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Pilot Getaways: Rockets and dunesPilot Getaways: Rockets and dunes

White Sands, New MexicoWhite Sands, New Mexico

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  • Phillip H. Runners and Mike Haynes fly Mike’s Mooney over the White Sands National Monument. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Aerial view of Alamogordo-White Sands (ALM) facing north. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Art Davis flies his biplane down through the canyons and into town. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • The Fat Man bomb casing and rockets are on display at the Missile Park. Photo courtesy of White Sands Missile Range.
  • On approach to Runway 21. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Playing on the dunes of pure white gypsum at White Sands National Monument. Photo by Tamara Brown.
  • The Space Hall of Fame also has an IMAX theater. Photo by Tamara Brown.
  • The Sonic Wind, in which Col. John P. Stapp became the “fastest man on earth.” Photo by Jessica Ambats.
  • Ground Zero is opened for visitors twice per year. Photo courtesy of White Sands Missile Range.
  • Owner Bob Tavares welcomes visitors to his Tavares Inn. Photo by Tamara Brown.

To the east, the city of Alamogordo is a base for visiting not only these desert attractions, but their extreme opposites as well. A winding road ascends from town into the cool mountains of Cloudcroft, a village within the Lincoln National Forest. Here, golfers swing and hikers trek under ponderosa pines, and winter visitors ski at 10,000 feet.

Flying There

Alamogordo-White Sands Regional Airport (ALM) is sandwiched between the expansive restricted areas of the White Sands Missile Range to the west and southeast, and the Sacramento Mountains to the east. The easiest approaches are along Highway 54 from the north or south. Approaching from the north, you can follow Highway 54 most of the way. About 30 nm north of the airport or 31 DME from the Boles VOR (BWS 109.6 MHz), the highway jogs west about a mile into the restricted area; if you fly at least two miles east of the highway, you can keep it in sight while remaining clear. From the south, follow along the west side of Highway 54 through a two-mile-wide corridor between restricted areas R-5103 and R-5107.

Flying past the track on which Col. John P. Stapp became the “fastest man on earth” in the Sonic Wind. Photo by George A. Kounis.

You will have to cross the Sacramento Mountains with 9–12,000-foot peaks if you approach from directly east or northeast. An altitude of 10,500 feet or higher is required if you follow Highway 82 via Cloudcroft or Highway 70 from the Ruidoso area. You can’t see the airport from the east until you pass the north-south ridge about 10 nm from the airport, so you may have to circle to get down to the 5,197-foot pattern altitude. The area is remote with very few ground lights, so the mountains are essentially invisible on moonless nights. At night, the only safe approaches are well above 12,500 feet or along Highway 54.

Heavy military traffic operates in the entire area—not just inside the restricted areas—so it’s a good idea to contact Holloman Approach on 120.6 MHz. Holloman Approach opens at 2 a.m. on Monday and stays open continuously until 6 p.m. on Thursday, open Sat 9 a.m.–4 p.m.; closed the last Saturday of each month, Sun & holidays; at other times, contact Albuquerque Center on 132.65 MHz. Watch for glider activity during the summer, and remember many gliders have no electrical system (and therefore no transponder), and their fiberglass structures may be as invisible to radar as all those Stealth Fighters you may see.

On the ground at Alamagordo, you can pick up your IFR departure clearance from Holloman Approach when it’s open, or Albuquerque Center at other times. Two VOR approaches and a GPS approach service the airport, but they are only authorized when Holloman Approach is open. In urgent cases, the Holloman Command Post can staff the Approach Control facility for your arrival with an hour’s notice (sometimes less), 24 hours, 575-572-7575.

Most traffic uses the paved 7,005-foot Runway 3/21; the calm-wind runway is 21. The 3,549-foot dirt Runway 16/34, though well groomed, is a little rough, so it is usually used only for training or when there is a strong crosswind on Runway 3/21. When landing on this dirt runway, try to stop before crossing the paved Runway 3/21, since there is a substantial lip at the intersection. A short landing should be easy if the wind is strong.

The airport is at 4,200 feet and summer temperatures can soar above 100° F, raising density altitude above 8,000 feet. Remember to calculate required runway length as well as climb performance before takeoff.

