Lake Lucero crystals out of this world

Ranger Robin Milne talks about the oryx species during a Lake Lucero tour at White Sands National Monument, N.M., Dec. 30, 2017. They oryx is a large antelope species native to Africa, but the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish introduced the animal to New Mexico between 1969 and 1977 for hunting purposes and the population grew. Monument officials consider it an invasive species. Photos by Wendy Brown, Fort Bliss Garrison Public Affairs.

Ranger Robin Milne talks about the oryx species during a Lake Lucero tour at White Sands National Monument, N.M., Dec. 30, 2017. They oryx is a large antelope species native to Africa, but the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish introduced the animal to New Mexico between 1969 and 1977 for hunting purposes and the population grew. Monument officials consider it an invasive species. Photos by Wendy Brown, Fort Bliss Garrison Public Affairs.

By Wendy Brown, Fort Bliss Garrison Public Affairs:

(El Paso, Texas, Jan. 11, 2018)

WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT, N.M. – Part of the beauty of living in the Fort Bliss area is the opportunity to visit otherworldly places.

The formations at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, N.M., the expansive desert views from Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas, and the vast white sands of White Sands National Monument come to mind, and now I have another place to add to that list.

Selenite crystals lie along the dry shores of Lake Lucero at White Sands National Monument, N.M., Dec. 30, 2017.

Although I never imagined I’d walk the shores of an ancient dry lakebed filled with thousands upon thousands of glittering crystals, I did exactly that when my family and I took the Lake Lucero Tour on Nov. 30, 2017.

Although rationally I know the earth is extremely geologically diverse, on some level the lakebed felt like visiting another planet.

The tour began at 10 a.m., and participants lined up in their vehicles at the Small Missile Range Gate to caravan to the site where we would begin the hike to the lake. The gate is near the Border Patrol checkpoint on U.S. Route 70 and isn’t hard to find. After a 10-minute drive or so, a ranger led the group of about 30 on a three-quarters-of-a-mile hike to the lake. There was a large age range on the tour – from the elderly to a couple who brought a small baby in a sling – and everyone did fine. Round trip the hike is 1.5 miles.

Thousands of selenite crystals lie along the dry shores of Lake Lucero at White Sands National Monument, N.M., Dec. 30, 2017.

On the way, we stopped at the ruins of the former Lucero Ranch. Brothers Jose and Felipe Lucero stopped raising cattle in the area during World War II, when the area became part of a bombing range, but some of their fencing remains, as well as a restored cattle trough.

The lake is the truly amazing part, however. There are crystals everywhere, especially near the shoreline. The ranger made it clear we wouldn’t find a great trove of crystals farther into the lakebed – most of them are concentrated along the sides. Many were several inches long and they glittered and sparkled in the sun.

The rangers gave us about half an hour to explore the lakebed and provided everyone with information about how the crystals help form the gypsum sand that makes the monument famous. While the lake is on the monument, it is in a restricted area near the San Andres Mountains, according to a map. The only time the lakebed fills with water is if there has been a lot of rain or snow.

We also learned about the oryx, a large antelope species native to Africa that the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish introduced to the state for hunting purposes between 1969 and 1977. Monument officials consider it an invasive species.

In all, the tour took about three hours and left plenty of time in the day for a visit to the side of the monument that doesn’t require a tour. Remember, no taking crystals allowed.

The monument offers the tours once a month in January, February, March, April, November and December, according to the monument’s website. The next tour with available spots is Feb. 26, but online signups begin exactly a month in advance and fill up fast, so mark your calendar now to visit www.recreation.gov for reservations at 8 a.m. Jan. 26.