrise to a little after sunset (currently 7am to 6pm). It — and the road between Alamogordo and Las Cruces — is subject to random closures for missile testing for hours at a time. Over the three days we spent in the park, we never experienced a closure, but jets and other planes were always tearing overhead. It’s good that they’re able to make the shared use work, rather than closing this beautiful place to the public, but there’s nothing like an F-15 flyover to bring you back to earth.
We were both captivated by White Sands — we had planned on going only once but ended up there three days in a row, and we’d like to go back again today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after. It’s a constantly shifting, changing place and it’s always different: the time of day, the direction the wind’s blowing, the weather, your mood, all impact that day’s experience.
The sand is made completely of gypsum, which lines an adjacent dry lake bed. When it rains, the gypsum dissolves in the water, then crystallizes, then is blown into the dunes when the water evaporates. It’s amazing how much sand there is (275 square miles!), given the infrequency of rain here. But there’s nowhere else for the gypsum to go, and it’s been doing this long enough that certain mice and lizards have evolved white colorations.
As much as we love it here, the lack of established camping makes a long stay somewhat difficult. We camped at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, which was fantastic, but the 50 mile round trip drive starts to add up. Time to move on.