Transient parking is in front of the terminal on the northwest side of Runway 3/21. Exile Aviation provides 100LL and jet fuel by truck, 7 a.m.–5 p.m., after-hours callout charge $75 before midnight, $100 after, 575-437-2474.

History

The Chihuahuan Desert may not seem inviting, but it has been inhabited since prehistoric times. By 1350, the Mescalero Apaches were living in the mountains surrounding the Tularosa Basin. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers such as Cabeza de Vaca, and colonists like Don Juan de Onate, had completed a trek they named Jornada del Muerto or “Journey of the Dead,” across the forbidding, waterless landscape. Though often impeded by marauding Apaches, the Spaniards continued their westward expansion and, despite cruel hardships, colonized what is now the state of New Mexico 22 years prior to the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.

In the mid-1800s, Apaches were confined to a reservation in the Sacramento Mountains and Texas cattle barons such as John Chisum brought longhorns into New Mexico and carved out vast cattle kingdoms. After the Civil War, more Texas ranchers and farmers moved in. They sweltered during Tularosa Basin summers, casting longing eyes at the cool, inaccessible mountains. To reach them required two days of hard, rocky, horseback riding, but relief was on the way.

Railroads were heading west by 1880, providing access to Eastern markets for the booming cattle industry. Enter Charles and John Eddy, New York entrepreneurs and builders of railroads and towns. One day, while Charles was out surveying an area near White Sands to build a town, he stopped by a spring that was shaded by ancient cottonwood trees. One tree had a sign on it, etched in axle grease: Ojo de Alamo Gordo, or “Spring of the Fat Cottonwood.” He exclaimed, “Aha Alamogordo! That’s the name of this town!” Completed in 1898, their Alamogordo-Sacramento Mountain Railway cut the two-day mountain trip to just one hour; it was an instant success. The people of Alamogordo flocked to ride this “cloud-climbing railroad” with the steepest standard gauge track in the world. It was a thrill ride, snaking around mountains and roaring over chasms on steep trestles.

After 50 years of service the train made its final run in 1948. Many of the trestles still stand, and you can see these remnants from Highway 82, just west of Cloudcroft. As the golden age of trains passed, the jet and rocket age began, and Alamogordo was to play a key role. Prior to World War II, American scientist Robert Goddard had experimented with liquid-fueled rocket engines in New Mexico. The Germans, who had based their technology on Goddard’s work, built the first guidance systems. Near the end of World War II, when the Soviets were closing in on Germany, key members of the German rocket design team defected to the U.S., led by Dr. Wernher von Braun, “father of the V-2.” America and Britain had captured some V-2 rockets and shipped them to the White Sands Proving Ground, as it was called then, which became the site for all rocket testing in the U.S.

The test site, code-named Trinity, for the detonation of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945 was at White Sands Proving Ground. The 19-kiloton blast melted desert sand into glass and the shock wave broke windows 120 miles away. After World War II, guided missile research at White Sands rocketed America into the space age. German scientists assisted in the eventual use of the V-2 as the first key to America’s conquest of space. As for the Apaches, their descendants are prospering in the mountains and resort areas of Ruidoso.

What to Do

The weather, although intensely hot during summer, is almost always clear, sunny, and dry, and the mountains are accessible year round. In July and August, temperatures average in the high 90s, but it feels much hotter when walking on brilliant white dunes. Pleasant times to visit are in fall and spring, when temperatures remain in the 60s and 70s, although they can dip quite low in the evenings. Attractions are spread out over long distances, so plan a long enough stay to avoid rushing between sights.

The city of Alamogordo is between White Sands to the west and the Sacramento Mountains to the east, and makes a good place to begin exploring. On a hillside overlooking the city, the New Mexico Museum of Space History preserves memorabilia and stories of man’s quest for space. An outstanding example is the Sonic Wind I, a rocket-propelled sled that in 1954 made a land speed record of 632 mph in five seconds. On board was U.S. Air Force Col. John P. Stapp, who became “the fastest man on earth” as he withstood a force of over 40 Gs. His body momentarily weighed 6,800 pounds, equivalent to high-altitude ejection at supersonic speed. The museum complex also includes a planetarium, an IMAX Dome Theater, and the Hubbard Space Science Education Facility, museum: $4–$6, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., IMAX: $4.50–$6, 3198 State Route 2001, 575-437-2840 or 877-333-6589.

