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Date of visit:
January 29, 2000

For location of this site in NM, click on the map:
 Location of Lake Lucero at White Sands NM ...

We rate this site a:

Site Highlights:
 Rarely visited
 Virtually few visitors
 Modest entry fee
 On missile range
 1 mile hike
 Guided tour
 Learn source of sand
 Walk dry lake bed
 See / touch selenite
 Peek at missile range
 Scan for oryx


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Lake Lucero at White Sands NM
Panoramic view of Lake Lucero (dry)
Panoramic view of Lake Lucero (dry)

Source of the White Sands
Tularosa Basin from 500 miles above
Tularosa Basin as seen
from 500 miles above.
In the heart of New Mexico's Tularosa Basin lies the world's largest gypsum dune field. Originating in an ancient lakebed, the wind-driven gypsum sands have engulfed 275 square miles (700 kM) of desert. But the snow-white gypsum sands are only part of the story of White Sands National Monument.

To the west of the dune field lies a low, extremely flat area called the Alkali Flat. The southern end of the Alkali Flat, called Lake Lucero, is a depression that occasionally fills with water.

The Alkali Flat and Lake Lucero are remnants of a much larger lake that once occupied the Tularosa Basin. Together they constitute the primary source of gypsum sand that forms the dune field.

Lake Otero
Lake Otero during last Ice Age
Lake Otero during last
Ice Age. Covered
1,600 square miles.

I've come to see Lake Otero
I've come to see Lake Otero.
The mountains that surround the Tularosa basin contain large amounts of gypsum, exposed in the light-colored layers of rock near the top of the San Andres Mountains to the west and the Sacramento Mountains to the east.

During the last ice age (about 24,000 to 12,000 years ago) the climate was much cooler and wetter than today. Large amounts of rain and snow fell on the surrounding mountains and a glacier formed on Sierra Blanca, the high peak to the northeast.

Rain and snowmelt from the mountains dissolved gypsum (calcium sulfate), salt (sodium chloride), and other soluble minerals from the rocks and carried them into the basin.

Normally, water from the mountains would flow into rivers and be carried to the sea, but the Tularosa Basin has no outlet. With no way to escape, the gypsum-laden runoff filled the lower parts of the basin and created a 1,600 square mile (4,100 kM2) lake known as Lake Otero.

For perhaps 20,000 years Lake Otero occupied the Tularosa Basin. Silt, clay, and millions of tons of dissolved gypsum were washed from the mountains into the lake. About 12,000 years ago the climate changed again. With the end of the ice age, less rain fell on the mountains and warming temperatures began to dry up Lake Otero.

Selenite Formation
As the water in Lake Otero slowly evaporated, the dissolved gypsum in the lake gradually increased in concentration to the point where the water became saturated.

In the muddy floor of the shrinking Lake Otero, gypsum crystals (CaSO4.2H20) began to form. Known as selenite, these knife-like gypsum crystals grew to be as much as four feet long.

By about 4,000 years ago, Lake Otero had completely evaporated, leaving behind a dry lake bed, or playa, now called the Alkali Flat. Beneath the clay and silt surface of the Alkali flat the gypsum, now in crystal form, was waiting for the wind.

Wind Action
Southwest winds scour Lake Lucero
Southwest winds scour the
Alkali Flats & Lake Lucero.
After Lake Otero evaporated, strong southwesterly winds, typical of this area since the end of the ice age, swept across the Alkali Flat. The winds picked up small particles of clay and silt from the playa surface and carried them high into the atmosphere and out of the area.

As wind erosion removed the surface material and lowered the level of the Alkali Flat, the selenite crystals were exposed. The forces of nature - freezing and thawing, and sandblasting by wind-eventually broke down the crystals into sand-size particles.

Unlike the fine silt and clay particles, sand grains are too heavy to be carried very far by the wind. Instead, the wind tends to bounce sand along the ground, a few inches at a time. This bouncing movement is called saltation.

The southwesterly winds bounced the selenite particles across the Alkali Flat toward the northeast. As more crystals disintegrated, gypsum sand began to accumulate downwind of the Alkali Flat, and the white sands were born.

Lake Lucero
On rare occasions the lowest part of the alkali flat, at the extreme southern end, still fills up with water. After heavy rains, about ten square miles (26 kM2) may be flooded, creating a temporary lake known as Lake Lucero.

While Lake Lucero is only a small fraction of the size of Lake Otero, its ice age predecessor, it is a critical link in the geologic process that continues to produce gypsum sand.

Beneath the surface of Lake Lucero, selenite crystals continue to form, even during periods when there is no standing water. Because runoff from the mountains cannot escape to the sea, the soils of the basin contain vast amounts of water very close to the surface. At Lake Lucero, the water table is usually only two to four feet (.6 to 1.2 m) below ground.

From this shallow depth, ground water, heavily laden with dissolved gypsum, moves upward to the surface of Lake Lucero through capillary action. As the water approaches the playa surface, it evaporates and selenite crystals form in the mud just beneath ground level.

A thin, puffy crust of gypsum may also form on the surface of Lake Lucero. Lesser amounts of other soluble minerals, such as sodium chloride (table salt) and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt), may also be deposited as groundwater evaporates on the surface.

This surface crust, along with non-gypsum clay and silt washed into Lake Lucero during rainstorms, eventually breaks down into fine particles and is swept away by the wind. Selenite crystals are then exposed to the forces of erosion and break down into sand-size fragments that are blown into the dune field.

Thus, the same processes that operated thousands of years ago at Lake Otero continue to operate, on a much smaller scale, at present-day Lake Lucero.

