Exploring White Sands National Monument

I was exploring dunes of pure white sand – so bright that it hurt my eyes without sunglasses. Made up of tiny gypsum crystals, they are constantly shifting and changing. Located in the southern part of New Mexico, this dune field is very special as it is the largest of its kind in the world. Walking on these dunes is a not to be missed experience. I decided to take a hike on one of the trails – the backcountry loop. It would be easy to get lost, so the park service has put orange stakes up to identify the route.

I thought walking on the edge of the dunes was fun and although I didn’t try it, some make it even more fun by sledding down on saucers. There are also walk in camping sites and I saw a few tents. I think it would be so interesting to wake up in the morning to this sea of white.

This was our second visit to White Sands. When we first came about eight years ago it was during a full moon. I walked on the dunes under the moonlight, a very cool and memorable experience. Some places have to be revisited and after coming here the first time, I knew I wanted to make a return trip some day.

With all this white, it was a surprise to come upon the pink flowers of sand verbena which blooms from late April into May. It was the only type of flowering plant I saw on my walk as little can grow in such a stark environment. Near one verbena I came across a small, pale lizard almost the color of the sand. Animals living here have had to adapt and some are much lighter in color than their counterparts that live in the nearby desert. I tried to take a photo of him but he scurried into the verbena too fast for a good picture.

Sand verbena

The soaptree yucca is rather common here and I have always found them to be a beautiful desert plant. It was an interesting sight to see a yucca completely covered with only its tall flowering stem protruding from the sand. One of the casualties of moving dunes!

Soaptree yucca
Soaptree yucca covered by a sand dune

Even though there were orange stakes to mark most of the hiking route, I still got a little lost coming back. But this was a great spot to be lost in. After this trek it was off to another area in the park for the ranger led sunset walk. I did this walk when we visited before and found it to be very informative.

Ranger led sunset walk

On this visit our guide explained some interesting things such as why the sands don’t just blow away. What is holding them here is the water table which is not far below the surface. He showed us a hole with a stick inside so we could see where the water table began. These dunes remain moist even during the longest droughts and this moisture prevents them from blowing away. We walked to the top of a dune and stood next to a cottonwood tree. We weren’t standing by the tree’s trunk but near the topmost branches. The whole trunk was covered by a sand dune with only branches and leaves protruding.

Cottonwood tree

We learned about a phenomena that helps plants survive in these sands. Plants like the skunk bush sumac create pedestals by binding gypsum sand grains into a compact mass around their roots, branches and trunk. They also grow dense, deep roots that help form the pedestal after the dune moves on.

Pedestal formed by a skunk bush sumac

The evening light cast beautiful shadows, perhaps the best time to walk these sands.

My favorite part of this evening walk was doing it barefoot. Our ranger told us this was a “safe park” and suggested we might want to go barefoot as long as we didn’t mind leaving our foot wear unattended. A couple of us shed our shoes and the sand was delightful! This damp sand is cooler and firmer than walking on other dune sands. I hadn’t been barefoot in any kind of sand for some time and it was like a healing massage to the feet, a great way to be in touch with nature.

We watched the sun go down and it was nice, but not spectacular. I took the photo below looking toward the Sacramento Mountains which had a nice rosy glow.

Visiting here was a lift to the spirit! Put this place on your bucket list if you haven’t been. Take a walk on the dunes in your bare feet and experience this wondrous place.

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Until next time in a new state.

4 thoughts on “Exploring White Sands National Monument”

  1. Were there a number of years ago and loved it. It is amazing. This spring we drove by. I was anxious to go home after 5 months away. Stopped at Malpais to camp nearby. There it is black with lava. We got home in time for 12 inches of snow. Cold and rainy and windy here. A tough spring. 80 one day, next 50.
    Plants do not know what to do.

    1. Nice to hear from you Ilona! Glad to read you have visited White Sands in the past. You sure had some wintry weather to return home to. The weather does seem different this spring in so many places. Lots of temperature changes from day to day. It has been rather cool and cloudy most of the time here in Ohio.

  2. Wow, so spectacular, I can’t believe it is here in the USA, it looks like a place you could only find somewhere far, far away. So beautiful, definitely on my to do list! And of course I wouldn’t pass up on the barefoot walk 🙂 So fun

    1. Thanks for commenting Matt! White Sands is a very special place. I hope you get to see it some day. I would love to live close and see it more often!

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