Lake Lucero

November 19, 2022

The weather held, and we had a clear and sunny day for the tour of Lake Lucero.

me on the shore of Lake Lucero

In a state with more than its share of geological oddities, this is surely at the top of the list! Sandwiched between White Sands National Monument and the San Andres Mountains is a 1600-square-mile basin known as Lake Otero. During the last ice age, rain and showmelt carried gypsum into the basin from the San Andres Mountains to the west and the Sacramento Mountains to the east. As Lake Otero evaporated and changed from a lake to a playa, left behind were concentrations of selenite, the crystalline form of gypsum. Freezing and thawing broke the large crystals into progressively smaller chunks, finally turning them into sand. The tiny grains are picked up by the wind and blown eastward, eventually forming the famous white sand dunes.

Lake Lucero panorama

The process continues down to the present day, as water settles in a 10-square-mile area called Lake Lucero.

selenite crystals

White Sands National Park offers periodic ranger-led tours of Lake Lucero. Reservations are required, and of course no collection is permitted.

selenite crystals shimmering in the sun

The trail to Lake Lucero passes steep gullies where selenite crystals have been exposed by erosion of the floor of Lake Otero.

white sand around selenite crystals

Over time, they turn white as they collide and scratch each other in the wind.

selenite crystals with a boot for scale

The resulting scratches reflect white light, and the sand is also whitened as it is dried by the wind and sun.

We hustled to the mouth of a small wash to search for the largest crystals.

long line of selenite crystals

Some of them were up to two feet long!

translucent selenite crystals

The crystals are slightly translucent with a lovely amber hue.

oryx tracks

Oryx tracks criss-cross the playa. Between 1969 and 1977, New Mexico Fish & Game released 95 oryx, natives of Africa's Kalahari Desert, on White Sands Missile Range. With no natural predators, today the herd has swelled to nearly 6000.

salt-encrusted shrub

Salt-encrusted shrub near the water's edge, with Dennis in the distance.

long view of Lake Lucero

Of course we were summoned back to shore, after wandering quite a distance from the tour group. Me and my tracks in the increasingly slippery mud.