II: White Sands National Monument


 03/31/2016

One of my number one goals when coming to New Mexico was to visit White Sands National Monument, something I had been wanting to do since my Arizona days. I got that chance sooner than expected, due to an unfortunate mishap, shown below:

car_crash_web

Deer!

During my second weekend in New Mexico, I traveled to Silver City to see an old friend’s band play in a Valentine’s Day concert, and I convinced two other friends to join in the adventure. After getting a late start leaving Los Alamos, due to a last-minute early morning trip to Bandelier National Monument, we were just pulling into Silver City at dusk when a deer came out of nowhere. Insurance information was sparse on a holiday weekend, so I escaped the city on an 8-passenger jet, since Silver City apparently has no taxi service and only one car rental company.

After a week’s worth of confusion, the vehicle was deemed totaled and towed to El Paso, TX. Since I had to drive down to El Paso and retrieve the license plates, I certainly wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity to explore some of southern New Mexico at the same time. I quickly planned a day trip to White Sands National Monument, which turned out to be even better than I had expected.

The park entrance fee is $5/person, which I gladly paid. There are several hikes throughout the park for all different skill levels, including a handicapped accessible trail, the Interdune Boardwalk.

I always aim for the longest hike I can reasonably do in a day, so I settled on the Alkali Flat Trail, which is about 4.5 miles roundtrip, up and down 60-foot tall sand dunes. It. was. a. blast. There were times when I couldn’t see another human in all directions. That being said, the trail can be dangerous too, especially during the summer months when temperatures rise above 100°F. In fact, a French couple died on this trail as recently as 2015, leaving behind their only son. Always bring more water than you think you’ll need, and remember, there is absolutely no shade along this trail. I hiked it in February with three large bottles of water, and went through two of them, even though I thought the weather was perfect. And don’t relax too quickly if you bring plenty of water and sun protection, because the trail is only marked by red posts, so it is imperative not to lose sight of those or get caught in any sort of sand storm.

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On a lighter note, what do I find so awesome about this park??

The geological history, for one thing: 280-250 million years ago, this part of the earth was covered by the Permian sea, and gypsum settled to the ocean floor. When plate tectonics began shifting 70 million years ago, the gypsum rose from the ocean floor along with the rising mountains. (Gypsum stripes can still be seen in the surrounding mountains today.) As the mountains spread apart, today’s Tularosa Basin was formed, and 2-3 million years ago, the formation of the Rio Grande rift prevented any water from escaping the basin. This rift is key to the formation of these dunes, because gypsum is water soluble. During a past, wetter climate, rain and snowmelt runoff brought gypsum down from the mountains, and formed a lake in the basin, now known as Lake Otero. Had the Rio Grande rift not formed, water runoff could have carried the gypsum deposit back to an ocean. When the Ice Age ended 12,000 years ago, the climate became drier, causing Lake Otero to evaporate and leave behind the crystalline form of gypsum, selenite. Freezing temperatures and wind have slowly broken down the selenite into sand, creating the dunes that we see today. Today, this is the world’s largest gypsum dune field.

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Also, the sand here is mineral sand (and remember gypsum sand is quite rare because of the water solubility) – whereas most sand you find on tropical beaches near coral is organic (aka it comes from fish poop)!

My favorite part about White Sands though, was that gypsum sand does not heat up like typical quartz sand – throughout the day it remains surprisingly cool to the touch, meaning I was able to complete my 4.5-mile hike barefoot!

Ask most other people what their favorite part of the park is, and they’ll probably say sand sledding, which is incredibly popular. Saucer sleds for adults and kids are sold at the Visitor Center, and every pull-off along the main road has several families enjoying sledding in the desert. I didn’t have the time, nor the inclination to spend money on sand sledding, but it did occur to me that it would be a fantastic idea to have brought a sled along my hike. I could have finished in half the time by sliding down the dunes!

Finally, there are sunset tours offered by park rangers. Mine honestly wasn’t great, but the talk was free, so nothing lost there. And I did learn a bit!

For only $5, this park gets an A++ from me.