This introduction to the space era whets the appetite for a drive to the museum at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), called “Wiz-Mer” by locals. WSMR is 45 miles west of Alamogordo along Highway 82/70. Unless you fancy lunch from a vending machine, you’ll want to pack your own, since there are no snack shops or cafés there. Ten miles out, you’ll pass Holloman Air Force Base, home of the 49th Fighter Wing and the F-117A stealth fighters, as well as the U.S. Air Force’s 20th Fighter Squadron, which, when active, trained German aircrews in the F-4 Phantom II.

At 100 miles long by 40 miles wide, WSMR is the largest military installation in the country, encompassing White Sands National Monument, the Trinity Site, and the White Sands Missile Range Museum. Since the museum is inside a military base, visitors must stop at the gate to show photo identification. You can park outside the gate, but in order to drive in, you must show your rental car agreement and pass a security check.

The Fat Man bomb casing on display at the Missile Park. Photo by Jessica Ambats.

Before entering the White Sands Missile Range Museum, walk around the Missile Park in front of the building, where you’ll have up-close views of rockets dating from 1945, including the first supersonic guided missile, the Nike Ajax. A path leads you past weapons such as the V-1 Buzzbomb and Patriot Missile and if you climb up the Contraves Cinetheodolite Electro Optical Tracking System (look for a white dome with an exterior stairwell), you can view them all at once as well as the surrounding desert. Fired missiles are retrieved from this expanse; once, after previous difficulties, someone coated missiles with shark liver oil, odorless to humans, but entrancing to dogs. After a firing, dogs and handlers arrived by helicopter, canine sniff-location was employed, and fast, successful retrieval accomplished. Today, missile testing continues at White Sands, although sans dogs, admission free, dawn to dark.

Inside the museum, the exploits of Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team are detailed, as are the histories of the Space Race and the Space Shuttle. One of only five remaining in the world, the famed V-2 rocket is housed in a separate new gallery. A gift shop and restrooms are in the main building, free, Mon–Fri 8 a.m.–4 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.–3 p.m., closed Sun, turn off Highway 82/70 at the brown national park sign, “White Sands Missile Range Museum” and drive four miles to Owens Road and the WSMR Las Cruces entrance, 575-678-8800.

Seeing the actual Trinity Site entails a 170-mile round trip from Alamogordo to an extremely remote area on the northern end of the 3,200-square-mile missile range. The site is only open to the public on the first Saturday of April and October. On this date only, the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce sponsors a car caravan that leaves from the parking lot of the Otero County Fairgrounds in Alamogordo. The fairgrounds are at the north end of White Sands Boulevard and can be seen after you pass Indian Wells Road. There are no service stations en route, so drivers will need full gas tanks, as well as photo identification and rental car agreements, free, arrive at 7:15 a.m. to leave at 8 a.m. sharp, return 12:30 p.m. Visitors can also arrive independently and bring along leashed dogs, free, 8 a.m.–2 p.m.

Once at the site, a short walk from the parking lot brings you to Ground Zero, over scatterings of green glass particles dubbed Trinitite that were created by the heat and pressure of the first atomic blast. (Don’t worry; radiation levels in the Ground Zero area are low.) A Fat Man bomb casing (the same type of bomb dropped on Nagasaki) is displayed nearby, and a small monument sits atop the covered bomb crater. Shuttle buses take visitors to the McDonald Ranch, where the bomb’s plutonium core was assembled. Souvenir stands are set up for the event and you can also buy hamburgers and soft drinks. Before planning a trip around this event, verify first with the WSMR Public Affairs Office, 575-678-1134.

Playing on the dunes of pure white gypsum at White Sands National Monument. Photo by Jessica Ambats.

Sandboxes aren’t just for kids anymore. Fifteen miles west of Alamogordo on Highway 70 is White Sands National Monument, a playground large enough for everyone to enjoy. You’ll enter the park at the White Sands Visitor Center, where you can purchase souvenirs at a gift shop (they may or may not have sleds for sliding down the sand dunes in stock—call ahead to make sure), pick up an extra trail guide, or inquire about ranger-led walks, moonlight bicycle rides, and the evening slide programs. Once you’ve put on sunglasses and hats—the sun’s rays are intense here—and loaded up with water, you’re ready to journey through the park. If it’s extremely hot, or if you just want to, you can experience the surreal landscape from the comfort of your air-conditioned car. More intrepid visitors can explore miles of trails on foot or bikes.

