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Friday, September 18, 2015 : White Sands National Monument

 

It has become routine when we have a decent wi-fi connection. We let the day begin with a Skype chat with the family. Everyone is alright, so we can have a relaxed breakfast.

 

We only have one visit today, White Sands National Monument, and 235 mi. of driving, about 5 hours.

 

I refill the Camaro at the Chevron station not far from the hotel, and we buy a few essentials, toothpaste and cookies.

 

We then cross Las Cruces and leave town on US Route 70 towards North-East, to White Sands National Monument.

 

Organ Mountains, east of Las Cruces, NM

Organ Mountains, east of Las Cruces, NM

 

Las Cruces is 3,900 ft high, in a plain crossed by Rio Grande. It has all the water it needs, relative to its population of about 100,000 souls.

 

About 20 mi. further, US Route 70 crosses Organ Mountains thru San Augustin Pass, 5,710 ft high, a wide passage with no difficulty.

 

Right on the other side of the pass, Tularosa Basin begins. It is a relatively wide plateau between San Andres Mountains to the West, which we just crossed, and Sacramento Mountains to the East, which we will cross in the afternoon. The location of the plateau between two mountain ranges is important to understand the very specific geology of White Sands.

 

This geography also helps explain the remoteness of the plateau, very sparsely populated, with the exception of the city of Alamogordo, which we will cross in the afternoon. The site is therefore a great choice for activities requiring as deserted places as possible. White Sands Missile Range, a missile test site, and Trinity Site, the location where the first atomic bomb in history was detonated on July 16, 1945, as a dress rehearsal for those in Hiroshima an Nagasaki, were installed here.

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White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument

 

Shortly before arriving at White Sands, all northbound vehicles on US Route 70 are stopped at the US Border Patrol checkpoint by officiers looking for illegal aliens. Since we entered the United States perfectly legally with valid passports, we pass the checkpoint without a problem. We are more than 90 mi. from the nearest US-Mexico border, near El Paso, TX.

 

I have no clue about the real efficiency of such checkpoints. I would assume that, with such a highly visible show of force, illegals must be making themselves next to invisible. We will see two more similar US Border Patrol checkpoints in the coming days, always near the Mexican border.

 

Contrary to what its name tends to indicate, White Sands is not made of sand but of gypsum, which gives it its immaculate white color.

 

The story begins 280 million years ago, when all the continents of the planet were still united in a single landmass called Pangaea. At that time, the place where White Sands is now located was covered by the Permian Sea, which deposited sediments, most notably thick layers of gypsum, on the seafloor.

 

About 70 million years ago marked the beginning of tectonic moves that, among others, created the Rocky Mountains, as well as the two ranges delineating Tularosa Basin Basin, San Andres Mountains and Sacramento Mountains.

 

Two million years before our era, Rio Grande Rift closed the Southern end of Tularosa Basin, depriving it of a natural access to the sea, and turning it into a closed hydrological basin. Water flowing into the basin now had nowhere to escape.

 

At the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, water flowing from melting glaciers and, each spring, snowmelt water, created Lake Otero, which spread on the bottom of Tularosa Basin. Of course, water erosion would rub off lots of sediment from mountainsides, most notably gypsum, which deposited at the bottom of the lake.

 

With the climate gradually becoming dryer, Lake Otero ended up almost completely evaporating, exposing the thick gypsum layers. Wind then began to wear off pieces of gypsum, rubbing them against one another, to the point of reducing them into very fine immaculately white sand grains. Since Tularosa Basin is closed, gypsum carried by the wind has nowhere to escape and, at snowmelt next spring, was inevitably washed back to the temporary ponds of Lake Lucero and Alkali Flat, the two last remnants of former Lake Otero. The movement of gypsum had become perpetual.

 

Beautiful White Sands dunes are therefore about 10,000 years old, a really short time at geological scale. If Earth history was a year, the age of White Sands dunes would be a minute.

