An unexpected delight in the desert southwest.
When our family planned a stop in south central New Mexico on our way to Arizona, we had no idea what awaited us. Because we wanted to avoid freezing temperatures in the RV, we bypassed our original plans to travel west via Interstate 40, and headed south to Alamogordo.
We anticipated barren desert landscape and high winds. What we found was a mixture of unique landscapes, diverse culture, and unexpected experiences. The small town of Alamogordo, which lies in the Tularosa Basin surrounded by mountains and full of authentic southwest charm, was the perfect stopping point for several days of family-friendly fun.
White Sands National Park
After spending a life living in Florida, surrounded by sand, I had absolutely NO desire to see a national park full of sand before we arrived in New Mexico. However, as we drove through the town of Cloudcroft, over the Sacramento Mountains, the stunning view of White Sands National Park stretched out across the horizon – and we knew we had to visit.
We started at the Visitor’s Center Complex – with a group of adobe buildings built in the 1930s – now designated the White Sands National Park Historic District. The Visitor’s Center and museum are free to visit and have a lot of great information about how the white sands originated, and how the process continues today. In the room next to the museum displays, they have a small gift shop and an area to stamp your National Park Passport.
Some visitors brought sleds for sliding down the sand dunes (also available for purchase at the gift shop). Since we were only there for two days, and knew we wouldn’t use a sled again, we simply opted for running around, playing in the sand, and jumping off the high dunes. The sound of laughter and screaming floated over the dunes from people sledding down the giant hills.
Unlike the sand at the Florida beaches we’re used to, the gypsum sand here stays cool, even in the hottest weather, because gypsum doesn’t absorb heat from the sun. It’s so soft it slips between your toes when you walk across it. What also differentiates this area from the sand you find at the beach, is that there isn’t any sharp seashells or garbage in it to step on.
Even if you don’t want to get sand in your car, I recommend stopping in the Visitor’s Center to check out their interpretive exhibits about the park, and then take a drive through its unique, diverse, and alien landscape. It’s something you won’t see anywhere else.
This park has constructed a metal boardwalk to create an accessible path to a viewing area, with informative signs. The Interdune Boardwalk is a 0.4-mile round trip path with a hard-packed parking area at the trailhead. It offers great views, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to catch a glimpse of some of the local wildlife. We saw a small burrowing animal the day we visited, though were not able to identify what it was.
This national park is near the White Sands Missile Range. When the range is conducting missile tests, they close part of the road leading into the park. For up-to-date information, it’s best to call before heading out.
Know Before You Go
Location: 19955 Highway 70 West, Alamogordo, New Mexico
Phone: (575) 479 - 6124
Hours: Change depending on the season. Click here for the most up-to-date information.
Fees: Entrance fees vary. Please check park fees here. America the Beautiful passes are accepted.
Accessibility: The park has two accessible parking lots. The Visitor’s Center, Visitor Center restrooms, and dune boardwalk are all accessible.
Restrooms: Located outside the Visitor’s Center. There are also pit toilets located near parking areas throughout the park.
Pistachio Land is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Alamogordo, even if you don’t like pistachios. But seriously – who doesn’t love these delicious nuts?
You can easily find this local gem by plugging the name into your GPS. But as you get closer, you won’t need it, because the world’s largest pistachio, standing at 30-feet-tall, will lead you there. Stop in the parking lot and take a picture by the giant memorial constructed of steel and concrete.
At McGinn’s Pistachio Land we found the perfect combination of touristy roadside attraction and learning experience. The gift shop is free to visit, though you’ll find plenty of reasons to spend money inside with options like gift baskets, jams, bagged pistachios, wines, souvenirs, and other goodies. Don’t forget to stop by the sampling station to try free samples of their flavored pistachios.
Just outside the gift shop, they have a little window where they serve coffee and ice cream, including their homemade pistachio ice cream. My husband and son tried their homemade pistachio ice cream and loved it.