The park’s main road, Dunes Drive, is a 16-mile loop from the Visitor Center to the Heart of the Sands (a setting of endless dunes), on a dusty road edged by dry scrub and thorny grasses. Along the way, signs mark parking lots at points of interest and hiking trailheads. To avoid losing your way when on foot, use the four marked walking trails. Playa Trail, a 330-yard walk ending at a dry lakebed is 2.5 miles into the drive. One mile farther is the Dune Life Nature Trail, a mile-long nature study loop with interpretive signs. You’ll learn about plants and animals that live in the dune field. It’s a miracle that anything grows here at all, but we saw such plants as rosemary mint, yucca, and skunkbush sumac. Because of the vegetation along the trail, playing in the dunes here is restricted. In other areas of the park, children and adults gleefully slide down dunes in plastic saucers and tirelessly climb back up for repeat rides. Continue along the road for another 1.75 miles to the elevated, wheelchair- and stroller-accessible Interdune Boardwalk, a 650-foot loop with benches and informational exhibits. If you aren’t feeling challenged, head for Alkali Flat Trail, the most arduous walk, near the loop end of Dunes Drive, seven miles from the Visitor Center. The 4.6-mile roundtrip trail crosses the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, which spanned 1,600 miles of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age, and takes approximately three hours. Before tackling this trek, register at the trailhead, and likewise, sign out upon your return. En route, take note of each orange reflective trail marker, especially if strong winds kick up. If you cannot see the next marker you should turn back.

Backpackers can camp under the stars on a first-come, first-served basis, adults $3, children $1.50. Only 10 permits are allotted per day, and stiff penalties are imposed for being there after closing without a permit. Dogs on leash are allowed.

The park closes for all missile tests, so call ahead to ensure it is open, Visitor Center hours 8 a.m.–7 p.m. (May 16–Sep 11), 9 a.m.–6 p.m. (Mar 13–May 15 and Sep 12–Nov 5), 9 a.m.–5 p.m. (Nov 5–Dec 17), closed Dec 25, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. (the rest of the year), $5 entrance is valid seven days, 575-479-6124. Brochures available online.

Where to Stay

For accommodations, you’ll need to decide between mountain lodges, city hotels, or bed and breakfasts. The two-story Magnuson Hotel and Suites Alamogordo, 15 minutes from the airport at the crossroads of Highways 82, 70, and 54, offers rooms with amenities such as free wireless Internet, mini-fridges, and microwave ovens. The King Suite has two baths, a large-screen TV, a separate king bedroom, and a full kitchen, and Spa Suites sport ornate spa tubs in the bedrooms. There’s an outdoor heated pool, fitness center, and games room, and a complimentary Continental breakfast of fruits and cereals, rooms $67–$111, pets $10, 1021 S. White Sands Blvd., 575-437-2110.

A guest room at Tavares Inn. Photo by Tamara Brown.

Does a stay in a Spanish-style mansion at the foot of the San Andres Mountains sound appealing? At adults-only (21+) Tavares Inn, animals will likely greet you while owners, Debbie and Bob Tavares, treat you to cheese and wine—it’s a case of mi casa es su casa. Family members include five cats, three dogs, a ferret, and various tropical birds and fish, and several goats live outside. You’ll stay in one of three bedrooms decorated in Southwestern motifs or floral prints, with Indian talismans and paintings. Guests swim laps in the indoor heated pool, curl up in a leather chair by the fireplace, or work out in the upstairs exercise room with mountain views. At breakfast, your newly laid breakfast eggs might include blue ones from the exotic hens. The Tavares try their best to accommodate and may be able pick you up at the airport with advance notice, rooms $105–$115, 153 San Pedro Dr., 575-437-8779.

For more information, contact the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce, 1301 N. White Sands Blvd., Alamogordo, 575-437-6120 or 800-826-0294.

Where to Eat

Other than a small snack bar at the White Sands National Monument, there are no dining options outside of Alamogordo and Cloudcroft. When you journey beyond those towns, pack your own food. Alamagordo restaurants are very casual and friendly. No matter where you eat, it’s a good plan to try the ubiquitous and flavorful green chili, used extensively in New Mexican cookery.

