White Sands National Park and the Tularosa Basin are filled with stories and history from previous and current generations who have passed through this area and left behind subtle evidences of their comings and goings. This evidence is not only found in physical forms, it is also found in the impressions and stories that were left behind by them, as well as the hard work that people have invested in protecting the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. The following publications offer a broad spectrum of human evidence at White Sands: from early legends to the construction of buildings to the filming of movies to interns' experiences, all of these great human interactions with the park are recorded here.
History & Culture of the Tularosa Basin
Cultural History of the Tularosa Basin
The Tularosa Basin not only has unique geology, it has a rich cultural history as well. From ancient peoples who crossed the Bering Strait to the Mescalero Apache to the Spanish conquistadors to the New Mexican ranchers and cowboys—this area has always been a place of fascination and intrigue. Learn more about the varied people who have called the Tularosa Basin home in the following brochure.
The word excelsior means ever upward in English and is a Latin adjective for higher. Project Excelsior was a series of three high altitude bailout experiments. This project aimed at alleviating the problems of high altitude bailout by developing a multistage chute. In the 1950s and 1960s, a group of airmen were making the world a safer place, in a very unique way. During this time period, the Holloman Aero Medical Squadron was conducting experiments to make air, space, and automobile travel safer. The Holloman Special Projects Section, Biophysics Branch, was headed by John Paul Stapp, who earned the moniker, "Fastest Man Alive."
Tularosa Basin Features
Brief History of White Sands National Monument
The bright white gypsum dunes of White Sands National Park are striking. It is home to five endemic species and many plants and animals with unique adaptations. Throughout its varied history, the white sands have remained intact. Although gypsum is commonly used for industrial purposes, today our dunefield is protected as a national park.
The Wonder of the Dunefield
Why did you visit White Sands National Park today? Was it for an amazing sunset or to do a bit of exploring as you hike one of our trails? Did you plan your trip here or did this strange island of white catch your attention as you drove by? Whatever your reasons are, you're in good company. People have been visiting this vast expanse of gypsum sand for thousands of years.
Adobe and Our Visitor Center
Adobe is the name for a style of building construction that uses bricks made from mud. The park's visitor center, as well as three of the living quarters to the east of it, are considered historical. These buildings are an excellent example of the Pueblo Revival architecture modeled after the Pueblos and Spanish missions in early New Mexico.
The White Sands Historical District
The Roads of White Sands
Establishment of New Mexico National Parks
White Sands Missile Range and Trinity Site
For some people, the name White Sands conjures up images of rolling white dunes, a great place to spend time with family; for others, it is an expansive missile range and the site of the world's first atomic bomb explosion. Both White Sands National Park and the White Sands Missile Range lie within the Tularosa Basin and share the brilliant white dunefield that gives us our names. But the park and the missile range have very distinct histories and purposes.
Launch Complex 33
Dating back to 1945, the blockhouse and V-2 assembly building are among the original buildings constructed at White Sands Missile Range. Part of operation 'Paper-clip', LC-33 was used to test the newly captured German V-2 rocket. The knowledge gained through the tests performed here are responsible for our first generation of rockets.
History of Commercial Filming at White Sands
Towering mountains, spectacular white dunes, crystal blue skies, stunning sunsets, and magical moonlit nights—all of these unique features form the amazing landscape at White Sands National Park. Commercials, feature films, fashion catalogs, music videos, made-for-TV movies, and documentaries come to White Sands to capture this scenery and beauty on film.
An Intern's Tale: Jaqueline Aguilera
White Sands National Monument has many employees in addition to our permanent staff. This includes interns and volunteers who learn the background and history of White Sands National Monument so they can share it with future generations. To learn about one of White Sands' former interns, read the following brochure.
