Hey, we’re in New Mexico!
Besides our visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings one of the more iconic and strikingly visual natural places we wanted to visit in New Mexico was the White Sands National Monument, hereafter referred to in this post as WSNM. The VLA is strikingly visual as well but man-made. We headed in that direction and knew we were getting close when we passed the sign indicating we were entering the White Sands Missile Range since the Monument is completely surrounded by the military installation.
Coming down out of the hills and past that sign above we also saw numerous signs indicating that restricted areas were on the other side of the fence which lined both sides of the highway.
I was momentarily tempted to let her chase the ground-dwelling critters on the other side of the fence but decided it wasn’t worth setting off the in-ground fiber optic perimeter defense vibration sensors which are almost certainly there and then having to deal with annoyed MPs and their guns.
We eventually arrived at the turn off to the monument itself and pulled into the Visitor Center parking lot to ask about camping opportunities.
Sadly, because of scheduled missile tests the next day camping was not permitted that night. Next time we visit the area we will look up the test schedule and see if we can’t spend a day or two out on the white sands without the possibility of getting bombed. Just before the actual entrance (the Visitor Center is before you enter the paid area of the Monument) we passed a sign with some interesting rules.
We asked the ranger at the kiosk why that specific date range for no booze and he responded with a smile and two words: Spring Break. The $5 entrance fee is really quite reasonable but we were still happy that our Access Pass once again got us in for free as we handed it to the Ranger with my license and he said “thank you” and handed us the visitors brochure. Driving slowly down the hard-packed gypsum road we pulled over at the first opportunity to take a photo that would make both dog and Tacoma fans happy.
Driving along this solid expanse of white is a bit of an otherworldly experience. Kind of like driving in a snow-covered, featureless realm but is looks, sounds, smells and feels different if you know what I mean.
All along the road there are signs erected in both English and Spanish giving you information on the geologic forces that created this place as well as the human influences that shaped it into the Monument that you see today. Other signs introduce you to the various plants and animals that call this environment their home and the tactics they use to survive in this ever-changing landscape. The first major turnout off of Dune Drive is at the wheelchair accessible Interdune Boardwalk that heads out into the dunes and give you some insight into the flora and fauna that can be found living here. Besides the boardwalk the Visitor Center, auditorium, museum, gift shop and restrooms are all wheelchair accessible. There are numerous other turnoffs and turnouts further along the road that lead to hiking trail heads and areas for further exploration, sledding opportunities or to picnic areas with canopied picnic tables and grills where you can relax and have a nice meal protected from the sun and wind.
If you notice on the dune to the rear of that photo there are vertical tracks on its face which were made by people sledding down on plastic disks like the kind used at snow parks. They are available for sale at the visitor center for some dumb, expensive price ($15 IIRC) or, if they are available, you can purchase a used one for about half that price. If you buy a new one the store will buy it back from you for about $5 when you are finished with it. At my age I heal way more slowly than when I was a teenager and so we decided to forgo the sledding experience this time. Next time we visit, maybe I will fortify myself with two cans of courage or two bottles of bravery (or possibly all four) and pretend I am young, dumb and unbreakable. Maybe.
While we didn’t see any horses we did see signs that indicated horses are allowed to be ridden inside the monument which sounds like a fun activity. Bicycling is also allowed on Dune Drive but during wet weather the road devolves into a paste and would likely cover you and your bike which sounds less fun than the horse thing. There are five main hiking trails with round-trip lengths from a half mile to five miles.
As far as geology goes the WSNM is one of the rarest landscapes on Earth. Only a handful of these gypsum dune systems exist and, at 176,000 acres (about 275 square miles) this is the largest one on the planet being about eighty-eight (88) times larger than the next smallest one (of 2000 acres) just a bit South East from here in the Guadalupe Mountains. Astronauts can easily see this area from orbit.
Truth be told these “white sands” are not really sand at all as most people think of it. When we think of “sand” we are usually thinking of quartz-based grains of what used to be larger rocks that have been broken down over great periods of time into the sand that you find on a beach or in a mountain valley. The other main type of sand is calcium-based and made from bits of broken down coral over millions of years of surf and tidal action along coastal regions. This area is instead made up of gypsum crystals.
This geologic story (simplified so a non-scientist like your humble narrator can understand it) begins about 280 Million years ago when this area was underwater. As sea levels rose, fell and rose again many times over hundreds of Millions of years layers of gypsum were formed, buried by silt and sediment and then new layers were added. About 75 Million years ago tectonic plates clashed and the Pacific plate pulled the subduction move and forced itself down under the North American continental plate. Sea levels were also falling at that time and so eventually all those layered gypsum deposits were pushed up and exposed. Since gypsum is water-soluble it is rarely found in this sand form. Usually it would be dissolved by rains and washed away. In this case though the Tularosa Basin where the Monument exists is essentially a closed tub with no outlets to the sea and so the dissolved gypsum collects in low-lying areas where the water eventually evaporates leaving the gypsum in its crystalline form known as selenite. Over time weather in the form of wind and water coming down out of the San Andres Mountains break these crystals down into what we now call “sand” and it gets blown all over the area and forms into the grand, white dunes we get to play on today.
