I don’t often have to travel for my job, but on the rare occasions when I do, I always try to do more than just work and sleep. Recently, I was sent for work out west, and as luck would have it I ended up working Friday and Monday, which meant the weekend was mine to do with as I wished. I wasn’t too ambitious though – summer in the desert southwest is no joke. My main plan for Saturday was to stay in the air conditioning, but after a day of that I was bored enough that I decided to brave the heat and head outdoors. I was only about an hour and a half away from White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, so that seemed like the perfect adventure spot. This unique area inspired locals to recommended preserving it as a national park as early as 1898. That effort, and another one in 1922, failed before Herbert Hoover finally designated the nearly 225 square miles as a national park in 1933.
Off of Route 70 between Las Cruces and Alamogordo, NM, the visitors center is an adobe brick structure built as part of a Works Progress Administration project using materials from the local area. It and several other similar structures nearby were built between 1936 and 1938, and were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Inside, the visitors center has a small museum with interesting and sometimes hands-on displays, a native plant garden, a beautifully filmed park overview movie, and a small gift shop. I took all of it in, and included in my gift-shop stop the buying of sun screen and water (which I stupidly had not stocked up on elsewhere) as well as a plastic “snow saucer” or sled plus a cube of wax for my much anticipated attempt to sled down a sand dune. You need to make sure you have plenty of water on you, whether you bring it with you or buy bottles at the gift shop. There is no water available in the monument itself, and it can get very very hot there.
There is a $10 per person, or $20 per car entrance fee (payable with cash, check, or credit card), which gets you access to the only road into the park, the 8 mile long Dunes Drive. The Drive in turn provides access to four hiking trails, several picnic areas, an amphitheater and a backcountry campsite. The road is paved for the first five miles, then turns into hard-packed gypsum sand for the last three.
My first stop was the half mile Playa Trail. A “playa,” or beach in Spanish, is a local term for a low lying area that fills with rainwater occasionally. The sandy trail out to this playa, which was dry, led out into the surrounding Chihuahua desert through cactus and scrub. A couple of informational signs talked about the occasional water, the animals attracted there, and descriptions of prehistoric animals they know frequented the area as well. I learned that “Dire wolves,” which I thought was something made up for “Game of Thrones,” are actual animals, and that they lived here between 125,000–9,500 years ago!
Just across the road is the turnoff for the Dune Life Nature Trail, a slightly more ambitious one mile loop through the dunes. As I climbed up a small hill of white sand, leaving the dry brown desert behind me, I spotted a small lizard with a bright blue tail. This was a little striped whiptail, also known as a little blue-tail. He soon skittered off under a yucca and I climbed on up into the dunes. There I was surrounded by nothing but white sand, interrupted by only the occasional plant (or former-plant) with an impossibly blue sky overhead. I had a little bit of trouble being sure exactly where in that all-white landscape the trail actually was, and since I was on my own with not another human in sight I opted to go for caution and just explore as much as I could while still keeping the trail markers in view. I think I actually ended up going part way around the loop, but backwards. I did note some excellent steep dunes, though, and made a mental note to return there for my sledding experiment if I found nothing better deeper into the park. As I walked back to the car, I passed a mother with her young children headed to the dunes, toting sleds, so I guess my idea wasn’t a very original one.
A little ways down the road, there is a .4 mile boardwalk out into the “interdunal” area of the park. This wheelchair, stroller, and walker-accessible elevated boardwalk takes you out over the fragile interdunal landscape, with informational signs all along the way. I walked out and back, but the heat was getting to me a bit, so I didn’t linger long before getting back into the car (and the AC) to drive on to the area labeled on maps as the Heart of the Dunes. This was said to be the best place for finding steep dunes suitable for sledding. It was around here that the paved road turned to packed sand. At first I was a little worried about driving my rental car there, but the surface is very hard and lots of different kinds of vehicles navigate it just fine. It’s nothing to worry about. I kept driving into a landscape that had fewer and fewer plants – just solid white everywhere I looked. I passed a sign for a picnic area. I couldn’t imaging a picnic out here. My childhood picnics were mostly at Metcalf Bottoms, and beautiful shady picnic area along a creek in the lush and shady Great Smoky Mountains. This sort of looked like Mars. When I found the actual picnic area, the sight of a row of picnic tables set up underneath shiny metal shelters looked to me like something out of the Jetsons. I also found my sledding spot, but I have to confess that my attempts were pretty weak. I tried a couple of times, never really got up much speed, and soon gave it up in favor of the AC in the car.
