White Sands National Park


Overview - Things To Do - Maps - Where to Stay - Nearby

Cultural History

Native Peoples

Ten thousand years ago in the Pleistocene, native hunters walked the shores of Lake Otero spearing bison and other large mammals with finely fluted "Folsom" points. By 7,000 years ago, the climate had become much drier, the large mammals (megafauna) had disappeared and the grasslands had given way to desert.

Native peoples hunted smaller game in the region until about 2,000 years ago, when growing corn became the primary activity of these ancient peoples. Agriculture resulted in the creation of permanent settlements composed of pithouses and storage areas for surplus food. Pottery also emerged while beans and squash were added to the diet. A similar pattern was occurring throughout the Southwestern deserts at this time.

The villages that were established at the mouths of canyons on the eastern edge of the Tularosa Basin by 500 AD are referred to as the Jornada Branch of the Mogollon culture. By a thousand years ago, large pueblos were being built above ground surrounded by large fields. Many people lived in two very large villages beside Lake Lucero. By 1350, all of the major Mogollon villages of the Tularosa Basin were mysteriously abandoned ,as occurred throughout the Southwest.

Tularosa Basin looking east

About 1500, the Apaches, along with their cousins the Navajo, migrated south from western Canada, Those Apaches who settled in the southwestern deserts became known as the Mescalero Apaches. There is little evidence that the Mescaleros lived in the White Sands proper, they occupied all of the mountains surrounding the Tularosa Basin.

During the late 1700s, Spaniards waged an unsuccessful campaign against the Mescalero, who continued their life style and lived in uneasy peace among newcomers to the area. In 1862, they were rounded up and placed on a reservation at Bosque Redondo by U.S. Army General James Carleton. During a famine in 1865, the Mescalero bolted from the reservation and remained at large until they agreed to live on the Mescalero Reservation in the Sierra Blanca between Cloudcroft and Ruidoso in 1873.

Exploration & Settlement

The forbidding alkali desert of the Tularosa Basin was one of the last areas of New Mexico to be settled by Americans. Hispanics seldom entered the Tularosa Basin except to harvest salt; they tended to remain in the Rio Grande Valley. In the 1860s, ranching began at the base of the Sacramento Mountains and the town of Tularosa was established. With construction of the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad in 1898, the town of Alamogordo was established.

Political History

In 1907, Tom Charles moved from Kansas to Alamagordo and, together with local and national attempted to have the White Sands designated a national park. His efforts finally bore fruit many years later when 142,987 acres of White Sands was designated a national monument by President Herbert Hoover, April 29, 1934. Tom Charles was hired as the Monument's first custodian. On Friday, December 20, 2019, President Donald J. Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, which includes a provision that re-designates White Sands National Monument as White Sands National Park, making it the 62nd designated national park in the National Park System.

Soaptree Yucca

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Department of Defense established the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range surrounding White Sands National Monument in 1942. In 1945, additional portions of the northern Tularosa Basin were set aside as the White Sands Proving Ground. Here, the first atomic bomb was detonated on July 26 at a site known as Trinity. The two military sites were consolidated in 1958 as White Sands Missile Range. Testing may still require park closings on occasion.

Natural History

Plants & Animals

Even desert plants and animals have difficulty surviving among the shifting sand dunes of the area.A small number of plants have made remarkable adaptations to avoid being buried by the moving sand. The Soaptree Yucca elongates its stem to keep the leaves above the sand, growing as much as a foot a year. Other plants anchor their roots on a part of the dune and continue to grow on a pedestal of sand after the dune has moved on.

Wildlife in the Park, as in other desert areas, remains mostly underground during the heat of the day and emerges at night. Tracks of rodents, rabbits, Kit Foxes, Coyotes and Porcupines can be seen in the sand in the mornings. Lizards, beetles and birds can be seen during the day in vegetative areas. A few species of animals have evolved white coloration to blend with the sands including the Plains Pocket Mouse, Cowles Prairie Lizard Lizards and several insects, the Camel Cricket and White Grasshopper among them.

A dozen different species of snakes live in the Tularosa Basin, including three rattlesnakes -- the Prairie, Western Diamondback and the Massasauga. The two-inch, silver-gray White Sands Pupfish (Cyprinodon tularosa) has also been observed in a few places in the basin, most notably in Lost River. This fish is a remnant of the Pleistocene before large lakes dried up leaving them physically and genetically isolated. Other Pupfish species can be found in California's Death Valley remnants from the same period.

In 1969, the Oryx, an African Antelope, was introduced onto the Missile Base by the New Mexico, Department of Fish and Game. It has successfully adapted to the environment and has spread into the Monument. But the National Park Service regards this animal as a threat to the native plants and animals and plans plant to fence the entire Monument to exclude this non-native species.


The Tularosa Basin contains all three elements necessary for the creation of sand dunes -- barcan, dome-shaped, transverse and parabolic -- all of which occur in White Sands National Monument:

  • Winds must blow at least 15 mph. Such winds blow from the southwest February through April.
  • The source of sand required for dunes is gypsum from the floor of nearby Lake Lucero at the southern end of Lake Otero.
  • The sand-bearing winds must then encounter topographical features which force them to rise and release sand, which the dunes within the field itself cause.

The unique, gleaming white dunes of White Sands National Monument are composed of gypsum washed into the Tularosa Basin from the nearby San Andres and Sacramento mountains. This gypsum was originally deposited at the bottom of a shallow Permian sea 250 million years ago. As the water evaporated, gypsum-bearing marine deposits turned to stone and were uplifted into a anticline, a giant dome, when Rocky Mountains were formed 70 million years ago.

About 12 million years ago, the center of the dome began to collapse along fault zones associated with the Rio Grande Rift, dropping thousands of feet creating the Tularosa Basin. The remaining sides of the basin above the fault zones, created the Sacramento and San Andres mountains which ring the basin.

All material eroded from from the two mountain ranges ended up on the floor of the Tularosa Valley, which has no outlet.Some of the gypsum dissolved from Permain rocks was redeposited in lake sediments and some remained in groundwater which later recrystallized at the surface form selenite, transparent crystals as long as 3 feet.

From both lake deposits and surface crystals, extremes of temperature and howling winds break the crystals into sandy particles, which are picked up and borne by the wind, then deposited onto dunes.

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