Spend a day on the sandy slopes

CanWest News Service
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LAS CRUCES, N.M. - It's a balmy 25 C. No snow, but that isn't stopping sledding enthusiasts from hitting the slopes. Canadian snowbirds, nostalgic for toboggan runs back home, will find the unique dunes of New Mexico a great sand-sledding substitute.
A 45-minute drive east of Las Cruces, the spectacular dunes of the White Sands National Monument (www.nps.gov/whsa) draw more than 600,000 visitors a year.
The starkly beautiful landscape would have made an ideal location for another Beau Geste movie remake. However, these pristine sands have become a magnet for foreign legions of tourists who have joined locals in sand-sledding and hiking this unique American treasure.
One of the world's great natural wonders, wave-like dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert to create the largest gypsum dune field in the world. White Sands preserves a huge chunk of this field, together with the plant and animal life that has adapted to the constantly changing environment.
President Herbert Hoover in 1933 established the White Sands National Monument.
Its great for sand-sledding, with an average of 330 days of sunshine a year. You don't go quite as fast or as far on sand slopes as you would on snow, but the rules of gravity still apply, so the steep hills offer more than enough thrills to go around.
Recreational sand-sledding is so popular that the Visitor Centre does a brisk business selling both new or used plastic saucer-sleds. Purchasers can return their inexpensive sleds for a partial refund after their adventures are over.
If sand-sledding doesn't pique your interest, White Sands also offers hiking and driving trail options.
You are allowed to walk anywhere within the park as long as you use an established pullout or parking area. It's best to begin with the 10 kilometres of marked trails, so you get the opportunity to orientate yourself to landmarks. It is easy to lose your way in the dune field, especially when strong winds quickly hide footprints and landmarks.
Be sure to take plenty of water and wear good walking shoes, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses when hiking in the desert. There's no water in the park, so be sure to fill up at the visitors' centre before you begin your adventure. A minimum of one gallon of water per person per day is recommended.
If you want to see the park the easy way, the Dunes Drive is a 12 km scenic drive from the visitors' centre into the heart of the dunes. The hard-surface roadway is suitable for cars, trailers and buses.
Driving time is about 40 minutes for the 24-kilometre round trip, but with all the photo opportunities at the numerous pullouts along the route, allow ample extra time. These intriguing sand dunes can take all day.
Save some time, however, to explore another tourist attraction. The park is surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range, a vast 3,200-square-mile expanse, making it the largest military installation in the United States.
While the range is still active, and under heavy security, the military base does open the doors of its fascinating museum and Missile Park (wsmr-history.org/) to the general public.
The range is located in the Tularosa Basin of south-central New Mexico and the headquarters area and museum is about 30 kilometres east of Las Cruces.
While many museum artifacts relate to rocket development, numerous other areas of the region's history are extensively covered. From prehistoric times, when hunter gatherers collected mesquite pods and hunted now-extinct camels and mammoths for food, to the 1880s, when Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry had running battles with Apaches, the region's heritage vividly unfolds in the museum.
Mining and ranching also played a major role in the area's development, but it was during the Second World War when the range took on a new role.
In the summer of 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested here at a remote location called the Trinity Site. The nuclear blast created a flash of light that was observed across all New Mexico and parts of Arizona and Texas.
The successful test was a precursor to the two atom bombs dropped on Japan a few weeks later. Now a national historic landmark, the Trinity site is open to the public twice a year.
Powerful reminders of the hardware tested at the site can be found in the base's Missile Park, a sprawling lot across from the museum. There are more than 50 rockets and missiles on display, offering a chronological history of space and military research at the range. Bearing names like Corporal,
Honest John, Hound Dog and Copperhead, this arsenal is a powerful reminder of the not too distant past.
The museum is open year-round. Admission is free, although foreign nationals, including Canadians, need to bring their passports to be allowed past the security gates. Hours on weekdays are 8 a.m.-4 p.m. and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed holidays.
The Missile Park is open dawn-to-dark seven days a week.
Military research at the base is ongoing, and due to missile testing on the adjacent missile range, the Dunes Drive at the White Sands National Monument could be closed for periods of up to three hours.
With all this physical activity, tourists visiting Las Cruces could be excused for taking a day off from rigorous exertions and exercising their taste sense, instead.
Known as the crossroads of the southwest, Las Cruces (lascrucescvb.org/) lies about 60 kilometres north of the Texas border city of El Paso, and is surrounded by the spectacular Organ Mountains, White Sands National Monument, Geronimo Trail and the Rio Grande.
If you're passionate about spicy Mexican food, you'll find the area's specialty restaurants producing some of the best versions north of the Rio Grande. Some outstanding examples of Mexican cuisine can be found at La Posta (laposta-de-mesilla.com/index.html) in the small, historical town of Mesilla, a 10-minute drive from Las Cruces. The family restaurant features traditional "New Mexico" Mexican dishes made from century-old recipes, including the famous dish that originated here in 1939, Tostada Compuesta, as well as sour cream enchiladas, folded and rolled tacos, flautas, chile rellenos and much more.
Accommodation options in this city of 90,000 are abundant, ranging from mom-and-pop motels to national hotel chains. I stayed at TownePlace Suites (marriott.com), With kitchenette, free breakfasts and a bottomless coffee pot in the lobby, the inexpensive Marriott property provides a cosy home away from home.

Organizations: Visitor Centre, White Sands Missile Range, Rio Grande Trinity Site El Paso

Geographic location: Las Cruces, New Mexico, White Sands LAS CRUCES, N.M. Missile Park Texas United States Arizona Japan La Posta Mesilla

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