White Sands National Monument and Missile Museum

Lisa Fritscher July 7, 2011 No Comments

Goddard Rocket Atomic Age

Robert Goddard's 1914 rocket patents set the stage for the atomic age

Southern New Mexico is an interesting study in contrasts. Barely had the Old West died out, its outlaws and lawmen dead or too old to continue fighting, before the atomic age began. Although the atomic age officially started with the detonation of the first nuclear bombs in Japan during World War II, the groundwork was being laid as early as 1914 by future New Mexico resident Robert H. Goddard. That year he filed two patents, one for a multistage rocket and one for a liquid-fueled rocket.

New Mexico is filled with sweeping open land dotted by small towns and, today, a handful of big cities. It was and is a natural spot for testing unproven aircraft, spacecraft and weapons without endangering anyone. Today, vast swaths of New Mexico belong to the United States military, including the White Sands Missile Range, where the atomic bomb was initially tested before deployment to Japan.

Gypsum Dunes New Mexico

The gypsum dunes are breathtaking

Meanwhile, southern New Mexico holds another surprise. Giant sand dunes, created not from quartz but from gypsum crystals, are particularly rare because gypsum is water-soluble. In most cases, gypsum dust melts in the rain and is carried out to sea. But New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin is fully enclosed. High in the arid Chihuahuan Desert, the area receives little rain. What rain does fall it settles into the ground or collects in pools that quickly dry out, allowing the gypsum to remain. The gypsum dunes are contained within White Sands National Monument.

White Sands National Monument

Adobe Visitor Center New Mexico

The adobe visitor center dates to the 1930s

While spending a few days in nearby Alamogordo, Dad and I decided to visit both sections of White Sands. Dad was disappointed to learn that the Trinity Site, where the atomic bomb test occurred, is open to the public only two days per year, but was happy to learn about the Missile Museum. We began our trip at White Sands National Monument.

As of 2011, entrance to the park costs $3 per person. Children aged 15 and under are free. National Park Service passes are honored. Admission, valid for seven consecutive days, includes the Dunes Drive, sunset ranger program and most special events.

The historic adobe visitor center, which dates to the mid-1930s, was closed for renovations during our visit. A temporary visitor center was set up in a trailer, and the rangers went out of their way to be helpful, but we were not able to access the museum exhibits. Instead, we focused on the Dunes Drive, a sixteen-mile roundtrip through the dune field.

Sand Dune Sleds - Sand Discs

The sleds are also known as sand discs

You can buy or rent a sled at the gift shop if you would like to go sledding down the massive dunes. The sleds are round plastic discs, available in both child and adult sizes. Although it sounded like fun, the temperature was 108 F on the day of our visit. Dad and I decided to stay in the air-conditioned car, but we did see several people of all ages enjoying the sleds.

Only a portion of the Dunes Drive is paved. The unpaved trails are relatively rough, but safe for vehicles. Despite Dad’s initial misgivings, four wheel drive is not necessary. But the speed limit is low and, at times, you may want to drive considerably more slowly. In addition, you will probably want to stop and read historical markers, walk the boardwalk, or take photos. Plan to spend at least a couple of hours enjoying the dunes.

White Sands Missile Museum

Missile Launching Computers

Missiles could have been launched from these simple but effective computers

About a half-hour drive from the National Monument, the White Sands Missile Museum is staffed by volunteers and open irregular hours. Call ahead or inquire at the National Monument before making the drive.

As the museum is located on an active missile range, security is understandably tight. You must present your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance to security, and your vehicle may be searched. There are extremely specific restrictions on photography, so ask for information when you enter the base. In addition, it is illegal to photograph the missile range from the public roadway. If you like to take scenic mountain photos, pay close attention to the signage throughout the region.

Atomic Bomb Casing New Mexico

Seeing an atomic bomb casing up close is creepy

Admission to the museum and connected Missile Park is free. The indoor exhibits present a fairly detailed overview of the missile range’s history. Small rockets and early control equipment are among the highlights. Outside, Missile Park is filled with items from every era. Perhaps the most fascinating, yet terrifying, is the Fat Man Bomb Casing. This is the atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan in 1945.

In a separate building is a V-2 rocket. The V-2 was originally developed by Germany for use in World War II. After the war, many of Germany’s best scientists moved to the United States, bringing the V-2 with them. The rocket was a proving ground for experiments that eventually led to the American manned space program.

Tips for Parents

Picnic Shelters White Sands Monument

The picnic shelters are a great place to relax

Both the National Monument and the Missile Museum are endlessly fascinating for most kids. There are quite a few historical signs, so parents may wish to read and summarize them for younger children. But with plenty to look at, room to play, and the opportunity to go sledding in the desert heat, how could any child resist?

There are no public dining facilities at either location, and the nearest towns are a bit of a trek, so pack plenty of snacks and drinks. Picnic shelters are readily available throughout the National Monument, so consider packing a full lunch. Remember that this part of the country is exceptionally hot and dry, so encourage everyone to drink plenty of water. Sunscreen and a hat are absolutely essential if you plan to spend much time on the dunes. Incidentally, if you wear sunglasses, be sure to take them off at some point while at the National Monument. Dad was shocked to discover that the “brown” dunes he had seen all day were actually a brilliant white!

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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