Becoming an SCA
SCA Inspiring Youth
Life After Junior Ranger
The Monument and the Military
The Road Goes Ever On
Billy the Kid: More Than a Legend
The history of the American Southwest is chock full of legends and stories that truly live up to the epithet of the Wild West. The embellishment of these stories has allowed for the development of numerous movies and books but the true facts of these accounts are more interesting than any tall tale. Yes, the West really was wild. William Henry McCarthy, otherwise known as Billy the Kid, is a perfect example of how untamed the now tranquil towns of New Mexico used to be.
A Lingering Love
The white dunefield itself is a mystical place. Yet, there is nothing more captivating than the thought of a broken-hearted maiden's ghost wandering through the white dunes in her wedding gown, looking for her lover. There are few written accounts of the famous legend, known by some as the Legend of Pavla Blanca.
Dunes and Dreams
White Sands Cultural Landscapes Inventory
The Cultural Landscapes Inventory (CLI) is a database containing information on the historically significant landscapes within the National Park System. This evaluated inventory identifies and documents each landscape's location, size, physical development, condition, landscape characteristics, character-defining features, as well as other valuable information useful to park management.
Over 700 years ago, bands of Apaches followed herds of bison from the Great Plains to the Tularosa Basin and settled here. The Apache utilized the landscape very differently than the agricultural Jornada Mogollon. From mountain slopes to mounding dunes, the Apache made all parts of the basin their home. The Mescalero Apache living in the Sacramento Mountains today are descendants of the first Apache settlers. They continue to visit the park as an important landmark in their cultural history.
The Archaic period spans over 6,000 years. During this time ice sheets melted, and the megafauna went extinct causing the hunters of larger animals to adapt to survive. It was during this period that the first people of the Tularosa Basin watched the winds form the dunefield and were the first to walk on the gypsum dunes. One of the most archaeologically significant districts in the park today is composed of the remnants of their fires.
The people who made pottery, lived in permanent houses, and farmed the Tularosa Basin are known as the Jornada Mogollon, a name given to them by archeologists. Evidence of their prehistoric presence dates back to about 200 C.E. (Common Era), over 1800 years ago. For 1,200 years, the Jornada Mogollon inhabited the Tularosa Basin, but then something changed. By 1350 C.E. the Jornada Mogollon moved away from the Tularosa Basin, leaving behind puddled adobe and broken pottery sherds.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the discovery of oil, silver, coal, gold, and other precious mineral deposits inspired many settlers to cover the Tularosa Basin in mining claims. While prospect mining was initially successful and prosperous within the Tularosa Basin, full mining ventures were not as lucrative in the park’s boundaries.
Approximately 10,000 years ago when the basin was covered in lush grasslands, the very first humans arrived to the basin. They were nomadic hunters who followed large herds of mammoths, camels, bison, and other large game that roamed the area.
The Salt Trail and Magoffin Salt War
Salt is a priceless mineral, both for the health of people and their livestock. There are salt deposits, just north of Lake Lucero within the park. Since their first documentation by Spanish settlers in 1824, conflicting interests have merged at the salt flats, sometimes violently.
Since the 1940s, cutting-edge military research and testing have been conducted in the Tularosa Basin. With the start of the Space Race after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into the Earth’s atmosphere, White Sands has been the backdrop for amazing extraterrestrial research and testing. Rockets first tested in the White Sands Missile Range’s dunefield, just north of the park, were the precursors of rockets that carried humans into space.
Spanish Colonization Exploration
Due to Apache resistance, Europeans did not settle the basin until the 1850s when the first settlements were founded at the mouths of the La Luz and the Tularosa canyons. Before then Spanish expeditions occasionally entered the basin to mine salt north of what is now Lake Lucero.
Ranching and the Wild West
By the 1940s the wild, western ranches had been tamed. At the end of WWII, most of the Tularosa Basin had become an active missile range and the expansive grasslands were no longer safe for cattle ranchers.
The missile range was founded in 1945 to support research, development, testing, and evaluation of weapons and space systems. It covers 2.2 million acres, and is the largest installation of its kind in the western hemisphere.
Last updated: April 13, 2020