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.

Our Most Remote Campsite in Rodeo, New Mexico

Before leaving Arizona I was interested to see Chiricahua National Monument, located in the far southeast corner and close to New Mexico. I also wanted to see the town of Portal, located at the base of the Chiricahua Mountains and known for great birding. So I was excited to find a campground called Rusty’s RV Ranch in Rodeo, New Mexico which was next to the Chiricahuas and close to Portal. Unfortunately, the entrance to the National Monument was on the other side of the mountains from Rodeo and not just a few miles away as I thought. This was our most remote campground in 20 months of full time RVing. The town of Rodeo borders Arizona and is tiny, with only a couple of functioning businesses – one or two art galleries and a new cafe/market. The small grocery store in town recently closed. To do any shopping you have to drive about an hour and a half to either Wilcox, Arizona or Douglas, Arizona. The nearest gas station is in the very small town of Animas, New Mexico 15 miles away. We had no cell phone service and WiFi was poor most of the time. People in Rodeo are really living off the grid, but they seem to like it that way.

View from our campground of the Chiricahua Mountains

Rodeo is situated in a long desert valley between the Chiricahua and Peloncillo Mountains. When we checked in, the owner told us that New Mexico time was an hour ahead of Arizona. Since we went to the Chiricahuas to do birding, we often found ourselves shifting between two time zones. It was here we had the longest camp site we had ever seen. At 200 feet, it was about four times the length of most places we have camped.

We soon learned that people stayed at Rusty’s for mainly three reasons. They came for birding, riding ATV’s, or star gazing. Our first night we enjoyed looking at the moon through a telescope of one of our neighbors. Another neighbor is big time with his astronomy hobby. He rents a special site on the property where he built a small building equipped with a sliding roof for his telescope. He informed us that this valley has the darkest skies in the United States. Having really dark skies at night can be a novelty, even when camping as RV parks and campgrounds can be near populated areas or have lights around their properties. At Rusty’s there are none of the above. We enjoyed sitting outside and really seeing the stars in the darkest sky. This was an unexpected pleasure I hadn’t counted on before coming here. A highlight was getting to watch the full or almost full moon rise in the sky several nights in a row.

Several miles down the road was the Chiricahua Desert Museum, a reptile museum with a special emphasis on rattlesnakes – not your every day attraction. They even have a pretty cool rattlesnake sculpture out front.

It was surprising to find a museum of this size with such a collection in the middle of nowhere. Inside, they have the largest exhibit of live rattlesnakes I have ever seen. I really had no idea there were so many kinds of rattlers in the U.S. – the museum has 34 species.

There are also reptiles on display outside where large enclosures house Gila monsters and Bolson tortoises to name a few. In the desert garden are a variety of cactuses, trees, a pond and stream where some lizards, snakes and tortoises are free to roam and can be seen up close by visitors. Most of them were hiding away, but this Eastern Collared lizard native to the valley was perched on a rock and had no problem being looked at or photographed. He even opened his mouth and let me see his “tonsils” (smile).

Besides live animals, the museum houses all things pertaining to reptiles, especially snakes. One of my favorite things were some beautiful snake paintings done by a single artist covering an entire wall.

Panchita, a Native American living in Sonora, Mexico created the “many snakes” basket especially for the Museum. She made it using material from the elephant tree and natural dyes from roots found in the desert.

Although many artifacts here are from the southwest, some are international such as aboriginal hand painted turtle shells.

When I saw the giant elephant bird egg on display I wanted to send a photo of it right away to my son Matt, but no cell service! The elephant bird which lived on the island of Madagascar has been extinct for many, many years, but some of its eggs have been discovered. This bird laid eggs 150 times the volume of chicken eggs, the largest of any bird. Matt and daughter-in-law Emma lived in Madagascar for six months while serving as volunteer nurses on the Mercy Ship docked there. They were delighted to be gifted an elephant bird egg and made arrangements for it to be brought back with a friend to the U.S. No such luck as apparently it is not legal to take an elephant bird egg out of the country and it was confiscated at the airport. So their precious souvenir was gone and Matt says he still mourns the loss.

Thanks for checking in……until next time!