While most of the sand that comprises the dune field probably originated on the Alkali Flat, today Lake Lucero is the primary source of gypsum sand for the dune field.

Crystal Beds
Lake Lucero at last
At last - Lake Lucero.
The trail to Lake Lucero passes steep gullies that have been eroded into the sediment on the slopes above Lake Lucero. The gullies have cut down to the original floor of Lake Otero and exposed parts of extensive selenite crystal beds.

The large crystals are often ambercolored due to the presence of impurities in the selenite.

Exposed to the air for the first time in thousands of years, the crystals begin to erode. Sand-sized selenite fragments are then washed down the gullies into Lake Lucero, and from there are blown into the dune field.

Although Lake Otero dried up many centuries ago, it is still contributing gypsum to the white sand dune field.

The crystal fragments that form the white sands are not white in color when they are first blown from Lake Lucero. Instead, they are transparent flakes.

As the transparent crystal fragments are blown further into the dune field, they become white due to two factors. First, as the sand grains bounce along the ground they collide with each other, resulting in numerous scratches that reflect white light.

Also, the wind and sun dry out the sand grains and as they lose moisture they become whiter. When rain falls on the dunes, the sand absorbs moisture and darkens in color until it dries out again.

Prehistoric People
Fossil camel footprint
Fossil camel footprint
on the Alkali Flat.
At the end of the last ice age, Asiatic hunters and gatherers crossed the Bering land bridge into Alaska. These early people spread across most of North and South America, pursuing mammoths, camels, horses, giant bison, and other now-extinct species. Fossil footprints left by these huge animals can still be found on the Alkali Flat north of Lake Lucero.

By 10,000 years ago, ancestors of American Indians had reached the margins of Lake Otero. For 1,000 years, they hunted bison throughout the Tularosa Basin, which was then lush grassland.

Archeologists have found chipped stone lance points and other traces of "Folsum" technology throughout the lowlands of the Tularosa Basin.

As the climate became more and Lake Otero evaporated, both the grasslands and the big mammals disappeared. The big-game hunters were forced to change their life style, adopting a more generalized economy based on small game hunting and plant gathering.

During this Archaic period, Indian groups moved throughout the Tularosa Basin and surrounding mountains, timing their movements to take advantage of wild edible plants that were in season.

One of the most important plants was Indian ricegrass, which produces edible rice-like seeds. Ricegrass prefers sandy soil and is found throughout the dune field. Because it is the first edible plant in the area to mature, Indians would enter the white sands in the early summer to gather the seeds of the ricegrass.

By 2,000 years ago, agriculture had become established in the Tularosa Basin and domesticated plants had become a major part of the prehistoric diet. As the Indians became increasingly dependent on agriculture, they gradually abandoned their seasonal migrations and began to construct permanent villages.

By A.D. 700 a farming people called the Jornada Mogollon were living along canyons on the margins of the Tularosa Basin. By A.D. 1100, they were building large villages near permanent water sources. Two of the largest villages built during this time were along the western shore of Lake Lucero.

During the early 1300s, for reasons as yet unknown, all major Mogollon villages in the area, including the ones along Lake Lucero, were abandoned. By A.D. 1350 the Tularosa Basin was empty after an occupation which had lasted nearly 10,000 years.

The fate of the Jornada Mogollon people is unknown. They may have remained in the area, reverting to a migratory hunting and gathering existence, leaving little trace of their passing.

By the early 1600s, the Mescalero Apaches had moved into the area and established themselves in the mountains surrounding the Tularosa Basin. Despite the movement of Spanish explorers and settlers up the Rio Grande valley to the west, Apache resistance delayed European colonization of the Tularosa Basin until the mid-1800s.

Spanish Settlement
In the late 1700s and early 1800s. expeditions from El Paso traveled along the west side of Lake Lucero to mine salt on the Alkali Flat. Heavy ox-drawn carts, called "carretas," were used to haul salt back to El Paso. It was not until the 1860s, however, that Hispanic New Mexicans succeeded in founding settlements at the mouths of La Luz and Tularosa Canyons on the eastern edge of the Tularosa Basin.

After the Apaches were subdued and the Mescalero Reservation was established in 1873, settlers from the eastern U.S. and west Texas began moving into the Tularosa Basin. Long-abandoned Mogollon farmlands were replowed, and sheep, goat, and cattle ranching were introduced.

In 1897, Jose and Felipe Lucero, both sheriffs of Dona Ana county, obtained title to 160 acres on the south shore of the dry lake that would bear their name. The Lucero ranch eventually encompassed 20,000 acres (8,100 ha), with an estimated 2,000 head of cattle. The main ranch house was several miles south of Lake Lucero, on what is now the White Sands Missile Range.

The north unit of the ranch lies within the National Monument and is composed of stock pens, a watering trough, a well, and a fallen wind pump. Visitors can see the north unit on Lake Lucero tours.

Many other historic figures homesteaded and ranched the newly opened Tularosa Basin, including Pat Garrett, cowboy-writer Eugene Rhodes, and Oliver Lee, whose Circle Cross Ranch became the largest in New Mexico.

The Luceros, along with many other ranchers in the basin, abandoned cattle raising during World War II, as much of the basin became a bombing range. In 1945 the White Sands Missile Range was created.

Site Gallery - Lake Lucero
 This way to the lake  This is Lake lucero  Remnant of Lucero ranch
 A bed of selenite  Selenite - up close  Oryx tracks
 Oryx on the range
Sand, sand, sand .....
as far as one can see!.
For More Information
White Sands National Monument
Geology of White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument: Things To Do (DesertUSA)
White Sands Investigation
Lake Lucero - Southern New Mexico Online Magazine

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