Two of the most relaxing feelings in the world, in my humble opinion, are lush green grass, or soft granules of sand, under my feet. There is just something visceral about these natural, multi-component elements making the connection between the foundation of my body and the ground. Perhaps because neither are solid, I feel like I am connected, yet not bound. Whatever the reason, I was drawn to White Sands National Park just as I was to the two previous sand dune visits on this trip (links to posts on Indiana Dunes National Park and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore). But what makes White Sands different from these other dunes? In a nutshell- gypsum.
As I rode along US-70 through the Tularosa Basin of the Chihuahuan Desert, I passed by numerous missile ranges nestled between the San Andres Mountains to the west and the Sacramento Mountains to the east. This basin is home to White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), an area managed by the US Army that “supports essential defense and space exploration programs for all branches of the military services and NASA, as well as other forms of scientific research.” It’s storied history includes being “one of the key locations of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb during World War II. The testing of the first atomic bomb took place in 1945 at the Trinity site on WSMR, 65 miles north of White Sands National Monument. (NPS website)
Once I passed the various missile ranges, it didn’t take long for the brilliant white sands of the National Park to start coming into view. I stopped in at the Visitors Center to watch the introductory video to help orient me and to learn how the dunes were formed. Millions of years ago, the southwest US was covered with an ancient sea. As the last ice age ended, around 11,000 years ago, rain and snowmelt carried dissolved gypsum from the surrounding mountains into the basin. As the climate became warmer and drier, the water disappeared under the sun and wind and, over time, left gypsum sand in its place. Continued mountain runoff, and deep water within the basin, periodically brings dissolved gypsum to the surface, continuing the process of creating sand dunes.
Gypsum isn’t just pretty to look at though, it is a main ingredient of plaster, chalk, drywall, alabaster, and even fertilizer (wikipedia). According to the NPS, multiple commercial interests attempted to mine these gypsum dunes in the early 1900s, but due to the low market value of unprocessed gypsum sand at the time, those attempts were unsuccessful. Fortunately, in 1933, White Sands became a National Monument, and finally progressed to National Park status as late as 2019, becoming the 62nd designated National Park in the NPS system.
As the storm clouds gathered in the distance, I hopped back on my bike at the visitors center to begin the 16-mile round trip Dunes Drive.
The further I went along Dune Drive, the thicker the layer of sand got on the paved road. The sand was so well-packed however, it didn’t feel precarious beneath my tires. About 5 miles into the ride though, I spied a sign alerting me to the fact that the pavement was about to end. Dammit! I really wanted to ride to the end of the road so I could see the towering, pristine gypsum dunes where folks go to sled down. So, I found a stable patch of sand, parked the bike, and took off walking down the road to the next pull-out (about a quarter mile away) to see if the road was drivable on two-wheels. I had only gotten a short distance when a truck passing by stopped to see if I needed help. When I told him what I was doing, he assured me that it was passable on two-wheels- he had just done it on his bicycle. I thanked him for the information and headed back towards my bike. My Harley is much heavier than a bicycle, but I had come all this way; I might as well take the risk. I figured that if I start fishtailing in soft sand, I’d just take it slow and turn around. The sand turned out to be a bit thick and loose in some areas, but overall, I was able to ride slow enough to make it to the loop at the end of the road, and back.
Sharing a boundary with the 275-mile square mile White Sands National Park is Holloman Air Force Base- which has awesome lodging for transient retirees like me! The room was spacious and quiet, and the views of the surrounding mountains were amazing at sunset.
There was so much more to see in the area, like Space Murals Museum, Organ Mountains Desert Peak National Monument, White Sands Missile Range Museum, Trinity Site, and a bunch of great hiking trails in and around the National Park. Unfortunately, my time was limited for this visit, but I will definitely be back to explore this area in the future!