January 7, 2013
After watching the short film in the visitor’s center about the history and geology of White Sands National Monument, I was eager to explore the beautiful alabaster waves of the dune fields. I have been to Great Sand Dunes National park near Crestone CO. Those granular hills are made of typical quartz sand, the usual tawny color. Here, the sand is milky white. Gypsum from the surrounding mountains dissolves in running water and reconstitutes itself as large crystals of selenite in lake beds that dry each year. Winds blow and batter these crystals into small, then tiny particles. White Sands is the largest gypsum dune field in the world.
The soft swells of white looked just like snow, as if we had landed suddenly in the heart of Antarctica. The illusion was added to by the presence of actual snow sloping down the north sides of most banks. Their color was slightly distinct, the snow a cool white and the sand a warm one.
The bulk of the drive through the park was on hard-packed plowed sand and we joked that we were on an episode of “Ice Road Truckers”. (Which for you non-TV people, is a reality show about, yes, ice road truckers in arctic regions of Alaska and Canada. Chris likes to watch it.) We thought about sharing a photo of this place on our blogs and explaining that we had decided that we wanted a REAL winter after all and were on the Alaskan tundra till spring.
This illusion was also supported by the popular activity of sledding down the dunes. Brightly colored plastic saucers are sold in the visitor’s center. The false impression of snow may have also been a conditioned seasonal association. It was January after all and I had been in snow at Vallecitos as well as Massachusetts.
After lunch in an uninhabited picnic area, we wandered into the powdery hills. The dunes were dense and even frozen in places (although the temperature was mild mid-day) so footing was firm and walking easy. There was little of that experience of the sand giving way, when feet are sucked downward and headway seems impossible.
Walking the tops of the dunes opened the view to endless undulating mounds of light and shadow. Between the hills were flat areas where grasses and a few yuccas tried to hold on. They would eventually be covered by the slow moving swells of sand. The white landscape was cupped between two mountain ranges, that rose up like the sides of a giant sandbox. To the west were the San Andres, and to the east were the Sacramentos. The dark mountains, silhouetted against the brilliance of sky and desert, added visual drama.
You are invited to walk directly into the sandy veld. There are a few short trails but walking without a path is what is special here. Footprints of previous visitors were everywhere. The dunes would not look pristine again until the next wind storm when all the tracks of all the travelers would be erased. It would be easy to get lost in this landscape, since once you can no longer see the road, the dunes look alike; it was hard to distinguish anything as a landmark, except the far off mountain ranges.
We did not see any animals, although their feet left imprints in the pulverized gypsum. Over thousands of years of evolution, several species of insect, lizard and rodent have adapted to this white world by becoming paler. Perhaps in a few more thousand years, they will be completely white.
There is no camping here except for a few backpacking spots so after several hours we head on to find a place for the night.