We opted to take the tram tour, offered on the hour. There is a fee for the tour, but it’s only a few dollars per person, and it was totally worth it to get to see the pistachio farm, learn the history of this multi-generational family operation, and find out how they grow these delicious tree nuts (they’re actually the seeds of the pistachio fruit, but commonly classified as “tree nuts” in the US). We learned that pistachio trees require patience, taking about eight years before they start producing a decent crop. Our tour guide James was knowledgeable and entertaining, making the tour the highlight of our visit. Unless you ask my kids. They’d tell you the ice cream was the best part.
Pistachio Land has its own vineyard, which you can see on the tram tour. They also have a wine bar inside, along with a selection of their wines for sale. We’re not wine drinkers, so I can’t attest to the flavors. But if this is something you enjoy, it looked like there was plenty there to keep you busy for the afternoon.
Know Before You Go
Location: 7320 US Highway 54 70, Alamogordo, NM
Phone: (575) 437 - 0602
Hours: Daily 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
New Mexico Museum of Space History
The New Mexico Museum of Space History looks out over the town of Alamogordo from the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains. This five-story building with giant windows, visible from most of the town, is packed with information about space, including artifacts, interactive exhibits, and a chimp memorial. Let me explain:
Before you enter the building, spend some time outside looking around at the rockets and other space objects on display. Each item has a sign explaining what the piece is, its purpose, and when the space program used it.
In front of the building, near the flags, the museum has erected a small memorial at the gravesite of one special astronaut. Ham, an acronym for Holloman Aero Med, was the first chimp sent into space in 1961. After his successful mission, Ham lived out the rest of his life at the North Carolina Zoological Park, where he died in 1983. The museum has more information about primates in space inside, including the chimp’s suit, and an explanation of how scientists trained the primates.
This museum is wonderfully themed with red spaceship trash cans and elevators that look like the inside of the Discovery and Endeavor space shuttles.
After paying admission at the ticket booth, we took an elevator to the fifth floor to start at the beginning and work our way down. Here, we peered inside a large telescope that shows different constellations depending on how we maneuvered it.
Different panels on the wall explained how ancient peoples used archeoastronomy in their lives, alongside quotes from a few famous astronomers like Edwin P. Hubble and Carl Sagan.
As we walked through the exhibits, we saw how scientists used a system of rewards and punishments to train primates in space. The kids practiced flying space shuttles on several simulators spread throughout the museum. They had a blast trying to land the craft with the joystick and buttons without crashing.
Throughout the building, the museum has done a wonderful job covering almost every aspect of space history, from its early days, to the equipment they used, and what daily activities like eating and exercise, looked like for astronauts.
Our final stop on the second floor had a great play space where children could dress up like astronauts and build their own rover with large plastic pieces (like Legos). There’s also a monitor where you can design a rocket and see how it fares in space – mine destroyed itself in the second stage.
The first floor houses a modest gift shop with toys, freeze-dried ice cream, t-shirts, and drinks available for purchase.
Dome Theater and Planetarium
If you have the time, the museum has a large screen Dome Theater and Planetarium with shows about Earth and space for an additional fee. I can’t give a definitive review on those, because large screens with fast moving pictures make me barf. But if you’re into that sort of thing, make sure to check it out!
Know Before You Go
Location: 3198 State Rte 2001, Alamogordo, NM
Hours: Mon, Weds-Sat 10:00 am – 5:00 pm, Sun 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Fees: For pricing on all attractions, including museum admittance, click here.
Restrooms Available: Yes
There’s so much more to do in Alamogordo (which means “fat cottonwood”) than we were able to cover in a few days. With the nearby military base, we were able to see things we haven’t witnessed anywhere else, like seeing missiles shooting into the sky. Since some places, like the Trinity Site (where the U.S. detonated the first atomic bomb) wasn’t open, and other places have limited hours in the off season, you’ll want to stay long enough to see them all. And here in the Tularosa Basin, you’ll get grand mountain views the entire time.
Have you visited Alamogordo before? Do you have another favorite place to see in the southwest? Leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!