White Sands National Park History

Historic aerial of visitor center
Plans for the construction of a visitor center with a museum, restrooms, residences for park staff, an administration building, and maintenance shed began in 1935.



Pre-monument Days
Although the dunefield has been here for 7,000-10,000 years, the dunes have not always been protected as a national monument. It took thirty-five years and numerous attempts to protect this national treasure. In the early twentieth century, multiple commercial interests attempted to mine these gypsum dunes; however, none of these attempts were successful due to the low market value of unprocessed gypsum sand. In the 1920's, locals began to understand the uniqueness of the dunes and viewed the dunefield as profitable in another way.

Monument Designation
The White Sands dunefield fits the description of what the National Park Service sought in prospective sites: "economic worthlessness and monumentalism." The area had already sparked scientific interest with the first published research occurring in scientific journals in 1870. However, the formation of White Sands National Monument took time and support from many people. The most famous supporter and local "father" of White Sands was Tom Charles, an Alamogordo resident and businessman. Mr. Charles was not the first to suggest including White Sands in the National Park system; however, he enthusiastically supported the idea and wrote to National Park Service officials and congressmen. Mr. Charles got his wish in 1933, during the last days of President Herbert Hoover's administration, Hoover declared White Sands a national monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Presidential Proclamation No 2025 (47 Stat. 2551) established the monument and set aside 142,987 acres for its "additional features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest."

A Growing Attraction
Even before White Sands was declared a national monument, the area was a popular picnicking location. It was no surprise when there were over 4,000 people in attendance at the opening day ceremony on April 29, 1934. Visitation continued to increase, with an estimated 34,000 people visiting in the first year. It was clear White Sands needed facilities to accommodate visitors' requests for restrooms, water, and information on the history and formation of the dunes. Plans for the construction of a visitor center with a museum, restrooms, residences for park staff, an administration building, and maintenance shed began in 1935. Funding and labor for the construction came from the largest agency of President Roosevelt's New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These facilities, which are still in use today, were completed in 1938.

A New Neighbor
Beginning in 1942, only months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9029, which created the 1,243,000 acre Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range. Follwing the order, soldiers were even allowed to practice tank maneuvers inside the monument's boundary. By 1945 the military had begun to test missiles and ask for the first park closures, a practice that continues today. The Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range (Alamagordo Army Air Base) closed at the end of World War II and re-opened in 1958 as Holloman Air Force Base. The White Sands Proving Ground was established in 1945 and was later renamed White Sands Missle Range. Both military areas still operate around the park boundaries and in the cooperative use area in the western part of the park. This cooperation mutually benefits both the military by providing them additional space and the park by insuring the lack of development on the surrounding lands.

Conversion into a Park
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. The Park’s re-designation recognizes the added significance of the park for its natural and cultural resources. In addition to containing the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, including gypsum hearthmounds found nowhere else on earth, the park is home to the globe’s largest collection of Ice-Age fossilized footprints and tells more than 20,000 years of human presence, all while providing memorable recreational opportunities.

White Sands Today
Throughout the park's history the National Park Service has improved visitor access to the dunefield, and continues to strive for this today. The historic visitor center is still in use; however, the museum has been updated numerous times. The most recent renovation took place in the spring of 2011 and focused on creating exhibits that visitors of all ages can enjoy. From the first scheduled event, "Play Day" in 1935, the National Park Service has continued to offer programs and events that interest all ages. While these first events focused mainly on recreation in the dunes, programs today offer both recreation and information about the park. Topics range from the Tularosa Basin's human history to desert survival and just about everything in between!

White Sands Timeline

  • 1898-The town of Alamogordo established
  • 1900-First article on White Sands published in Journal of Geology
  • 1912-New Mexico becomes a state
  • 1928-Highway 70 from Las Cruces to Alamogordo completed
  • 1932-Prehistoric tracks first discovered at White Sands
  • 1933-President Herbert Hoover declares White Sands a national monument; first park custodian Tom Charles is hired; Civil Works Administration begins construction of Dunes Drive
  • 1934-Opening Day Ceremony held in April
  • 1935-First asphalt road into the dunes was completed; first annual "Play Day" held in dunes
  • 1936-Works Progress Administration begins construction of the visitor center
  • 1938-Visitor center and museum opened
  • 1942-President Roosevelt signs order establishing a large military land presence around the monument
  • 1945-First atomic bomb tested at Trinity Site, 60 miles north of the monument
  • 1950s-Nature and hiking trails constructed
  • 1950-First major motion picture filmed at White Sands
  • 1956-First Lake Lucero tour given by "auto caravan" with 160 participants
  • 1969-93 African Oryx released onto the missile range surrounding the monument
  • 1993-First music video and first documentary filmed at White Sands
  • 2019 The Monument becomes a National Park
  • 2021 Oldest human Fossilized footprint set at 23,000 to 21,000 years old

Last updated: September 3, 2022

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