White Sands Missile Range was pretty high on Paul’s list of things to see on this trip and White Sands National Monument was pretty high on mine. We knocked both off the list in one day!
We had yet to escape the freezing weather, so once again we stayed in a frozen campground, this time in Las Cruces, and after defrosting a bit in a hot shower, we headed over the hill to White Sands Missile Range. This is an active military base, and they close Highway 70 once or twice a week due to testing. So rather than driving in, we took the easier option of parking outside the gates and then walking through security to the museum. This process probably would have been easier on the base security guys if they’d located it and it’s adjoining missile garden OUTSIDE the gates, instead of inside. It’s not like they don’t have the space, go and look at a map of the southwest sometime, it’s all government owned.
The museum is a history of the missile range, which includes photos of their bomb retrieval dogs, which is what it sounds like, two dogs with handlers that got sent out onto the range to sniff out bits of exploded ordinance, so the scientists (not the dogs) could study what happened. They sprayed the bombs before launch with shark liver oil, so the dogs could find them, which they did with a 96% retrieval rate. The museum also had lots of photos of other stuff, like Kennedy’s visit and lots of Cold War stuff, but for me the highpoint was the dogs.
The missile garden is exactly what it sounds like, it’s about an acre of land with a couple of planes, a flying saucer, (to mess with the locals?) and about 20 missiles of various sizes and deadliness pointed in various directions. There was also a road runner, but he ran off before I could get a decent picture.
We then drove towards Alamogordo, and got to White Sands National Monument just before sunset, and just before we ran out of gas. We ended up with perfect light for pictures, and of course to continue the theme of the first month of this trip, it was freezing cold. It was actually messing with my head, because the second unpaved half of the park road is just packed sand, and it’s white, so i was reading it as snow. When we got up onto the dunes, it turns out in a lot of places it was snow, just under a thin layer of white sand. It was definitely cold enough to snow. I regretted leaving my gloves in the car as soon as the sun set.
I highly recommend going to White Sands since as advertised, it’s really, really pretty. It’s not a huge park, and when we were there I think the cold kept people away, but at sunset you could look around and every tall dune had people on them watching the sunset. You can just walk wherever, since it’s just sand. The dog loves sand, so she had a good time as well. Be advised, there’s no camping in the park, so you need to head out after it gets dark.
On a side note, they actually landed a space shuttle just north of the park in 1982. (White Sands Space Harbor is now where they train astronauts how to land the shuttle with the training aircraft.) It was the third flight, and Columbia’s first, and they had to put a longer landing strip together pretty quickly since Edwards had flooded and they couldn’t land in Florida yet. The landing sounded like it was pretty hairy, the landing gear only came down when they hit 150 feet and about 5 seconds before touchdown, as well as the autopilot telling the shuttle to keep speeding up and slowing down on approach. Once again, I’m glad somebody else wants the job of astronaut, because it’s not a job i could do. We were talking to someone at the museum who’s husband works for NASA, and she said after the Columbia broke apart on re-entry in 2003 they found gypsum under some of the tiles they found. I can attest to the stickiness of that sand, I’m still finding it everywhere.