Alamogordo, the county seat of Otero, is located in the Tularosa Basin of the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico.
Alamogordo was founded in 1898 when the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad came to the area. It was designed as a company town to persist after construction of the railway, for which Alamogordo supplied timber for the railroad ties.
With the establishment of the White Sands National Monument in 1934, Alamogordo’s economy became more reliant on tourism until the Alamogordo Army Air Field (present-day Holloman Air Force Base) was constructed in 1942.
While the White Sands National Monument is still one of the largest attraction in the Alamogordo, the Air Force Base on the city’s western flank also has a significant presence.
When visiting the area, you will see how space oriented the area is. Some things to do in Alamogordo including the following:
Visit the White Sands Missile Range
It doesn’t seem like you could visit the White Sands Missile Range given it is the Department of Defense’s largest, fully-instrumented, active open air range. But you can visit certain parts.
The missile park is open from dawn to dusk daily and is free to enter. Additionally, the Missile Range features a museum that is open Tuesday through Sunday. Finally, twice a year on the second Saturday of April and October, 125 cars may join a caravan to see the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was tested.
Probably because I carry a concealed handgun in VANgo, I didn’t feel 100% comfortable entering the missile range, as the rules get strict for Federal property. The last thing I wanted was to get arrested. At any rate, there are still missile displays on the side of the highway for viewing.
You can’t miss the 41-foot tall Nike Hercules Missile. It weighs over 10,000 pounds and can travel over 2,500 miles per hour. It was used to shoot down enemy aircraft. When its successor missile, the Nike Zeus, was designed, the Hercules became the targets!
Enjoy the New Mexico Museum of Space History
You may also see many missiles and space craft at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Many large displays are outside and don’t cost anything to see. The museum only charges $5, and while a few exhibits were closed due to COVID, it was still well worth the price of admission.
The self-guided tour starts on the top floor and spirals down to the bottom. Along the way, visitors learn about rockets, satellites, life in space, and many people who have contributed to the field.
I particularly liked pushing buttons to hear how different space shuttle and rocket launches sounded. I also liked learning about HAM, the first chimp in space. HAM stands for Holloman Aerospace Medical. HAM learned to pull a lever with his right hand when a white light flashed and pull a lever with his left hand when the blue light flashed. All within 2.5 seconds.
Dressed in his suit, he performed all his tasks during his 16-minute space mission in the Mercury capsule. He experienced nearly 7 minutes of weightlessness and then endured 15 ‘G’ forces during re-entry. I can only imagine what that poor monkey thought at the time! His only visible injury was a bruised nose. As a result, soon after, astronauts followed in another Mercury mission.
HAM lived in the National Zoo until 1979 and later moved to the North Carolina where he died in 1983. He is now buried at the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
In addition to HAM, another part of space history I thought was cool was to see John Glenn’s EKG print out from the Mercury 4 hour, 55 minute orbital flight in 1962.
I also had to laugh at the urine collection bag. It seems in today’s world, with women in the program, they had to come up with a different design!
Star Trek fans will like its exhibit too!
Anyway, there were lots of cool things to see. If only the space gloves exhibit wasn’t closed. I really wanted to try out my dexterity wearing space gloves. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to operate in one of the suits.
Explore White Sands National Park
If museums aren’t your thing, and you’d rather be outside, then explore White Sands National Park. Before you go, however, check for road closures due to White Sands Missile testing.
White Sands National Park was upgraded from a monument to a park by Congress and President Donald Trump in 2019. Its gypsum dune field is the largest of its kind on earth. In fact, despite gypsum being a common element found all over the world, it is rarely found in sand form, making these dunes very unique.
The sand forms from rainfall and snowmelt washing the gypsum from the mountains to the basin floor. The water forms Lake Lucero and when the water evaporates, it creates the crystals. To see some of the bigger crystals, arrange a Lake Lucero tour with the rangers. Dogs are allowed to go too!
Otherwise, follow the road to the dunes and take a few short hikes, go sledding, or watch the sunset.
Take a Pistachio Farm Tour
If you’ve worked up an appetite after visiting White Sands National Park, take a jaunt up the road to PistachioLand. PistachioLand features an ice cream shop, a wine tasting room, and a gift shop with several varieties of pistachios which you may also taste.
Additionally, for a small fee, you may take a tour of their orchards. It is offered on the hour and takes about 20 minutes. Perhaps, I’m a geek, but I enjoyed it. You can find out all about it with my post: PistachioLand.
Take a Side Trip
Want to go to the mountains instead of the desert valley? No problem. Alamogordo is conveniently located just 30 minutes from Cloudcroft, a ski destination. In the summer you can hike. Just look on AllTrails for some suggestions. And anytime, you may visit the Sunspot Solar Observatory.
Sunspot Solar Observatory
The solar observatory was not exactly what I was expecting, but it was interesting, none-the-less. I loved the signs for each planet on the road between Cloudcroft and the observatory. They indicate where the planet would be in a condensed solar system, with the observatory being the sun. Uranus is missing, though, because people keep stealing it!
It is best known for the Dunn Telescope, which is the only telescope in use. To see it, sign up in advance for a free tour. Arrive early to check out the small museum first. The only fee is $5 for parking. For more details see my post: Sunspot Solar Observatory.
Thirty minutes north of Cloudcroft is the ski town of Ruidoso. So you can make a day of strolling the towns. While there, definitely get a slice of the famous buttermilk pie at The Village Buttery.
Another nice side trip, about one hour south is to the Organ Mountains. They are one of four areas in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument operated by the BLM. The trails are extremely well maintained, though they come with a variety of restrictions in order to protect endemic species in the area.
I visited the Dripping Springs Natural Area. At least this year I found it. Eleven years ago, during the 3G and iPhone 2 stages, finding directions to remote places were somewhat challenging. Anyway, my luck ran out after that. I could not take the popular 3-mile hike to the ruins and water seeping from the cave as it was closed to dogs.
As a result, we detoured to another 3-mile loop which was thoroughly enjoyable. It cut through hillsides of southwestern terrain, provided lovely views of the jagged Organ Mountains, and ducked into a tunnel of trees. The variety along the trail made it interesting, so the hike wasn’t a total bust.
Las Cruces and Mesilla
Once you are in the Organ Mountains, Las Cruces and Mesilla are just 15 minutes away. Check out an art gallery or stroll the historic square of Mesilla, home to the oldest documented brick building in New Mexico, the headquarters of the Butterfield Overland Mail (predecessor to the Pony Express), and the site of the Civil War Battle of Mesilla. I didn’t even know the Civil War made it as far west as New Mexico! But I was far from a history buff as a child.
Overall, there are many things to do in Alamogordo and the surrounding area, and I wish I spent a few more days in the area. I’ll be back. ETB