Thursday, October 31, 2013

White Sands National Monument and Missile Range

Essay by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
Honestly, I thought we had one of our most impressive visits when we toured Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (which is the subject of another essay of mine). It was as if one experience was trying to upstage and outshine the other. The drive from Elephant Butte, where we were staying in our fifth wheel at the Cozy Cove RV Park, is 153 miles (just over 2 hours), and we had no idea what we would be seeing.

There is a Visitor’s Center at the entrance to the paved road (the Dunes Drive) that leads about 2 miles north to the start of the sands.

As you enter, you cross the edge of the dunes which is just a few feet high and support some plant life—several species of grass, yucca, and saltbush. Further into the monument there is little or no vegetation—just an unbroken white landscape.

As you begin the drive into the monument, you will notice that the road is paved, although blowing sand often covers the surface. Toward the center of the monument, however, the surface of the road is simply compacted gypsum, and the road becomes just a series of large cleared areas. This is important simply because the roads then can be adapted to changes in dune positions. The sands move up to 20 feet per year—growing, cresting, then slumping, but always advancing.

Driven by strong southwest winds, the sand covers everything in its path.

During the summer in the center of the dunes, everything is white, dazzingly bright, intensely hot, and capped on most days by a clear blue sky. Our visit duplicated this description without the intense heat.

The White Sands National Monument (WSNM) is considered one of the world’s great natural wonders. The wave-like dunes of pure gypsum sand move across 275 square miles of desert and, thus, create the world’s largest gypsum dune field. It is truly a sight to behold! The National Monument includes only about half of the sand in the entire dune field.

Within the dune area there are a couple of sites where shelters and picnic tables allow places to have your lunch. Because we always pack a lunch before traveling, we ate it in one of these areas—especially valuable because of the shade.

Despite its harsh climate and surroundings, the dunes "support a limited range of wildlife., some of which has evolved white coloration to match the surroundings, and exist as species unique to this region, such as the white sands wood rat, the Apache pocket mouse, the white sands prairie lizard and the bleached earless lizard. The most prominent plant, in the dunes," this website continues, "is the soaptree yucca, a species with numerous thin narrow leaves and an extensive root system that can stabilize a mound of sand and remain in place after wind causes the surrounding dune to move away."

What you may not be aware of is a vast area of desert and mountain ranges 100 by 40 miles in size directly to the west of Alamogordo. This area is closed to public access because it is used by the military for various kinds of weapons testing. There are warning signs as you approach the gate to the military base, and, as a visitor, you are not allowed to drive in without a thorough and complete search of your vehicle and, after showing your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, obtaining a vehicle pass.

We were told at the gate that if we just wanted to visit the military museum, we could park in the visitor parking area prior to going through the gate and, thus, avoid the search, and still be close to the museum, located just inside the gate. That is precisely what we did by going through the gate, making a U-turn at the traffic light, coming back through the gate and entering the parking area.

It was at this military base—at the Trinity Site—where the first atomic bomb was detonated in July, 1945.

If you followed the information at the White Sands National Monument website , you would think that you could not visit the base except on two days each year: "the first Saturdays of April and October, when accompanied tours are provided." That is not entirely true.

The military base has a museum, as noted, which is interesting and worth a visit. The feature, however, that intrigued us the most was "Missile Park," where there are displays of the 61 (too many to list here) rockets and missiles tested at the site. You simply walk a winding concrete sidewalk that takes you to each clearly labeled display. Those that I remember included the Hawk, Nike (whether it was the Ajax, Hercules, or Zeus, I don’t remember), Patriot, Pershing I and II, Redstone, and Sidewinder.

One of the most striking images in the Missile Park is the Aeroshell Flying Saucer. You can see a picture of the Saucer at the flickr White Sands Missile Base Museum website . This was the object seen over Roswell and probably gave rise to all the "flying saucer" rumors. The real purpose of the Aeroshell was to test a method of landing a missile on the planet Mars.

As we entered the gate, the guard informed us that pictures could be taken at "Missile Park," but only under the condition that the camera is pointed toward the mountains and not down into the valley below the park. The valley is where active missile silos are located.

At the White Sands Missile Base Museum website , it says this about the Missile Base: "It is the largest military installation in the United States. This strip of New Mexico desert has been in use since the 40s to test practically every weapon system in the U.S. military arsenal. Pioneering research in rocket technology shortly after World War II at WSMR [White Sands Missile Range] helped propel the U.S. into space. Because of this, WSMR is sometimes known as the ‘Birthplace of the Race to Space.’"

If you haven’t gained the feeling, let me be specific: This area of the country, between the White Sands National Monument and the White Sands Missile Range Museum, is an incredibly important region, and a visit to this area will certainly convince you—especially if you head in this direction with no knowledge of what to expect, as I did—why I was so impressed.

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There is a lot of information at the White Sands Missile Range website , including a brief history and an explanation as to why it is considered the birthplace of the race to space.

At tripadvisor, "White Sands National Monument," , there are reviews of the Monument by people who have visited. Their reviews are outstanding.

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Copyright October, 2013, by And Then Some Publishing LLC

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