After several hours exploring in 105 degree heat, I decided to nip out to Alamogordo, only 15 miles away, for a bite of “lupper” or whatever you call a meal between lunch and dinner. I wanted to come back, though, because at 6:30 that night there was going to be a ranger-led “Sunset Stroll.” The entry ticket is actually good for several days, so it makes it easy to come and go however fits your schedule or your heat-tolerance. I’d heard the sunsets at White Sands were stunning and thought this would be a good way to experience it. The “Sunset Stroll” meeting area is well marked on the park maps, and there is also a sign posted near the parking area for it, so finding where to meet up is not a problem. There were about 15 of us when I went. While we waited for a few stragglers, the ranger made an odd suggestion – she recommended that we take off our shoes and just leave them in the car. It turns out that the gypsum-based sand does not hold heat like the normal quartz based sand you find at the beach, so the sand is actually quite cool! Most of us took her up on her suggestion and soon our little group was headed out across the desert, barefoot.
She led us to the top of a nearby dune, where she pointed out the band of white visible in the rock of the surrounding mountains. This is gypsum rock, which is abundant in the San Andreas and Sacramento Mountains that surround the basin containing White Sands. Gypsum dissolves easily in water, and so when it rains, the dissolved mineral is washed down into the Tularosa Basin, which is basically like a giant bathtub with no drain – there is no place for the water to drain out. It collects, temporarily, in the lowest point in the basin, Lake Lucero. There, the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind the minerals, which form large selenite crystals. These crystals are very soft, and so when the wind blows over them, they flake off and tumble together to eventually become the soft white sand we were sitting on.
Next, we climbed down off the dune to a spot where a small hole had been drilled into the packed sand so that we could see how close to the surface the water table is. If I remember right, she said it was only about a meter down. Sure enough, peering into the hole you could see a pool of water at the bottom. This water is actually what holds the sands in place here. Water combined with powdered gypsum forms a hard surface – you’d know it as the same stuff that wallboard is made from. Water close to the surface also provides life-giving moisture for plants to grow, which further binds the sands to this location. After a brief stop at the water hole, we went up another dune to take a closer look at some of those plants. Some plants put out root systems that pull in water and end up forming hard pillars of sand around the roots. When the dunes shift, as they do at varying rates across the dune field, these pillars remain like a pedestal with a plant growing out of the top of it. Some plants simply grow their stems long enough to keep their leaves on the top of the dunes. Yucca does this. Yucca roots are broad and shallow, but as the sand builds up, a yucca plant will grow a longer and longer stem to keep its leaves and flowers above the dune. Yucca plants have been known to have a 30 foot stem. This works great as long as the dune is there, but when it eventually shifts away, the yucca collapses and dies because it can’t support that long stem.
Another survival strategy is to just grow roots long enough to find the water. The cottonwood tree, which is so known for being a water-loving tree that sighting a stand of them is a sure sign of water nearby, surprisingly grows well in White Sands. Because of the high water table, it is able to drive roots down into the water, and just keeps on growing while the sands shift around it. The cottonwood also puts out several plants from the same root system, so what might look like several separate trees could be a single tree, looking like a line of shrubs growing on top of the dunes.
After a stop at a “Mormon Tea” bush, and a talk on various prehistoric animal tracks found in the Monument (but not where we were), it was time for the grand finale – the sunset.
Though I never did get the hang of sledding on the sand dunes, I still very much enjoyed my few hours at White Sands National Monument. It is a unique and beautiful place, and well worth a visit!