White Sands National Monument Visited April 18, 19, 2018
“Be here now”, I remind myself. “Listen, look, and feel.”I want to remember this place. It is magical and other-worldly. It is harsh and soft at the same time. It is cold and hot. It is ever changing and yet the same. It is the safest national park (you can hike around barefoot), yet still a dangerous desert. It is a place of contrast and extremes.
“There is literally no other place on earth like this,” I tell myself.
I lie back on the glittering white sand. Despite the shade of my ball cap and two pairs of sunglasses, the reflection of the sun on the bright sand makes my eyes ache, and I close them as much for relief as to be able to concentrate on what else I feel. The sand is soft, but there is a pile of it in the center of my back. I try to ignore the lump beneath me, to feel and listen to everything besides a little discomfort. I am lying on the top of a large sand dune about 30 feet tall. I’m not sure how long it is, maybe a few hundred feet? It merges into a series of dunes in this vast plain of white mounds. A few feet to my right is the slip-face of the dune- the cliff side, where the sand avalanches down once the dune reaches a certain height. I feel comfortable. The sand at the top of the dune is soft. It doesn’t feel dirty or gritty, but does leave your skin feeling a bit parched. There are no shells or sharp rocks, thorns or sticks to poke sensitive fingertips and feet. I bury my hands again and again in the white powder. A few grains remain stuck among the fine hairs on my arm when I lift it, attracted to the spray-on sunscreen. My feet dig down in a few inches. The sand is not hot on the surface, as the white color reflects light. My heels rest in the slightly damp coolness. At the bottom of the dune, the water table is just inches below the more solid surface. The grains of gypsum hold onto the water and solidify easily. As I dig down with my feet, I feel that the slightly moist sand is more firm. But the moisture doesn’t remain on my hands like it would if I held typical quartz sand in my hands. The gypsum crystals firm up with the moisture slightly, only to be broken down by my hands or the constant battering of other sand grains in the wind. The wind… It lifts up the top layers of sand and swirls over the dunes, obscuring footprints and creating lovely ripples. There was but a light breeze when we came for the guided sunset stroll last night, but today with wind is stronger. You can see the haze of sand moving a few inches over the surface of the dune. I am turned away from the wind to keep the sand out of my eyes, but it flicks and stings against my arms and the tops of my feet. It is not unpleasant now, but I wouldn’t want to be out here in stronger winds.
I hear the wind. I hear the sand moving. I hear my children laughing and calling out instructions for their game of pretend. They are finished sledding down the slip-face of the dune for now. It is fun, riding down on brightly colored round waxed saucers, especially if you are a small, thin child. My husband and I found it slow going. The sand doesn’t compact like snow, and even on a steep slope with a well-waxed sled, an adult cannot really speed downhill in the sand. We still enjoy a few rides down the slope. The climb back up in the soft, avalanching sand proves to be exhausting, and perhaps not quite worth too many trips down. We adults rest at the top of the dune, and dig our hands and feet in like small children, while the real children fly over the sand, exploring, searching for tracks, disturbing the ripples, making drawings and piles, and seeing how deep they can dig into the coolness before their holes fill. When it is time to move on, we all run and leap over the edge of the final dune, multiple times. My son somersaults, until he realizes there is sand in his ears. We shake the sand out of our clothing, tired and parched, but reluctant to leave this unusual and fun place.
We are at White Sands National Monument, a 270 square mile desert composed of fine, bright white chrystaline gypsum sand dunes. There is only one other gypsum sand desert on our planet, and it is nowhere near the scale of White Sands. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact sequence of events and time periods that our guide described last night when we went on the sunset walking tour over the dunes, but the general explanation for the formation of the dunes goes something like this: millions of years ago there was a shallow sea over this area that evaporated mutliple times, leaving behind concentrated layers of gypsum, a type of calcium sulfite. The sea receded and later the region was uplifted- the mountain ranges were formed and the collapsed area in the center became what is now known as the Tularosa Basin. The gypsum layer was exposed by erosion, and rain and snowmelt carried dissolved gypsom down into the basin, which has no outlet. The water evaporated in the sun and wind, leaving behind concentrated gypsum in the form of selenite crystals. Prevailing winds towards the northeast break down the selenite crystals into finer and finer grains. The winds move the top 3 inches of the sand, piling it into dunes that eventually collapse and shift across the desert at an average of 39 feet per year.
