It was our first trip to the White Sands National Monument and though it is a large park - the largest gypsum dunefield in the world - there is only one eight-mile road and there are few designated trails. We were able to drive the road and hike all the trails in this unique natural area in a day.
We arrived at the White Sands National Monument at 10:00 a.m. on this crisp, cool, December day. As we usually do, we went into the Visitors Center and watched the short video on the park.
White Sands consists of 275 square miles of white sand dunes in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico. The sand is actually broken-down granules of gypsum that has eroded from sedimentary layers in the surrounding mountains, primarily the San Andres Mountains west of the monument.
It is a fascinating place, and much more information about its existence can be found on the park's website - White Mountains National Monument.
From the Visitors Center, we headed out onto the Dunes Drive, an eight-mile road that provides the only access to the interior of the park. From the website:
Dunes Drive is an eight-mile (13 km) scenic drive that leads from the visitor center into the heart of the gypsum dunefield. The 16-mile (26km) round-trip drive takes approximately 45 minutes. However, you may want to allow additional time to explore the dunes, take photos, and/or learn about the natural and cultural history of the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Along the road, you will find outdoor exhibits, hiking trails, picnic areas, vault toilets, and parking areas.
The first five miles of Dunes Drive are paved and the last three miles are a hard-packed gypsum sand road. The road is suitable for cars, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, and buses.
We stopped at the pay station to pay the entrance fee and get a map of the park. We decided to drive to the end of the road, and then hike the trails on our way out. Here is a link to a map of the Dunes Drive.
It's really strange seeing all the white sand in the middle of a brown desert. And the section of the road that is just hard-packed gypsum looks like you are driving on an ice rink. Here are photos of one of the picnic areas.
At the end of the road, we found the trailhead for the Alkali Flat Trail, the longest trail in the park at five miles.
This trail is in the heart of the dunes, there were only a couple of other cars in the parking area, and we thought it would be good exercise. The sign is clear. Though it's called Alkali "Flat", the trail is NOT flat.
It was recommended to do this loop trail in a clock-wise fashion, and I had to wonder, in this digital age, "Could there be people that don't know what "clock-wise" means?"
It was a perfect day to do this hike as it was cool and there was no wind. The trail was marked with red trail markers spaced so that you could easily spot the next one.
Though they prefer that you stick to the trails, off-trail hiking is not prohibited here. However, depending on the time of year, the temperature, the wind, and other factors, it could be dangerous. See Hiking Safety Tips which include the following:
We are surrounded by an active missile range. From time to time, debris from missile tests falls into the monument and is buried by sand. If you see any strange objects, do not touch them as they may still be able to detonate. Make a note of their location and tell a ranger so that appropriate personnel may remove the object in question.
We opted to stay close to the designated trail markers.
It was so quiet and beautiful out there with the rolling sand dunes and the San Andres Mountains in front of us to the west ....
and the Sacramento Mountains behind us to the east.
One of the recreational activities that is popular in the park is sledding down the dunes on what I call "sand saucers". We watched this pair as they were videoing a descent.
They sell the "sand saucers" at the park gift shop, and here is a little video the park has put out about sledding. The video provides some tips and indicates that the saucers work the best (and cardboard doesn't work at all).
We skipped the sledding and stuck with the more mundane hiking. Hiking didn't have the rush of sledding, but hiking up some of the steep dunes was a challenge. Still, it was much easier than hiking the dunes in the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
The dunes here, while impressive, max out at around 60 feet high while those in the Great Sand Dunes National Park reach 700 feet.
The dunes at Great Sand Dunes are massive, and we sank more in the sand when we hiked those dunes back in 2007. That remains one of the most strenuous hikes we've done, and we were ten years younger back then.
So the dunes here aren't nearly as tall, and the sand compacts nicely, so the difficulty pales in comparison.
Only on the leeward side of the dunes where the sand has recently blown over the edge was the sand soft and deep. Climbing up in the soft sand was more difficult, and even the young guys in front of us had to rest on some of the dunes.
Not being gluttons for punishment, we took the easier path to the right in the photo above.
The dunes are ever-shifting as evidenced by these two trail markers in the photo below with the one on the right now almost covered in sand.
Out on U.S. 70, the dunes have swallowed a fence and are encroaching on the highway.
The farther out into the dunes we went, the fewer footprints we saw and the natural wind-blown patterns were intact.
And the low December sun angle resulted in shadows giving more definition to the dunes.
As I mentioned earlier, the sand compacts well, so we didn't sink while hiking on top of the dunes or in the low areas between the dunes.
While they call the trail "strenuous" we didn't think it was too bad. With that said, five miles up and down in the sand dunes was a long way.
Eventually, we came to the far corner of the trail where it turned back to the east.
It didn't take long to discover why it was recommended to do the trail clock-wise.
