Leasburg Dam State Park, New Mexico To Valley Of Fires, New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico
March 7, 2020
Thursday (today is Saturday), I drove from Leasburg Dam State Park in the Hatch Valley to Las Cruces over the Organ Mountains to White Sands National Park to Alamorgordo to Valley of Fires where I spent the night.
Here is the story of my journey.
Pecan trees in the Hatch Valley
Las Cruces was about 20 miles from my campsite. My Spanish is kind of rusty - I think "Las Cruces" may mean "Not a garden spot." As such, I don't have any photos of the city (it does have at least one really large Walmart that had a good selection of red grapes.
Las Cruces is the seat of Doña Ana County. As of the 2010 census the population was 97,618 and in 2017 the estimated population was 101,712 making it the second largest city in the state, after Albuquerque. The metropolitan area had an estimated population of 213,849 in 2017.
The city is the economic and geographic center of the Mesilla Valley, the agricultural region on the floodplain of the Rio Grande which extends from Hatch to the west side of El Paso.. Las Cruces is the home of New Mexico State University,, the state's only land-grant university. The city's major employer is the federal government on nearby White Sands Test Facility and White Sands Missile Range. The Organ Mountains are dominant in the city's landscape, along with the Doña Ana Mountains, Robledo Mountains, and Picacho Peak. Las Cruces is 225 miles south of Albuquerque, 42 miles northwest of El Paso, Texas and 41 miles north of the Mexican border at Sunland Park. That explains the noticeable presence of the Border Patrol. Interstates 10 and 25 cross at Las Cruces.
Spaceport America, which has corporate offices in Las Cruces, operates from 55 miles to the north, and has completed several successful manned, suborbital flights. The city is also the headquarters for Virgin Galactic, the world's first company to offer sub-orbital spaceflights.
Major employers in Las Cruces are New Mexico State University, Las Cruces Public Schools, the City of Las Cruces, Memorial Medical Center, Walmart, MountainView Regional Medical Center, Doña Ana County, Doña Ana Community College, Addus HealthCare, and NASA.
The Organ Mountains are near the southern end of a long line of mountains on the east side of the Rio Grande's rift valley. The range is nearly contiguous with the San Andres Mountains to the north and the Franklin Mountains to the south, but is very different geologically. Whereas the San Andres and Franklin Mountains are both formed from west-dipping fault blocks of mostly sedimentary strata (with limestone most prominent), the Organ Mountains are made primarily of igneous rock (intrusive granite and extrusive rhyolite). Their name reflects their similarity in appearance (particularly the granite "needles" in the highest part of the range) with pipes that would be part of a pipe organ.
I've included the photo of the "share the road" sign because I have seen a number of cyclists. Folks who are clearly doing multi-day trips carrying all of their supplies on their bikes. That to me is so impressive. I fly by them in my truck while they are spinning away. And while this area is flat in places, I see them spinning up five mile inclines with a 2,000 foot gain in elevation. I'm not a that level of conditioning - yet!
The San Andres Mountains (southern subrange of San Augustin Mountains), are separated from the Organ Mountains by San Augustin Pass, through which U.S. Highway 70 passes on its way to White Sands Missile Range, White Sands National Park and Alamogordo. The Franklin Mountains are separated from the Organ Mountains by a 10-mile wide low area known as Anthony Gap.
As I came down the Organ Mountains, I entered the area of the White Sands Missile Range. WSMR is a military testing area operated by the United States Army. The range was originally established as the White Sands Proving Ground on July 9, 1945. It is the largest military installation in the United States, encompassing almost 3,200 sq miles. The first atomic bomb (code named Trinity) was test detonated at Trinity Site near the northern boundary of the range on July 16, 1945; seven days after the White Sands Proving Ground was established.
After the conclusion of World War II, 100 long-range German V-2 rockets that were captured by the U.S. were brought to WSMR. Of these, 67 were test fired between 1946 and 1951 from the White Sands V-2 Launching Site. (This was followed by the testing of American rockets, which continues to this day, along with testing other technologies.). NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia landed on the Northrup Strip at WSMR on March 30, 1982 as the conclusion to mission STS-3.
White Sands National Park was next. WOW! Crazy. The park is situated at an average elevation of about 4,000 feet in the Tularosa Basin and comprises the southern part of a 275 square mile field of white sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals. The gypsum dunefield is the largest of its kind on Earth.
The park was originally designated White Sands National Monument on January 18, 1933 by President Hoover, and redesignated as a national park when Congress passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act on December 20, 2019. The park encompasses 145,762 acres (227.8 sq mile; protecting 115 sq mile of the dunefield, about 41%, while the remaining 160 sq mile are located to the north within White Sands Missile Range. The depth of gypsum sand across the entire field is about 30 feet (9.1 m) below the interdunal surface, while the tallest dunes are about 60 feet (18 m) high. About 4.5 billion short tons (4.1 billion metric tons) of gypsum sand fill the dunefield, which formed about 7,000–10,000 years ago. The dunes were created from exposed selenite crystals that gradually eroded into gypsum grains, and were then transported eastward by prevailing winds.
Notice the sled tracks above - you can buy a circular sled in the gift shop, which they will kindly buy back after you use it (for $5).
On my hike in the sand, I met a couple from Boulder. She was a dead ringer for someone I know from Denver. I was tempted to ask if she had a sister but that could have gotten awkward so I stopped my tongue. 🙃
Holloman Air Force Base was established in 1942 and is located six miles southwest of the Alamogordo. The base was named in honor of Col. George V. Holloman, a pioneer in guided missile research. It is the home of the 49th Wing (49 WG) of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC); also supports the nearby White Sands Missile Range and currently hosts both the German Air Force Flying Training Center and the Royal Air Force RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial System) Formal Training Unit (FTU).
Alamogordo was established in 1898 to support the construction of the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad, is an early example of a planned community. The city was incorporated in 1912. Tourism became an important economic factor with the creation of White Sands National Monument in 1934. During the 1950–60s, Alamogordo was an unofficial center for research on pilot safety and the developing U.S. space program.
Alamogordo is the seat of Otero County. It is in the Tularosa Basin of the Chihuahuan Desert. The population was 30,403 as of the 2010 census.
Today Alamogordo is the economic center of Otero County, with nearly half the Otero County population living within the city limits. It has very little manufacturing and has a primarily service and retail economy, driven by tourism, a large nearby military installation and a concentration of military retirees.
Seems they also grow pistachios around Alamogordo. 🤣
The day ended with a beautiful sunset along US 54 North.