Due to the unusual environmental conditions, not all of the animals that thrive in the Tularosa Basin call White Sands home. Rattlesnakes are rare in the dunes, because they have not adapted (or “evolved”), becoming whiter, as have some other creatures, and those that do come into the dunes would be more easily preyed upon by large birds. Crickets and Bleached Earless Lizards are two creatues that have genetically adapted to their white surroundings. Darker members became prey, and lighter ones lived to pass along their genetics, naturally breeding the pale-skinned camoflauging characteristic that enables the survival of the species. The Darkling Beetle, a type of stinkbug, is still quite black. (Do insects need to adapt to survive? It always seemed to me there is an overabundance that more than makes up for the vast numbers that do become prey.) I didn’t notice any pesky flies or mosquitos. There are also tarantulas and scorpions here at White Sands, but they, and most of the other creatures here are nocturnal, and we walk around with bare feet safely during the day and look for the tracks of those nighttime creatues. Coyotes, kit foxes, jackrabbits, bobcats, grasshopper mice (which stand up tall and give a fierce roar when they make a kill of a beetle or grasshopper!), the Bleached Earless Lizard, roadrunners, and owls make up the majority of the fauna here.
There are plants here, though, like the animals, not found in the same variety they are in the surrounding Chihuahan Desert of the basin. Cottonwood trees (I was so surprised to see a tree in the dunes!), Yuccas, Mormon Tea, Creosote, Rosemary Mint, a type of desert grass, and some other bushes whose names I don’t remember at the moment are some of the plants that grow here. Our guide described two types of plant growth: short and fast like the grasses that grow a couple feet tall on the interdunal flats, and quickly disperse their seeds before their stems are buried in the advancing dunes; and growing tall to live long: in particular the Soaproot Yucca and the Cottonwood trees. The Soaproot Yucca begins its life on the interdunal flats just as the grasses do; but as the sands begin to build around it, the Yucca is not buried, instead its root continues to grow up with the pile of sand beneath it. A Yucca at the top of the dune may be decades old, with a stem 30 feet tall reaching down to the water table beneath the dune, though it appear young and small.
The plants within this microclimate are essential to the survival of the animals here. The mice obtain all the moisture they need from the leaves and seeds of these plants, or the insects they eat. Foxes, rabbits, mice and tarantulas need burrows to escape the desert heat and cold, to rest and raise their young in. They cannot build burrows in the soft, ever-shifting sand. That is where the large plants come in. The roots of the Rosemary mint, Creosote, and other large bushy plants pull up the moisture from the water table, which cools and solidifies the gypsum sand around the plant’s root mass. The sand becomes quite firm and dense, which allows burrowing animals to dig their homes. The firm sand that forms around the plants creates what is called a pedestal. The pedestals can become quite large, and are almost comical in appearance- a tall column of rooty earth with a cap of stems and twigs and small leaves that reminded me of a well-used nappy wig. The burrows within theses pedestals provide a comfortable home for the small desert creatures, at 30 degrees cooler than the scorching sunny daytime temperatures and 30 degrees warmer than the frigid winter nights. As you walk the rippled dunes, making prints of your own, you will see tiny tracks of lizards, with the line left by the tale dragging between the feet; the tire tread looking track of the Darkling Beetle; the very round hopping prints of the mice; the diminutive dog-like prints of the kit fox, all circling out from and back again to the bushes and pedestals that provide homes and food. I looked long and hard, but did not identify tarantula tracks.
I am most amazed by the Soaproot Yucca, which we have seen at all but the highest elevations (8,000-9,000 feet) along our route from southern California through Arizona and New Mexico. The Yucca plants were very important to Native Americans. The young, tender shoots could be eaten like asparagus. As the name suggests, parts of the plant could be used to make soap. The fibers of the tough spear-like leaves were woven into nets that the natives used to trap rabbits. The root was also roasted and eaten. Mature, tall, densly compacted wooden stems were cut down and used as walking sticks. And finally the lovely cream colored flowers were tasty to eat. I do not know if the seeds or dried seed pods were utilized by natives, but I am still impressed if they were not. While I have learned facts about the Yucca at the different parks we have visited, our guide’s statement that the flowers were edible and delicious was new knowledge. I have truly enjoyed learning about the desert and the adaptations of the plants and animals, and survival methods of the native peoples. It is truly amazing.
The sunset last night proved to be lovely. While the visibility was not great in general, there was not too much haze in the western sky to obscure the setting sun or a tinge of pink along the mountainous horizon. While any visit to nature can be magical, just enjoying the beauty and novelty around, I find that my enjoyment is much increased by the presence of a knowledgable guide. The guided sunset stroll was humorous and enlightening, and our children found some playmates to race across the dunes with while Justin and I stood listening, watching, and capturing the sunset.
An evening and a morning didn’t seem like long enough to spend at White Sands National Monument. Their visitor’s center and gift shop are wonderful, and the introductory video in the visitor’s center is very well done. If you ever have reason to traverse southern New Mexico, you must stop and allow yourself to be enchanted by the crystalline white dunes, as we have been.
White Sands is also quite convenient to visit, as it is right off the main highway between Las Cruces and Alamogordo. While you are in the area, you can also check out the Space History Museum in Alamogordo.