White Sands: Another Dune Encounter

In a move of opposites, I chose to go the the White Sands on Black Friday and walk the gypsum dunes rather than stroll store aisles. After discovering a love of dunes at Colorado’s Sand Dunes National Park, I was excited to feel sand between my toes again.

I was originally going dune hopping on Thanksgiving, but it took a lot longer than expected to get to the White Sands because I tried to prove Google Maps wrong. When I checked for directions from El Paso, TX, this is what Maps told me:null

What I saw were two routes that grossly overstepped the mark of efficiency. To me, it looked like we should go straight up Hwy 213 which cuts the distance significantly. I wondered why Google didn’t send me up Hwy 213 in the first place, but I didn’t take the time to fully research the reason.

I knew many military bases were in the area, and I saw quite a few signs on Hwy 213 warning of a dead end if heading for the White Sands Missile Range. I wasn’t going to the Missile Range, so I figured I was fine. However, when I started seeing big signs warning that absolutely no shoulder parking would be allowed and the main cross traffic would be tanks, I figured I wasn’t where I needed to be. The fact that I met only one other vehicle on the 30 mile stretch also made me wonder, but by that point I had to follow the path to its end.

I came within five miles of connecting with Hwy 70, which would have placed me about 10 miles south west of the White Sands National Monument, when I hit a well armed military checkpoint. The guard was, at first, very unimpressed with me.

“Didn’t you read the signs?” he grumbled as I queried whether I could get to the dunes. I said I’d seen stuff about tanks, but missed the concept that this wasn’t a through road. He answered that “dead end” should’ve probably alerted me to that fact, a rebuttal to which I had no comeback. Well played, sir guard.

Since it was Thanksgiving, I figured he didn’t want to be in a bad mood on a holiday, so I quickly struck up a conversation about the inaccuracies of Google Maps and the local wildlife. He must have been bored manning a station on a dead end road in the middle of the desert, and I must not have looked like someone to take down a military base. He started chatting a bit and told me I’d seen a herd of oryx on my way in.

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My low quality, “I swear I’m not lying” smartphone pic.

I thought I’d seen some kind of African ungulate, but figured I’d misidentified some kind of desert deer. Turns out, I had indeed seen an African member of the antelope family. The oryx were brought to New Mexico in the late 1960s as part of a program to introduce more huntable game to the Chihuahuan desert, a landscape that closely resembles the oryx’s native homelands of African and Middle Eastern deserts and steppes. Through the 60s and 70s, 93 oryx bred in captivity were released on the White Sands Missile Range in hopes that a stable herd of roughly 600 would take up residence eventually.

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Oryx are beautiful! Photo credit to National Geographic.

It was thought that the area’s major predator, the mountain lion, would keep the herd in check, but the lions didn’t take to oryx meat and the species reproduced quickly. In 2001, it was estimated that 4,000 – 6,000 oryx roamed southern New Mexico, a number prompting the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to issue more hunting tags. They plan to reduce the herd to between 1,500 and 2,000, so it looks like hunting oryx will remain sport in New Mexico for at least the proximal future.

ANYWAY, my meeting with the guard ended positively and I headed back whence I came and around to the west to find a campsite since it was now too late to go to the dunes. I found a spot within 20 miles of the White Sands National Monument, and headed out on Black Friday to explore.

The dunes definitely did not disappoint. Very similar to the geography of Colorado’s dunes, the White Sands sit nestled against the San Andres mountains to the west and cover roughly a 275 mile swath of desert, making it the largest gypsum field in the world. Gypsum, you may recall from my Mammoth Cave post, is a sparkly white material now used in sheetrock insulation.

The gypsum glitters like fake Christmas snow, giving the dunes an iridescent glow.

Under normal circumstances, gypsum rarely forms sand crystals since it it water soluble. However, the Tularuso Basin has no outlet to run gypsum-infused rainwater out of the large depression between the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. Most water evaporates or sinks into a very shallow water table beneath the dunes. Lake Lucero occasionally forms in the southwest corner, but for most of the year it is considered a dry lake.

Gypsum sticks to itself with even a tiny amount of water, so the dunes often have more of a “ripple” effect than most other dunes.

Since gypsum does retain water, the dunes felt much more solid than the Colorado dunes, which are composed mainly of quartz. While the white sand does make impressive dunes, they aren’t as tall as Colorado’s and the sand doesn’t “slip” as much when trying to run down them.

The gypsum crusts much like snow after a wind storm. 

A major bonus to walking gypsum dunes is that even in 100 degree weather the dunes will be cool to the touch because the bright white reflects most of the sun. However, while the dunes’ whiteness allows them to be cool, it also makes them extremely bright. I wore sunglasses and still found myself squinting many times.null

With my glasses off, I quickly felt almost blinded since my eyes weren’t able to adjust enough to handle the amount of light reflected off the dunes. I went in the early afternoon, when the sun was probably most intense, but I would assume that sunglasses are almost always a necessity.

I enjoyed spending the afternoon barefoot and walked almost three miles back into the dunes, away from the maddening crowds covering the first few layers of dunes.

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Sledding is very popular and easy to do since you can drive right up to dunes in many places. The park has snow removal equipment and routinely plows out the road, a process that looks very strange in 75 degree weather.

Zeus was also able to go with me out into the dunes, and he had a great time! However, he did keep thinking they were snow drifts and ate gypsum about five times. It was funny to watch him because he would dip his head down at a trot, like I’d seen him do so many times in a Montana winter, but then come up spitting and sputtering, looking at me in confusion. Perhaps dogs aren’t as reliant on their sense of smell since I highly doubt gypsum smells like snow.

In addition to their cool touch, the white dunes were much easier to walk across as well. The steep dunes were still tough on the calves as I’d sink into the side hill, but most of my walk felt similar to walking on regular ground.

Many little desert creatures live in the dunes, including mice, lizards, and coyotes. I think we came upon a lizard convention on top of this dune.

The gypsum solidifies in some places, making odd formations that will eventually be eroded by wind.

Even though I went on a holiday weekend and a lot of people were enjoying the dunes, once I walked maybe a mile in we had the place to ourselves and could walk untrampled gypsum.

Our normal distance apart.

The White Sands were definitely one of my favorite stops, very worthy of a return trip. Much like Sand Dunes National Park, it was easy to find some solitude and silence away from the crowds and get lost in the undulating peaks of the dunes.

Disclaimer: Don’t be like me and not do any research before going. The sands are periodically shut down (roughly twice a week) for missile testing. The military doesn’t give the park much notice, but the website will usually post closure notifications within 24 hours.

Another fun history fact: The Trinity Project (part of the Manhattan Project) detonated the first atomic bomb on the northern end of the White Sands on July 16, 1945.

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