From Sunset to Winds at White Sands National Park : Battered Suitcase

1st Mar 2022
Photo of From Sunset to Winds at White Sands National Park : Battered Suitcase 1/2 by Stephen Lee

White Sands National Park is one of the newest National Parks in the US. Originally a National Monument, Congress changed it to a National Park is 2019. However, as we drove up to the park, some of the signs still said White Sands National Monument. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's start back at the beginning of Saturday.

White Sands had been one of my prime destination for this trip. However, getting there turned out to be more challenging than we expected. Our plan was to leave Carlsbad Saturday. After some stops along the way, we expected to reach Alamogordo that evening and visit White Sands on Sunday. Unfortunately we faced some challenges on Saturday morning and didn't leave Carlsbad until almost noon.

The route I planned crossed through Lincoln National Forest by turning west at Artesia. We had also discussed traveling father north to visit the town of Roswell which has a reputation as a science fiction location. From there we could have headed west and down to Alamogordo. I figured this would take an extra hour but could easily be done. As we debated the route, we decided Roswell didn't interest us that much so we turned west at Artesia where we stopped for some lunch.

On the way to Alamogordo I wanted to do a hike near the town of Cloudcroft in Lincoln National Forest. However, that didn't work out. First we encountered unexpected snow on the ground in places. Second I couldn't figure out where the trailhead was. I stopped at the ranger station to get directions but discovered it closed. We finally gave up and decided to just continue on to Alamogordo.

Just past Cloudcroft we traveled through a tunnel. On the other side I had a chance to take some photos of the surrounding landscape at a pull out along the highway.

Arriving at our hotel in Alamogordo in late afternoon, our host suggested we might want to go out to White Sands National Park to get photos of the sunset. We had not considered that before but decided it was a good idea. It took about 20 minutes to drive out to the park, and then we had to wait in a line of cars for about 12 minutes at the entry. We drove down the main road a few miles and finally chose a place to stop. The sun would set in about 40 minutes.

White Sands is not actually sand; it is gypsum. The wind blows it around and creates the dunes and other features. It creates an interesting photo opportunity. I was fascinated by the patterns in the sand, the ripples created by the winds. The low evening light formed wide shadows, and it was fun to try to capture them and the patterns they created.

I was somewhat surprised at the number of plants growing in the gypsum. I had expected bare dunes, but mostly yellowish plants dotted the landscape. They tended to be in lower lying areas and not towards the tops of the dunes.

As the sun set, the colors were not particularly intense, but the shadows lengthened and the low light would sometimes shine through areas where the wind was picking up the gypsum.

Once the sun set the colors in the sky did deepen with yellows and oranges. In at least three directions we could see mountains, and those facing the sun changed to pink in the glow. I was thrilled we had decided to come out in the evening to visit the park and glad our other plans didn't work out.

The park closes an hour after the sun sets so we couldn't linger. We didn't want to be locked in. Tomorrow we planned to drive deeper into the park.

Photo of From Sunset to Winds at White Sands National Park : Battered Suitcase 2/2 by Stephen Lee

The following day we headed out to White Sands National Park again. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating. It was cold and windy. We had expected mostly warm weather on the trip so we hadn't prepared for such cold weather. I ended up buying a sweatshirt at the gift shop and gave my flannel shirt to my wife. This helped us survive the cold, windy weather.

The wind was definitely the biggest challenge for us. However, we decided to persevere. There is an eight mile road that goes into the park. Along the way there are a few hikes that we wanted to do. The first one was a one mile nature walk. The walk had information signs along the way that inform hikers about the various animals and plants that do manage to survive in this unusual environment. The wind was pretty heavy, but we managed to follow the trail. There are tall, orange plastic trail markers hikers have to look for to keep them on track. Unfortunately my camera battery ran out fairly soon after we started, and my spare was in the car. It always seems to work that way.

The next stop was a short boardwalk. This is really nice for anyone who might have problems walking out onto the dunes. The boardwalk lifts tourists above the sand, but takes them out into the dunes. Some information signs are also along the boardwalk that identify some of the plants that are growing in the gypsum.

We continued driving and reached the end of the road. The last section is actually a loop. Here there is less plant life to see and more white dunes. Near the end of the road, hikers can hike a five mile trail which is considered quite difficult. We didn't plan to hike it, but we did walk some of it. It's an interesting experience. Sometimes the sand is well packed. Other times it is quite soft and moves out from under you. It's particularly difficult going up hills, and apparently this trail had quite a few.

On the short section that we walked I did get some of my favorite photos of the park. Before we arrived, I had imagined photos of just dunes with only the shadows defining the shapes, and I was able to get those here.

Back at the parking lot there were a number of people trying to sled down the sand. This is a popular activity here. The gift shop sells both plastic discs for sledding and wax to make them go faster. While kids obviously enjoy the activity, there were a number of adults that were enjoying it as well, but perhaps less successfully.

We also noted the bathroom in the parking lot and the unique picnic shelters which would probably be nice in the summer. On this windy, cold day, however, they provided little shelter.

We drove to the next trail. This trail was just over two miles and went out into the dunes where there were also camping sites. We spent a lot of time debating if we should do this. Normally we wouldn't have a second thought, but the wind was really blowing. The forecast called for 20-23 mph winds, and it felt like more. We finally decided to go for it, but I chose not to take my camera. I was worried about getting the blowing sand into it.

We set out, and early on we had some challenges getting up some hills, but we persevered. Tall orange markers indicated where the trail was going. We needed to keep looking ahead to see the next one. After probably about a quarter of a mile in, we couldn't see the next marker in any directions. Back at the beginning of the hike the notes say, if you can't see the marker, don't continue. So we decided to turn back feeling we had at least made the effort.

With that we decided to end our time at White Sands National Park. We had sand all over us from the wind blowing it everywhere, and the winds were supposed to continue for another three hours. We had seen what the park was about so we were OK with moving on.

Leaving the park we drove a little over 50 miles west to Las Cruces, New Mexico. We kind of chilled out for the rest of the day. Monday we would see what Las Cruces had to offer.

Despite the cold and windy weather, I enjoyed our visit to White Sands. I think going in the evening was great and should be part of anyone's plans who visits. The park is not large and only has the few hikes that I mentioned so it can easily be seen in a day. I probably wouldn't visit in the summer, especially if one plans to hike. There is no shade from the sun, and I can imagine the sand getting quite hot.

Day 6

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