Exploring White Sands National Monument

The majestic soaptree yucca spears the New Mexico sky. Photo by Michael and Allison Goldstein.
The majestic soaptree yucca spears the New Mexico sky.

Dawn has yet to break when we first arrive at White Sands National Monument. It is bitterly cold, the gates won’t open until seven, and we are unable to find somebody who can allow us to enter early. Nonetheless, the morning light will reveal the first sand dunes we’ve ever seen, and "magic hour" for photographers should not be wasted in a motel bed or at a late breakfast.

The first rays of the sun turn the white gypsum sands to soft buttery yellow. Yesterday’s fierce windstorm that blew us into Alamogordo has scoured every footprint and sign of humans from the sixty-foot high dunes. Our telephoto lens places us well inside the fence, and we are alone with nature . . .

In due course the gates are opened. We are the first visitors on the road this day, the first to explore this magical place. "Look, look, up on those dunes!" We’ve not driven a half mile when my sharp-eyed bride makes me stop. The binoculars come up, and we are presented with a scene straight from the Kalahari.

A herd of oryx, stripe-faced antelope from sub-Saharan Africa, are grazing the sparse vegetation only a hundred yards away. Known as gemsbok by the Boers, these beautiful creatures were originally imported into the White Sands Missile Range in 1969 as game animals. Since then, they have successfully established themselves within the park, numbering as many as twelve hundred. Allison, who despairs of ever being invited to go on an African safari, is entranced.

White Sands is aptly named: pure white gypsum sand covering over 146,000 acres, with dunes that tower above the Tularosa Valley. The only drinking water is at the Visitor Center, or fifteen miles away at Alamogordo, the nearest town.

This is truly a desert.

Snowbirds like ourselves, refugees from the northern winter, can easily imagine ourselves to be back in some arctic environment, the snow stretching out in all directions. The windblown crests, the ripple lines that lead the eye into the distance, are familiar phenomena. What fun, however, to slip into t-shirts and shorts as the day warms, and run barefoot through these drifts.

As we explore further, we become aware of the special signs of this desert ecology. Circles in the sand around plants reveal how the tall grasses have blown about. Lizards, birds, and at least one large snake have all left evidence of their passage. Even yesterday’s wind is made visible by its marks on the sands.

No sneaking away unseen in this place!

We photograph the marvelous soaptree yucca plants that spear the sky in all directions. Cautiously, we follow the trail of a snake, hoping to catch a glimpse of it, while keeping an eye on the compass as we get further into the dunes.

A White Sands visitor ponders the majesty of a massive sand pedestal. Photo by Michael and Allison Goldstein.
A White Sands visitor ponders the majesty of a massive sand pedestal.

As usual, it is Allison who spots the most interesting phenomenon of all, a sand castle, complete with a dry moat. Small when first seen from the road, it proves to be huge when we come up to it, perhaps twenty feet across and fifteen feet high.

Technically known as a "pedestal," it is formed by the tangled roots of the skunkbush sumac, anchoring the sands in which they grow. The almost ceaseless winds scour away the surrounding sand, isolating the pedestal by a dry moat of bare ground.

Visitor safety and resource protection are provided by the National Parks Service. Their mission is to preserve this wonderful park for future generations. Chief Ranger is Nancy Wizner, a Michigan girl with prior experience in Alaska, Hawaii, and California. Nancy tells us that many of her rangers are female, and many women have moved into supervisory positions within the Service. Nancy, who likes meeting people, is well suited to the job, as 600,000 people a year pass through her front gates.

The sun is now heading for the horizon. Deserts retain little of the day’s heat, and the temperature drops dramatically as dusk approaches. We’re forced back into our cord slacks, down vests, and warm gloves, before climbing a high dune to photograph the sunset. Then, we join the exodus from the sands, leaving this amazing national monument to the restless winds.