Frolicking in the Sand and gazing at the Sun – Alamogordo

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White Sands National Monument

Other than missiles, rockets, and Holloman Air Force Base, Alamogordo, NM is also known for its gigantic sea of sparkling white gypsum.  The ever-changing dunes of brilliant and white gypsum sand engulf 275 sq miles of the White Sands National Monument.

White Sands National Monument

Gypsum dunes form here under a unique set of circumstances.  Rain and snow in the surrounding mountains dissolve the mineral gypsum from the rocks and carry it into the Tularosa Basin below.

San Andres Mountains

San Andres Mountains

Since there is no river to drain the basin, water containing the gypsum is trapped.  Then the water evaporates, leaving the gypsum behind in the form of selenite crystals.  The forces of nature – freezing and thawing, wetting and drying – eventually break the crystals down into sand-sized particles light enough to be moved by the wind.  Without wind there would be no dunes.  Since wind speeds of only 17 mph are needed to start the movement, we bet that the day after our visit when the wind storm with gusts of 40-50 mph must have moved a lot of dunes!

White Sands National Monument

Crescent shaped Barchan Dunes

Hiking along the 1.5 mile Dune Life Nature Trail, we were fascinated by the various animal footprints left behind.  Most of the animals are nocturnal because of the harsh daytime temperatures.  They are rarely seen during the day but their tracks from the previous night tell a story.  Within the extremely harsh environment of the dune field, plants and animals adapt to desert conditions – such as the Soaptree Yucca in the picture below, where two thirds of its body is now under the sand due to dune movement.

When you are surrounded by this glistening sand, you can’t help but feel like a kid.  I tried to “sled” down the dunes, can you tell I’m having so much fun!

From the sands on earth to the sun up in the skies we took a scenic drive to 9200′ via the Sunspot Solar System Model to the National Solar Observatory located in the Sacramento Mountains.  Dry air, with very little pollution and plenty of sunshine make the peak an excellent site for observing the sun.  The pretty drive began at “Neptune” in the town of Cloudcroft and ending up at the Sun, where the visitor center is located.

Since we didn’t call ahead, we were surprised when we found the visitor center closed on a Monday.  Fortunately, a walking tour map was available so we ventured on our own.  There are many gigantic telescopes housed in domes around the grounds.  The Evans Solar Facility houses the coronagraph and coelostat, which are mainly used to look at the corona around the sun – the faint outermost layer.

Sun Telescope

26-foot spar housed the coronagraph and coelostat

An impressive instrument we checked out was the Dunn Solar Telescope.  The tower above ground is 136′ tall, but there is another 228′ of the structure underground.  The kind of things on the Sun that scientists here are investigating are granulation, sunspots, solar flares and varying magnetic fields. If you look closely at the center monitor on the right image, you will note that the telescope is displaying a sunspot in real time. Cool, we saw the sun !

Just a few minutes from the Sunspot Solar Observatory was the privately-owned Apache Point Observatory.  There are four telescopes currently operated there, performing night-sky astronomical research.  If you are into research or are interested in the closest star to Earth, our Sun, a visit to the observatory is worthwhile.  If you are just curious travelers like us, then the scenic drive to Sacramento Peak makes it a good day!

From 9200′ we could admire a spectacular view of the Tularosa Basin with White Sands surrounded by the San Andres Mountains.

Tularosa Basin

Tularosa Basin with White Sands.  Betsy is parked somewhere down there!

Next up – the Lone Star State!

Of Space and Missiles – Alamogordo, NM

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New Mexico Hatch ChilesContinuing on our eastbound adventure, the first two stops in the “Land Of Enchantment”  (the moniker for New Mexico) led us to Las Cruces and Alamogordo. Right after the “Welcome to New Mexico” sign, we noticed several bright yellow warnings along the road advising of  high winds and the dust that comes with it.  And about that wind and dust?  Yes, we experienced it!  We were forced to cancel our upcoming stop at Carlsbad because of high wind warnings with gusts up to 60 mph, not at all recommended for large vehicles.  Bummer – we’ll have to visit the Carlsbad Caverns on our next trip through the area.

I-10

Before the winds and dust descended on Alamogordo, we managed to check out the area and some good attractions.

The White Sands Missile Range Museum reminded us of the momentous events of 1945 and how a bomb ended World War II.  The museum includes indoor and outdoor displays including “Missile Park”, which displays more than 50 rockets and missiles tested at the range.  The most significant relic is the V-2 rocket,  a captured German device which led to an array of experiments and paved the way for American manned space exploration.  Inside the museum are displays and exhibits tracing the origin of American missile and space activities and how the atomic age began.  There are also displays of the prehistoric cultures and the Old West found in southern New Mexico.

The museum is inside an Army Installation which is also used by the Navy and Air Force.  The White Sands Missile Range occupies 3200 sq. miles of southern New Mexico.  The range was established on July 9, 1945 to test emerging rocket technologies.  The missile range continues to test everything from the latest Department of Defense missiles to automobile hardware, satellite components and medical instruments.

The New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo is a great place to learn about  the origins of our nation’s space exploration program.  It also pays homage to men and women who have furthered humanity’s exploration of space.  The museum is tucked into the hills and was chosen to be the site of this museum due to the area’s involvement in the evolution of the space age.  We walked through five floors of displays and exhibits showing how New Mexico is the home to many space pioneers and developments that made space travel possible.

New Mexico Museum of Space History

New Mexico Museum of Space History

The Sonic Wind No 1 was used by Dr. John Paul Stapp, who rode the rocket sled to a speed of 632 miles per hour, then was decelerated at 30g’s.  Ouch!  The test was designed to measure human response to sudden deceleration.

Sonic Wind No 1

Sonic Wind No 1, the actual sled that Dr. Stapp rode

Another display is the Daisy Track which was another sled track used to study the human body’s tolerance to G-Forces.

The museum also houses a great IMAX/planetarium building.  We were in awe as we watched the IMAX movie detailing the Hubble Space Telescope’s legacy.  It also gave an amazing, inspiring look at the Milky Way galaxy and other images from the heart of the Orion Nebula, all the way to the edge of the observable universe.  Viewing it made us feel really, really small in this huge universe!

In Las Cruces we went into Mexican Food frenzy.  Steve’s former co-worker Will, who used to live in Las Cruces, urged us to try two Mexican restaurants while there.  We normally don’t eat mexican food two days in a row, but we had to try these highly recommended establishments.  Besides, it was my birthday!  What a fitting celebration, a Mexican Food orgy with lots of leftovers for future lunches.

La Posta is the original post (or station) that remained standing on the Butterfield Trail, and was eventually converted into a restaurant.  The food and service were five star – especially my Chile Margarita!

The other restaurant was a hole in the wall called Nellie’s Cafe.  This is really home cooked delicious mexican food!

Next up:  More cool things to do while in Alamogordo, NM.