Before going to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, we didn’t know what to expect other than, well, white sand, and we certainly didn’t expect to love the place as much as we did. From the main road — which passes through White Sands Missile Range and is sometimes closed by the U.S. Army for missile testing — you don’t see too much. The road was open on the early December afternoon we arrived, and we had just enough time to check out the Visitor Center exhibits and go on a sunset stroll led by a retired ranger who now volunteers at the park.
He gave us an introduction to the plants and animals found in this part of the Chihuahuan Desert. He also explained how this 275-square-mile gypsum dune field — the world’s largest — was formed. Millions of years of tectonic and other geologic activity eventually exposed the gypsum-rich bed of the ancient Permian Sea, and Ice Age forces concentrated the gypsum into selenite crystals. Over time, winds from the southwest have ground the selenite crystals into finer particles of gypsum. Moisture flowing down from the San Andres Mountains to the west and from nearby Lake Lucero keeps the gypsum particles from dispersing entirely, with moisture just below the surface acting like glue. Even so, the dunes can move between five and 40 feet per year.
Because of this extensive white landscape, some of the animals here, such as the bleached earless lizard and the Apache pocket mouse, have evolved to be much lighter in color than their counterparts outside White Sands. Plants, too, have adapted to the tricky conditions here. Some grow fast and spread shallow roots, some grow tall to stay above the rising dunes, and some grow deep roots to anchor themselves on a pedestal.
You might have heard of gypsum and think of it as the main ingredient in drywall and plaster. But did you know that the average American consumes 28 pounds of gypsum over the course of a lifetime? This powdery substance is used in foods (like blue cheese, white bread and ice cream), medicines, the production of beer and wine, and an array of household products such as toothpaste and cosmetics.
We returned the next morning to spend the day in the park, first driving to the end of Dunes Drive to the Heart of the Sands area. The deeper you drive into the park, the sparser the vegetation becomes, and the high dunes are truly spectacular.
We hiked the five-mile looping Alkali Flat Trail, which was one of our favorite Project 100 hikes. Orange posts planted in the sand mark the approximate path, and if not for them, way-finding would be impossible in the constantly shifting sands.
Walking on the dunes was fascinating. They appear dazzlingly white in bright sunlight and take on a grayer cast when clouds roll in. Surprisingly, the sand was rather cool to the touch and had a soothingly fine texture, like hourglass sand. At the same time, except for uphill stretches, the sand was much more solid to walk on than we anticipated, thanks to the moisture just below the surface. Walking around in all that white sand caused us to lose track of both time and distance. Thank goodness for those orange posts, because otherwise we would have had no idea where we were headed or how long and far we’d been walking. Thank goodness, also, we came here in December when it is safer to be out wandering around in the treeless desert.
Further, we found the dunes mildly disorienting because they looked like snow drifts but lacked the fluffy, wet, cold feeling of snow. Many visitors in fact bring sleds with them to glide down the hills, and the gift shop next to the Visitor Center even sells sledding saucers. We considered it, but after an accident on one of those round saucers more than a dozen years ago in Flagstaff, a trip to the emergency room put me off sledding for good.
We did, however, stop at the Backcountry Camping area, which has remote, walk-in sites where those who can tolerate very cold nights may camp in the interdunal patches. Numbered posts identifying the sites are the only infrastructure in the camping area, beyond a handful of picnic tables and barbecue grills in the parking lot. We weren’t there to camp but did have a picnic and then hiked the two-mile trail that took us to the top of the dunes.
Here as elsewhere, we could hear and see fighter jets overhead. Sandwiched between Holloman Air Force Base on one side and White Sands Missile Range on the other, it’s hard to escape the military presence even in the middle of the park. And yet, the juxtaposition of such unnatural activities in an otherwise incredible natural area didn’t take away from the wow factor of White Sands. This is one of those places that had us exclaiming, “This is so cool!” again and again and again.