Locals brag about the green chili cheeseburgers served at the Airport Grille in the terminal. The Humdinger, a 16-ounce patty with lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles, is topped with green chilies, and is served with French fries or chips. If you prefer, pick sourdough, potato, or rye bread instead of a bun, $10. For breakfast, owner Linda Madron’s Scramble is popular, three scrambled eggs with bacon, onion, home fries, and yes, green chilies, $7. All food is homemade. Inside, you’ll eat at a table or on a counter stool, surrounded by action shots of fire-fighting aircraft. Outside, watch the comings and goings from a large covered patio, Mon–Sat 8 a.m.–2 p.m., 575-439-1093.

You’ll meet no strangers at Our Country Kitchen, in the heart of Alamogordo. The old house-turned-café has a country-comfortable atmosphere in which locals linger over coffee. Pancakes are as big as Frisbees, yet so light they almost float off the plate. Other breakfast favorites include the Mountain Man, two biscuits and two eggs smothered in gravy, topped with bacon and ham, $7.50, and the Build-Your-Own Omelet with crisp hash browns, $8. For lunch, try a big bowl of fresh Green Chile Stew served with a Cheese Quesadilla, $7. Mon–Sat 6 a.m.–2 p.m., 1201 New York Ave., 575-434-3431.

An elegant Victorian mansion, Memories Restaurant is romantically appointed, with a crosshatch beamed ceiling in one of two dining rooms. The staircase and wainscot are Brazilian oak and the light fixtures are the house’s original gaslights. Luncheon fare includes Monte Cristo Sandwiches of turkey breast, ham, and Swiss cheese dipped in batter and grilled golden brown, $10. Choose among prime rib, steak, and pasta for dinner entrées, which include soup or salad, a side dish such as rice pilaf or sweet potato fries, and a vegetable. Sumptuous desserts include cheesecake, with raspberry or chocolate sauce and coconut cream pie, $3–$4, Mon–Sat 11 a.m. –8:30 p.m., 1223 New York Ave., 575-437-0077.

Transportation

It’s a ten-minute ride from the airport into Alamogordo, but you will need a rental car to explore the greater area. Enterprise is in town and with two to three days notice, they will leave a car for you at the FBO, $40–$110, Mon–Fri 8 a.m.–6 p.m., 400 White Sands Blvd., 575-434-9010 or 800-736-8222. If you need a taxi, Dollar Cab, 575-434-8881, services the area, as does Zia Transportation Services, Alamogordo’s public transport system. This 13-seat, white, orange, and purple passenger van, known as Z-Trans, makes a run a couple of miles from the airport 35–40 minutes past each hour along its Purple Route, and stops at the Magnuson Hotel (see Where to Stay), Mon–Fri 6 a.m.–6 p.m., $1–$3, 575-439-4971.

Most who come to this Southwest desert are enthralled with the limitless landscapes. The desert and its white gypsum sands are strangely appealing, especially on a moonlit night, when cacti and yuccas form stark silhouettes against a navy blue sky. In this landscape, one can explore the past, present, and future of space exploration. Visitors can watch an IMAX film about the world beyond, wander through towering missiles on a military base, and even venture to the forever-infamous Trinity Site. Pack water and sunglasses, and leave behind only footprints in the endless powdery sand.

Approximately 80 balloons take part in the Annual White Sands Balloons Invitational in September. Photo by Ron Keller.

Subscribe to Pilot Getaways at a special AOPA members-only rate.In New Mexico’s high desert, rugged mountains encircle an arid land spiked with yuccas and agaves. Cradled within a valley known as the Tularosa Basin are radiant white sands, one of the world’s great natural wonders. Surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert, these expansive white sands are a desert within a desert, and are so alluring that in 1933 half of the dune area was designated White Sands National Monument. Visitors play on dunes, hike trails, and picnic in this adult-sized sandbox.

The monument is separate from, but surrounded by, White Sands Missile Range, a military missile test site. Within this facility is the White Sands Missile Range Museum, exhibiting many missiles tested there, and the Trinity Site, where the world’s first atomic bomb was tested.

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Topics: US Travel, Travel

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