This week we visit the beautiful, awe inspiring, world famous White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo in south-central New Mexico. White Sands is located in the Tularosa Basin surrounded by the San Andres Mountains to the west and the San Francisco Mountains to the east. On our drive from Alamogordo to this Monument, as we get closer and closer to the entrance, it seems to take on a mirage like look as the white sand shimmers not unlike fresh snow not yet tainted. Intriguing at first sight!
Like most of our visits to National Parks, Monuments and Historic Sites, our first stop is at the Visitor Center. At White Sands, this means the adobe structure built during the depression by the WPA and CCC and expanded in the intervening years. This Monument was established in 1933 by President Hoover using the authority of the Antiquities Act to preserve this national treasure. White Sands is the largest gypsum dune field in the world and the park consists of over 143,000 acres. It’s also a park that is completely surrounded by military bases; Holloman Air Force Base on the northeast side and the White Sands Missile Range on all the other sides. Visitors should know that the Monument is occasionally closed during missile testing usually only for an hour or two once or twice a week. And visitors should also know that high winds can limit access to the park and can stop traffic on the nearby highway (mostly during the spring season). Between 500 and 600 thousand visitors visit White Sands each year with the months of March through July as the most popular times.
After touring the displays, watching the promotional video and talking with the ranger, it was time to take the 16 mile round trip Dunes Drive into the Monument.
At the Visitor Center we learned that the gypsum crystals are broken down by the wind and water making them smaller and smaller until they become the fine, pure white sand. The prevailing southwest winds keep the sand moving along, creating the dunes we see in the monument. Some of the dunes can reach up to 60 feet high and at times covering tall trees in the way. The dunefield is active and every changing so on return visits even in the same year can result in a completely new landscape. You might be interested to know that these dunes are easy to walk due to the humidity of the sand grains themselves being near 100%.
After a stop at the entrance station to pay the entrance fees ($5/person, we used our Senior Pass so it was no fee for us!), we were immediately intrigued by the “artistry” the dunes create. There are interesting patterns, textures, forms and shadows. You’ll see many of those in the photos I took during our visit. Here are a few examples:
And sometimes the plants and critters (birds or maybe a lizard) themselves create their own “art” such as demonstrated in these photos.
The artistic patterns on the side of these dunes were a combination natural and man made!
Along Dunes Drive there are a number of designated hiking/walking trails and a few that are handicap accessible. Since we had the whole day to experience the park, we hiked a few of the trails. Here’s some of the things we saw:
Note that there are a lot of plants in these ever changing dunes. As the sand moves to bury the plants, the stems grow longer and roots burrow deeper into the water layer below. One interesting thing we learned is that the white sand is cool to the touch as it absorbs heat differently and holds more water than other types of sand. We also learned that the water layer is located just below the surface so a person can dig down 10-12 inches and high moisture and eventually standing water. Kind of amazing in the desert!
Below is an example how the yucca creates a “plant stand” by accumulating sand in the “dead zones” until it eventually is covered and falls over. Also note the interesting seed pod created by this plant that adds interest to the dune scenery.
Trees do grow in this environment too. The top photo shows a tree that has managed to grow quite tall but will likely meet the same fate as the tree in the bottom photo. Eventually it will be covered by sand, at one time this tree stood 20-30 feet above the dunes!
As we were exploring the monument, we saw some interesting activities. There were a number of kids and adults “sledding” down the dunes. Even looks like snow and winter too! Visitors can either bring their own sled so purchase on in the concession at the Visitor Center. Lots of the sleds are abandoned at the end of the day only to be recycled for use the next day. Lots of school groups visit the dunes and this one of the many ways the kids are keep busy and enjoy the dunes. I wonder what the parents think when those kids return home with all that sand in their shoes!
Here’s another guy lounging at the top of one of the dunes in his chair with feet up on a footstool. I guess he was enjoying the sunny, clear but cool day!
The park offers a number of ranger programs throughout the year such as full moon night walk, tours to Lake Lucero, and twice a year sunrise photography tours. The day of our visit they were offering a ranger led sunset walk and talk so we hung around to take part. Here’s the volunteer ranger, Melissa who helped us to understand how this unique place was formed. As we walked along, she pointed out many things of interest that we would have ignored or missed. It was an hour well spent.
About 15-20 visitors participated in the walk. As the sun started to set I was able to capture a group “selfie!”
While the sunset wasn’t as spectacular we had hoped, it was still fun to see it set and feel the dunes quickly cool off. At the end, Donna and I were the only ones left with the ranger as we wore our winter jackets knowing full well that when the sun goes down in the desert it get cold, at least this time of year.
It was completely dark when we finally exited the Monument, declaring it a good and fun day. We highly recommend visiting this gem in the National Park Service. In fact this is a park that changes over time so repeat visits should be considered.
Next week we visit Las Cruces and Mesilla, New Mexico.
Until then, travel safe.