Archive for Thursday, June 26, 2008

White Sands something to marvel

June 26, 2008

Recently while touring in New Mexico, we stopped at the Sunspot National Solar Observatory, which is a unique and worthwhile experience. What is different is that tourists are allowed to roam around the area and actually see scientists at work. You can get a live look at the flames of the sun, which is truly an awesome view.

Since the observatory is on the top of a mountain, there were opportunities to see the surrounding territory. What we saw in the distance was just as amazing as the sun shots. Through the haze there was a huge simmering white area, which looked a bit like an ocean. Of course, being in New Mexico, we knew there was no ocean, however, what we were viewing for the first time was the White Sands National Monument.

No, I don't know why they call it a "monument" since it is actually a 275-square-mile national park. It is about 13 miles outside of Alamogordo, which is also an interesting drive through desert-like scenery.

The National Park Service provides excellent information at the site, which is the world's largest gypsum and sand dune field. There is a road through the shimmering white sands with a number of well-defined stops, which provide visitors with good information.

Somehow, the entire area seems surreal. You are driving into a world of white and it really made me feel that I was driving through a snow field. Yet, when we stepped out of the car, the temperature was very warm and there was no slipping on ice.

In fact, what appeared to be "winter-like" were the graded roads with mounds of white sand piled along the shoulder and young people who were sliding down the white, snow like, hills. It was truly like a winter wonderland without the cold and slipping.

The pure gypsum dunes quickly bring memories of the desert. As the winds are usually blowing, the dunes are continually changing. Maybe the area was best summed up in a statement on a Web site: "No place else in the world do you find these alabaster dunes with the beauty and splendor of the Great White Sands."

The white sand area is somewhat a freak of nature. Since there is no outlet to the sea, the Tularosa Basin maintains water in pools or underground. Over eons, the drying and eroding resulted in one of the most unique tourist attractions in the world.

Yes, there is life in this seething, changing white landscape. There are 44 species of mammals, 26 species of reptiles and six species of amphibians. In addition, nearly 100 types of insects inhabit the area. Most have adapted to the bleak, white landscape with lighter coloration. Most of the species are nocturnal and the desert comes alive at nightfall.

Since it's at a high altitude, the temperatures can vary greatly. In the winter, the mercury can drop to zero and, in the height of summer, soar to 95 degrees. Yes, it sometimes snows, however as would be expected in the desert, precipitation is scarce and it averages just eight inches a year.

The U.S. Army conducted exploration of the area and the sands were first discovered in the 1840s. Efforts to maintain the area started in the late 19th century, however, it didn't become a national monument until Jan. 18, 1933. According to local literature, the push to become a national monument was led by Tom Charles. He realized that the sands area had both commercial and inspirational value and was able to persuade Congress to take action.

In the 1930s, the nation was struggling with the Great Depression and the new park fit well into the public works programs of the era. WPA funds were used to hire workers to make improvements in the area.

The national monument is near White Sands Missile Base and the surrounding roads can be shut down for testing. In addition, the space shuttle can land at the base.

Visitors are urged not to leave the paths and I can see why. It wouldn't take long for a person to become disoriented and lost in the windswept world of white.

The park has grown in popularity since it opened. That first year in the 1930s, 12,000 persons visited the park. Now, attendance averages more than 600,000. The cost is nominal and any visit should start at the tourist center. For those who are more adventuresome, special hiking and camping permits are available.

The White Sands National Monument is truly one of the marvels of the United States and is a worthwhile place to visit.

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