Travel Review Of Southern New Mexico: Alamogordo & White Sands National Park
YES, White Sands is a National PARK now! (No longer just a National Monument.) The change happened early 2020, and made a lot of people very happy, as it's well deserved. The white of White Sands is truly unforgettable and one of the prettiest dunes we have yet to see. The texture of the sand was unlike anything else and the witch in me couldn't help but obsess over the fact that it is created from selenite crystals.
We entered New Mexico the end of January after spending 3 months in Texas. We came in from the south, passing through El Paso, which unfortunately was one of the dirtiest cities we have ever seen in our entire lives. There was trash on the side of the road everywhere, and dirt mounds all throughout. We noticed heavy military activity in the area and a lot of dust, sand, and dirt as we made our way through southern New Mexico up to Alamogordo.
Alamogordo is one of the largest and closest towns to White Sands National Park, and has the most abundance of campgrounds and places to stay while you explore the surrounding area (which still isn't that many). The town itself is around 30,000 people and borders the Holloman Air Force Base. I wouldn't consider it all that lively, or all that built up, and it was lacking trees, grass, and scenery, but regardless of how I describe it - it was still one of those places that grew on me a little bit by the time I left.
Where we stayed
Originally, we were planning to stay at a State Park, Oliver Lee Memorial, just south of Alamogordo, as it was highly raved and talked about in a lot of our RV groups. The only thing with the park is that it is set up as first come first serve, has limited spots for larger rigs, and only has a small handful of sites with electricity, something we greatly required in January as it was quite cold in New Mexico.
After one of our longest and most stressful days of travel to date, going over 400 miles from Big Bend National Park up through El Paso and on towards Alamogordo, we were a bit on the crabby side of things. We had also gone through a dirt/wind storm, an actual storm and encountered a lot of traffic and garbage in El Paso. Needless to say we were ready to set up and rest, but when we got to Oliver Lee there were no spots left that would fit us or that had electricity and the winds were howling with cooler temps. It would have been a really awesome place to stay, at the base of the Lincoln National Forest and Sacramento Mountains, but unfortunately it was just not going to work out for us.
Last minute, we called around the very few parks in Alamogordo and found a discounted site left at the KOA in town. It wasn't a bad place to end up at and had laundry facilities available to us, but it was over double the nightly rate that Oliver Lee would have been.
Things to do
Alamogordo is limited in its resources, restaurants and 'things to do', with some portions of the town a bit more run down than others. We went to happy hour one day at a local Chili's, one of only a handful of restaurants in town. But other than that we didn't find a ton of things to keep us occupied until the bartender at Chili's told us about a historic pistachio...
World's largest pistachio
A completely random thing that Alamogordo is known for is the world's largest pistachio... statue! McGinn's PistachioLand is a combination of a humongous gift shop, pistachio farm, pistachio tours, and the world's largest pistachio statue. This is one of those random insights from a local that I am glad we took them up on as it was super entertaining to walk around the store and look at all the different things pistachio themed that they made, sold, and offered. Thankfully, they also had samples of all their different flavors of pistachio and even some of their pistachio based salsas and chocolates! Dill pickle pistachios and bourbon chocolate were some of my favorites that I tried, but of course I also had some pistachio ice cream too. They even had pistachio wine for sale!
What once was only a National Monument became an actual National Park in January! Like an absolute mirage of dazzling white crystals, the sand dunes of White Sands park shimmer in the Tularosa Basin in southern New Mexico. Covering about 275 square miles - making them the largest gypsum dunefield in the world, the sands shift and settle over the Chihuahuan Desert. More than half of this entire oasis is preserved in the park, including it's shallow water supply and the plants and animals living here.
You can also check out my YouTube video of exploring White Sands park, found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1e4DyzMVo8
The first people to arrive to the Tularosa Basin came after the last ice age ended 11,000 years ago. The Jornada Mogollon were the first people to farm the area and continued to live here until drought forced them out in the 1300s. While they were hear they made a lot of distinctive rock art that suggested much earlier hunting of mammoths. In the 1600s, American Indians returned to the area and in the 1800s the European Americans came too. Soon after all of that, the railroads were put up and along with them came loads of settlers.
