White Sands National Monument (July 1, 2005)

Having spent the whole morning in Santa Fe , we had to hurry on to White Sands National Monument before it closed. The road to White Sands was pretty monotonous for a good part of the drive. I must admit that I felt a bit groggy after several days of driving or hiking and little sleep at night. We drove past Alamogordo where the first nuclear tests were conducted, arriving at White Sands late in the afternoon, but fortunately just before the Visitor Center closed. The temperature read 105 F in the shade. We sat through an informative introduction video of the park. I learned that White Sands National Monument is the largest of its kind - some 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes. Gypsum in its original state was brownish and translucent with quartz like appearance. However, as it decomposed into fine grains and got blown across lakes and lagoons and rubbing against one another, the resulting sand becomes snow white. Driving into the national monument took us a certain amount of determination. After a long and tiring drive to get to the park, the prospect of going into a desert at over 100 degrees F was not at all appealing. But having traveled so far to reach it, we were compelled to do the park loop drive. I am glad we did it though, since there was no other drive quite like it, and that's no small statement with all my previous travels. In a way, it was surreal -Everything was white! And not just the sand dunes - you'd naturally expect them to be white. But then all the huge roads were all white as well. This white landscape was only disturbed occasionally by park structures. Imagine yourself driving in a large region after a snow blizzard, except with your air conditioner going full blast to compensate for the excessive heat on the outside. To our surprise, many people handled the heat much better than we did. We found a family sand surfing down a dune. We even found a guy lighting a barbecue at the picnic area, in the sun! After a good drive to see the landscape, we returned to a rendezvous point with the interpretive Sunset Stroll Nature Walk group. While waiting, I ventured out to the hills and took pictures of the resilient yucca trees and the white sand dunes. I had to keep track of my bearings as I climbed the hills, since there was nothing to give me a sense of how to get back - once you climb past a hill, all hills look the same. After half an hour of hiking and sweating, I returned to the car, just in time to find the group ready to go on the stroll. The Sunset Stroll was lead by a pretty and knowledgeable volunteer who taught us about the origin of the sand dunes, how wildlife survives and even how to read animal tracks. My wife was probably listening more attentively since I was busy looking for photographic subjects. Somewhere along the way, the group even held hands to do something that I don't remember J , except that I was not part of it. We then stayed to capture the sunset moment. By this time, the heat has subsided to a tolerable extent. I captured a few sunset images with the white sands reflecting the golden color of the setting sun. We then said good bye to the group and headed out as it was getting dark. I read somewhere that on full moon nights, the park opens longer, and there would be ranger-led tours for photographic purposes. Next time, I'd have to plan to visit on a full-moon night.

We had wanted to find a campsite at or near White Sands NM. However, there was no campground in the park, and even if there were, we could not stand the heat. So we pushed on, only to find out that the dashboard light had gone out. We later found out that the rear break light used the same fuse, and they were out as well, making driving much more hazardous! In any event, we did not stop until we reached Las Cruces to make up for the time we had lost by going on side trips to Grand Canyon and Paria Vermillion Cliff. We checked in a passable hotel, hungry, tired and also worried about our first car trouble of the trip, not knowing for sure where we could get it fixed, and whether we could reach Carlsbad Caverns the following day.

Follow the link for pictures from the visit to White Sands National Monument.

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