The 275 square miles of pure white sand that comprise the White Sands National Monument are a unique spot. The mountains nearby are high in gypsum content, a mineral that is used in manufacturing many things including the drywall in your house. When it rains, the gypsum washes down the mountainsides and pools in shallow lakes that evaporate in the heat of summer. The gypsum crystals are softer than salt crystals and break down easily as the wind tosses them around. The farther they travel the finer they become. In the park they felt like face powder. On the edges of the park plants struggle to establish themselves and when they do they anchor the sand and the crumbing vegetation darkens the sand a bit. Yucca struggle to keep their fronds above the sand and if it doesn't pile up too quickly, they grow taller and taller stalks. If a big wind comes along and removes the sand, the stems collapse and the yucca die. Other plants create little hammocks with their roots holding the sand nearby while the rest of the dune blows away. Life in the desert is tough. When the sun shines on the white dunes, it sparkles like diamonds.
It is difficult for park personnel to keep any sort of road open with the blowing and shifting sands. They use heavy equipment that reminded us of the snow removal machinery we've left behind at home. They work to keep open a few parking lots and picnic areas dug out of the sand. A boardwalk allows even the disabled to take a foray onto the dunes. Horseback riding is also allowed in the park. People come to the park with saucer sleds and climb to the top of the dunes and sled down. Great fun!
The monument is within the much larger White Sands Missile Grounds. The first man-made atomic explosion occurred here in 1945. Occasionally the park and roads around it are closed when missiles are being tested. The resulting crater at the Trinity site is evidence of the beginning of the atomic age. The site is still quite radioactive and is only open to visitors twice a year. Today was not one of those days.