Coming from the opposite direction, the dunes were steep and the sand was deep as we would have been coming to many of them from the leeward side. Fortunately, we easily shuffled down the steeper slopes.
With just a little ways to go, we stopped in one of the flat areas where there was some sparse vegetation to rest and have a snack. We drank plenty of water throughout as the air was really dry, and it's easy to get dehydrated even with the cool temperatures (in the 50s).
After our break, it didn't take long for us to make it back to the trailhead and parking area.
I'm glad we did the Alkali Flat Trail. By the end, we were tired, but we enjoyed the sand dune and mountain views while being out there pretty much by ourselves in the other-worldly terrain.
We could certainly say that we experienced the "heart of the dunes".
Back in our Jeep, we got back on the Dunes Drive. Within a few minutes, I saw something up ahead crossing the road.
This park is not a place for wildlife viewing, so we got a little excited to see a mammal of some sort. It was on a mission and moving fast, but Linda got her binoculars on it, and I snapped some distant photos.
It turned out to be an American Badger, the first one we've seen in the wild in all our years of traveling. I cropped the first photo above and got a decent result below.
That sighting made our day. If we had left right then, we would have been happy.
But we continued on to the other trails. The next stop was the Interdune Boardwalk, a short, elevated, accessible trail through the "transition" zone known as the interdunes.
The boardwalk is less than a half-mile roundtrip, and includes several signs about the plants and animals along with a covered seating area for ranger programs.
If you don't have a lot of time, a stop at the Interdune Boardwalk will provide an easy walk and an opportunity to acquire a lot of information about the White Sands National Monument.
Our next stop was the Dune Life Nature Trail.
Linda decided to sit this one out, so I got a lounger out of the Jeep and she reclined in the sun while I went off on my own.
It's pretty amazing how the dunes just stop and desert begins.
From the parking area on the desert floor, I climbed up into the dunes. This trail has blue trail markers ....
and signposts with stories narrated by "Katie" the Kit Fox about the various animals that live in and around the dunes.
Now, your likelihood of actually seeing the animals is pretty slim, since most of them hide during the day and then come out at night.
But you may see some tracks, and the signs have some interesting tidbits to keep folks placated when there are no live animals to see.
It's a very nice, family-friendly, popular one-mile walk with some lovely views.
Here's a shot from the dunes heading back to the parking area.
Across the road from the Dune Life Nature Trail is the half-mile (roundtrip) Playa Trail. It has green trail markers.
It's a short trail to a low-lying area that fills with water during rains. In this basin, there is nowhere for the water to go and the water table under the surface is only two to three feet down. So, even in this desert, the water pools for a while until it evaporates.
There are some informational signs, but this trail is one I'd skip (especially if you stopped to watch the video at the Visitors Center) unless I arrived just after a recent rain.
So, we covered all the trails in the park except the Backcountry Camping Trail which is a shorter version of the Alkali Flat Trail. At two and a half miles, it's half the length and would probably serve as a fine substitute for Alkali Flat.
From the park website about the Backcountry Camping Trail:
Though backpackers hike the trail most frequently, it is also open to visitors who want a shorter hike through the heart of the dunes.
After seven miles of hiking to that point, we tossed around whether or not we would stay for the "Sunset Stroll", an evening walk through the dunes with a guide.
This time of year, the sun sets at 5:00, and the guided walk was set for 4:00 today. It was getting close to that time, so we drove back into the dunes to the signed meeting spot. We would make our final decision based on the size of the group.
The group was small and the guide, Joseph, started right on time, so we followed him. He stopped every few minutes and provided information about the dunes and a few more details that we hadn't gotten in the park video or the informational signs around the park.
He took us to a spot where he had dug a hole in the sand. Water had seeped into the hole demonstrating the shallow depth of the water table. The Mescalero Apaches that lived in the desert used this technique to get their water.
He also showed us this useful plant - the Hoary Rosemary Mint.
That plant is part of the mint family and it smells like mint part of the year, rosemary part of the year, and a combination of the two part of the year. Native Americans used the Hoary Rosemary Mint for food seasoning.
Joseph then showed us a couple of sand pedestals formed when the sand compacts tightly around the roots of the Skunkbush Sumac (aka Lemonade Bush).
These pedestals are homes to Kit Foxes, and some of the other animals in the park like the Kangaroo Rat and the Apache Pocket Mouse.
Native Americans used the berries of the Skunkbush Sumac to make a lemonade-like drink.
We were out there about 45 minutes to an hour on this lovely evening.
There were no clouds in the sky, so we didn't expect much in the way of color with the sunset. I took this shot before the sun disappeared behind the San Andres Mountains.
And with that, we completed our wonderful day at White Sands National Monument, a unique place that is worth seeing at least once. And, as we demonstrated, it can be explored in a day.