Welcome back to Traveling With Tom. For the past month or so, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts from several national parks, monuments, and historic sites in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. I must have “liked” or “clicked” on something that brings back those memories of visiting some of the places when we took our 2018 Southwest Swing. Repetition worked, so for the next few weeks I’m revisiting few stops at those parks.
I’ll start with White Sands National Park. When we visited in late January of 2018, White Sands was a National Monument.
It was promoted to a National Park on December 20, 2019. What did this change mean for White Sands? First, it added a couple thousand acres to the park, land that is now protected and brings the total acreage to nearly 150,000 acres. Second, the promotion will likely mean an increase in annual visitors even though it’s the most visited National Park Site in New Mexico. And finally, it will mean additional resources for upgrades and maintenance. I suspect the visitor center, built in 1936 by the WPA, plus it’s displays and gift shop will be expanded and improved. Maybe the Park Service will add a much needed campground.
White Sands National Park is located in south-central New Mexico sixteen miles west of Alamogordo and about fifty miles north and east of Las Cruces. We parked our trailer at the nicely appointed Alamogordo KOA for a couple of nights. We spent one day at White Sands arriving before noon and leaving after dark. After clearing the park entrance, we stopped at the small, busy visitor center to check out the exhibits, talk to a ranger, and stamp our National Parks passport. We chatted with the ranger who informed us of the guided sunset stroll, we signed up immediately, more about that later. We made a visit to the gift shop, then jumped in the F-150 for a drive through the park.
The eight-mile Dunes Drive takes visitors through the dunes where there are hiking trails and picnic areas. The white sand is made up of fine gypsum (calcium sulfate) crystals that were created by the every present wind. White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. In places it goes to a depth of 30 with some dunes reaching a height of 60 feet above ground level. It’s interesting to note that salty water lies just a foot or so just below the ground surface. So it’s not a “dry” desert, it’s white and wet!
As we drove the Dunes Drive, we admired the tall dunes. We saw a road grader that scrapes the drifting sand off the road each day. We even saw a couple of places were there was wet sand from the high water table. I couldn’t get over the interesting textures and patterns that nature created in the sand dunes. And they continue to change through out the day!
At one of the many turnouts, we saw a group of kids and young adults “sledding” down the dunes. To be honest, it does look a lot like snow. Some sledders were wearing stocking caps in the cool January air. If visitors forgot to bring their own sled, they were available at the gift shop!
We brought our lunch with us and stopped at one of the three picnic areas in the park. Most of the picnic tables were equipped with shelters to provide shade from the sun. The day of our visit it was cool so we found a table without a shelter so we could enjoy the warmth of the bright sun.
As I mentioned there are a number of hiking trails in the park. We hiked a few of the trails, making sure we didn’t go too far and get disoriented in the undulating dunes. We admired the trees and plants that struggle to live in the harsh conditions. The succulents, grasses, shrubs, and trees definitely need to be tolerant of the high salt content of the alkaline soils.
Believe it or not, White Sands is home to more than 800 animal species, many of them nocturnal. While we didn’t see any critters except for a few birds during our visit, we saw they were around, leaving their trails in the sand.
After spending most the day in the park, we were excited to end with a sunset stroll. The volunteer ranger met us at a parking area close to the park entrance.
We started off with about fifteen people some dressed in t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. Our guide led us on a walk through the dunes pointing out plants, answering questions about the geology of the dunes, and even digging a hole with a stick to demonstrate the high water table. As the one hour walk continued, a few people began to drop out and head back to their cars. When the sun was closer to setting, the air began to quickly cool, even more bailed. They weren’t prepared for the cool desert nights. At the end, it was just my Traveling Partner and I with the volunteer ranger watching the sunset over the mountains west of White Sands. We had a nice chat with her and found out that she was going to be a volunteer campground host at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in our home state of North Dakota. She’d never been there so we gave her some tips of things to see and do in the area.
I should mention that White Sands National Park is bounded on the east by Holloman Air Force Base. White Sands is bounded on the north, west, and south by the White Sands Missile Range. This highly secure military installation covers 3200 square miles or over 2,000,000 acres. The Missile Range is the site of the first test of the atomic bomb plus all types of rockets and missiles of mass destruction. There are periodic closures of the National Park and Highway 70 when there are missile test launches. The military always gives advanced warning and the closures usually don’t extend beyond a few hours.
We made good memories at White Sands. We wished we had time to hike the five mile Alkali Flat Trail that goes through some of the most scenic dunes to the dry lake bed of Lake Otero. It’s the most strenuous trail in the park and I hope I’m in condition to make this when we return. With that said, I’m going for a long walk to work up my stamina for that hike and many others I plan on taking once travel is safer! Or maybe I’ll save the energy and take a nap! Sweet dreams!
Until next week, happy virtual travels!