Millions of years ago the Permian Sea retreated and left behind a deep layer of gypsum, which continued to rise higher and higher as the mountains around it rose too. Years later, water from the melting glaciers dissolved the minerals and returned them back to the basin below the mountains. This process still continues to take place today only with rain and snow. Wind and sun separate the water from the gypsum and form selenite crystals throughout the basin. From there the wind and the water break those crystals down into smaller and smaller pieces until they are grains of sand. Southwest winds move the gypsum sand piles and push it up into dunes of various shapes and sizes.
Water that is held inches below the surface of the dunefield is the glue that holds it all together. These gypsum sand dunes are some of the most moist ones in existence, especially throughout droughts. And it is also some of the coldest sand around! In comparison to the several other dunefields we have explored in the west, this sand is by far the whitest, the shiniest, the thickest, and the coldest!
Plants & wildlife
Animals and plants alike in the park have learned how to adapt to the climate by growing fast, changing colors, only going out at night, growing tall, and hanging on. Common animals include bleached earless lizards, Apache pocket mice, and kit foxes. Sand verbena are one of the plants that survive here because it's flowers disperse its seeds during growing season. Soaptree Yuccas grow long stems to keep new leaves above the sand dunes as they blow over them. And a few shrubs such as skunkbush sumac grow really dense and deep roots that help hold them in place as the dunes move.
Plan your visit
We spent about 2 hours, maybe a little less, exploring most all of the park. In comparison to many other National Parks this is one of the smallest we have ever been to and it does not take much more than a half day to take in all that it has to offer.
White sands is located off US 70, just about 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo and about 55 miles east of Las Cruces. There are some exhibits and movies at the visitor center, but to be honest we did not even go inside. You can also buy sleds from the gift shop to use on the dunes, but luckily our RV park had them available to borrow for free.
The best way to travel through the park is to follow Dunes Drive into the heart of it all, where the roads look like they are covered in snow and often have to be plowed away to clear the shifting dunes. There are plenty of off road stops along the way where you can explore, go on several boardwalks and "hikes" and even picnic areas to stop and have your lunch. Dunes Drive ends up forming a loop at the end so you are able to access all parts of the park if you continue on it.
While we were there we went sledding down the dunes, gawked at the nearby mountains surrounding us on two sides, walked the Interdune Boardwalk, and checked out the Dune Life Nature Trail, that was only about 1 mile long roundtrip.
Missile testing & military forts/bases
During World War II, the US Military started testing weapons in the dunefield beyond the park. The first atomic bomb was detonated at Trinity Site in 1945, about 100 miles north of the area. Present day, the road to the park on US 70 will oftentimes be closed to the public for safety while the White Sands Missile Range that surrounds the monument is used for range tests. Typically they close in the morning hours, for only a short time, and they post all their closure dates on their website. We could often hear the missile testing from our RV park in Alamogordo and the first time it went off it definitely scared us and made us think something else might be going on.
I was also surprised to see how many military forts and bases were in the area, all the way up from El Paso, TX to this area. We had to have seen at least 5 different ones, so they seem to use the desert like flat landscapes for their benefit. Overall it just was a weird vibe to me and not something I particularly jived with, but it is much of a normal part of life for those that have grown up in this area.
If we had more time...
This area isn't necessarily a place that we would want to spend more than a week exploring, but there are still a few things left that we could have checked out if we had more time in the area. Specifically, there were 2 breweries that we would have wanted to check out, with one of them being IN the Sacramento Mountains, and another at the base. Cloudcroft Brewing Company's slogan is "Beer tastes better in the mountains", and I can't help but believe them on that one. There was also a newer brewery company called 575 Brewing Company that the bartender at Chili's also told us about, but I wasn't able to find a website or too much information on that one.
Alamogordo is one of those places where if I come back through it I likely wouldn't stay for long, but I would still openly check out a few new things. However if I did not make it back to this area for the foreseeable future I also would not be that disappointed. I don't mean this in a negative way, but when you are touring the country there are always going to be places that far exceed others! #FactsOfLife
Don't forget to check out my YouTube of White Sands National Park, found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1e4DyzMVo8
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