Many of the plants and animals in the area have adapted to live in this environment. Various animal species who live in the portion of the Chihuahuan Desert not covered in the white sands are substantially darker in color than their brethren who make their homes in the dunes. Plants like the Sand verbena have developed root systems that are more shallow than their non-dune-dwelling cousins. They have sped up their flowering and seeding process so those tasks can be accomplished in one season before the ever-shifting sands smother them.
The story of humans in the area begins after the last ice age about 11,000 years ago. The Journada Mogollon farmed the area until an extended drought forced them to move elsewhere in the 1300’s. Native American Indians returned to the area in the 1600’s and were left to their own devices until the Europeans arrived and screwed it all up in the 1800’s. I’m an apologist. Soon the railroad arrived and that helped open the flood gates to settlers. Around 1885 enthusiastic attempts were made to remove as much of the clean, beautiful, white sand as possible for various business ventures. Luckily, in the 1920’s, a local Alamogordo resident Thomas Charles and his wide Bula started the effort to get this declared a National Park instead of a huge mine. President Herbert Hoover made it a National Monument in 1933 and it was a quiet oasis until World War II brought the military to the area to test their weapons systems. That all culminated in 1945 with the Trinity nuclear bomb test about 100 miles North of the Visitor’s Center.
After this fast, boring photo we decided to break the rules a bit and allow Willow a quick, untethered romp in the sands both because she likes to romp and because I wanted her to get some exercise in.
Of course as soon as I slipped the leash off over her head some people walked into view and gave us the stink-eye right as my girl decides to squat and drop a steaming dark load on the cool white sands. Great timing girlie. As usual though I had several doggie poop bags and immediately picked up her aromatic deposit and so no harm, no foul.
Do be careful though when walking, running or sledding around the dunes in bare feet as there are areas that look like soft sand but have solidified into a sandstone-like hard and abrasive form that can do real damage to your precious little tootsies. One plus of this gypsum sand is that it does not absorb the suns rays and turn that into heat like quartz-based sand crystals and so even on the hottest days it remains pleasantly cool to the touch. On the day we were there it was all of 60 degrees F out and so the sand was actually cold on my feet.
The whole time we were in the Monument we could hear the sounds of heavy machinery in the not-so-far distance. Every once in a while we also caught a glimpse of large front loaders working to beat back the ever encroaching dunes from covering the roadway. We were told that one windstorm can make portions of Dune Drive and complete hiking trails totally disappear and so the tractors and graders work seven days a week undoing all the mayhem that Mother Nature causes.
It had also rained a day or two before we arrived and so there were many sections of Dune Drive that were sloppy with this slurry, white concoction of semi-dissolved gypsum paste. Even when abiding by the woefully slow speed limit it did not take much to get some power slides happening and so we popped the Tacoma into 4-wheel drive just for safety’s sake. Less fun but also less possibility of slamming into a wall of sand on the side of the road or a fellow visitor sharing the road with us. Being a responsible adult is not always the fun decision. That paste also got everywhere and when we stopped back at the Visitor Center on the way out of the Monument many of the Tacoma’s black bits looked like they were painted or frosted white.
Hey, at least all this white is not a salt slurry doing damage in all the Tacoma’s little nooks and crannies until we get around to hosing it off which we did a couple of days later in a wand wash in downtown Alamogordo. As we pulled out of the wash area to head to the vacuum area we saw the attendant come over and with a look of annoyance proceed to wash down all the sand we had deposited on the floor into the drain area of his nice, clean wash bay. There is no way we are the first people to ever wash our vehicles off after getting coated at the monument but, regardless, sorry dude.
So, what did we learn from our little side trip to the WSNM? Rare geologic formation. Check. Largest in the world. Check. This “sand” doesn’t get hot. Check. Sometimes the area is closed for missile tests so you really should look up the test schedule or call before you head this direction. Check. No booze allowed during spring break months (February 1st – May 31). Check. Dammit! Dogs should always be leashed. Check. (Nudge nudge, wink wink) No, really, “Do as I say, Not as I do.” Where have I heard that before? Oh, I remember now, parents and politicians. No off-roading. Check and dammit again! Both Plants and animals have made adjustments to live in this environment. Check. All in all a very interesting place surrounded by undeveloped natural beauty (except for fallen missile pieces) with a very reasonable entrance fee and a chance to partake in some activities that you can do almost nowhere else on the planet (sledding down white sand hills). It’s easy to find and get to. Willow and I do wholeheartedly recommend that if you ever find yourself in the area you make it a point to stop on by and experience such an incredible and strikingly visual place.