 

Only in 1933 did President Herbert Hoover designate White Sands a National Monument, under provision of 1906 Antiquities Act. WWII and Tularosa Basin remoteness attracted the attention of the military, and the dunes were quickly surrounded by demanding and cumbersome neighbors : White Sands Missile Range to the North, West and South, and Holloman Air Force Base to the East. And the relationship with the military is not always straightforward : at times, US Route 70 and the park itself have to be temporarily closed when missiles are launched.

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Gypsum dunes fixed by vegetation, White Sands National Monument

Gypsum dunes fixed by vegetation

 

We logically begin with an extended stop at the visitor center, where a really well-crafted documentary about the park and its so specific geology is shown. We then drive Dunes Drive, the road that gives access to most points of interest within the park. Dunes Drive is roughly 16 miles long, round-trip.

 

Vegetation in White Sands is mostly made of grass of varying heights and shrub fixing the dunes and, to some extent, prevent gypsum from moving along with the wind. To some extent only because, after some time, gypsum ends up covering the sparse vegetation.

 

At our first two stops, at Playa Trail and Interdune Boardwalk, there is still some grass but, as we drive deeper in the park, vegetation becomes sparser. The picture above has been taken at Interdune Boardwalk.

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Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Yucca

 

If we only look at the surface, White Sands looks extremely arid. But looks are sort of misleading. Considering that it lies on what used to be a lake, its total lack of water outlet, and snowmelt from the surrounding mountains each spring, the subsoil of this park is slightly more humid than its surface, at least enough for plant life to find roughly what it needs to sustain itself.

 

Well, not quite everywhere. On the picture, behind the yucca, except some short grass, the hill is almost bare.

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Small frog, White Sands National Monument

Small frog

 

Not only is there plant life in White Sands, there is also animal life, which is kind of unexpected in such a hostile place. Most notably, a few species of frogs can be found. The frog on the picture is very small, perhaps 1 1/2 in., and Marie was lucky to catch it on a picture. First, it moves incessantly, and moreover, its natural color confuses it with the vegetation.

 

At Interdune Boardwalk, we also saw a very tiny sand-colored mouse, but unfortunately too swiftly to attempt to take a picture. We read that there are also snakes (that makes sense) and bobcats, but we did not see any.

 

It ain't easy to take animal pictures in White Sands !

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Me in the middle of gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument

Me in the middle of gypsum dunes

 

Across Dunes Drive from Interdune Boardwalk, Marie takes this picture of me on a gypsum dune.

 

It is very strongly discouraged to wander on the dunes with open shoes. Indeed, because of sunshine reflection, gypsum is very hot, and burning hazards are very real. Good hiking shoes, like the ones I am wearing, are highly recommended.

 

We can see that vegetation is becoming quite sparser.

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The paved section of Dunes Drive, White Sands National Monument

The paved section of Dunes Drive

 

At Interdune Boardwalk, Dunes Drive is still paved. According to wind, gypsum dust may well more or less cover the road.

 

In fact, the thicker the vegetation is, the more gypsum is fixed. As we drive deeper in the park, vegetation becomes sparser, and wind tends to blow gypsum away and hence cover the road.

 

It is pretty likely that, should we come again to White Sands in a few years, we may not entirely recognize the landscape, since the dunes might have significantly moved in the meantime.

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Dunes Drive cleared with a snowplow, White Sands National Monument

Dunes Drive cleared with a snowplow

 

Shortly after Interdune Boardwalk, pavement ends on Dunes Drive, and we drive on a straight gypsum bed. It is neither uncomfortable at all, nor particularly difficult. As on any reduced grip surface, some care is required and sudden gestures should be avoided.

 

Further on, Dunes Drive passes between two genuine white gypsum walls.

 

The explanation is straightforward. Here, there is absolutely no vegetation, and wind pushes gypsum forward unhindered. When the road is totally covered, it needs to be cleared with a snowplow, exactly like mountain roads at the end of winter. Gypsum walls are what remains after the snowplow has passed.

 

A snowplow in the middle of the desert ? Only in White Sands does anyone ever get a chance to see that !

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Dunes Drive in the middle of pristine gypsum, White Sands National Monument

Dunes Drive in the middle of pristine gypsum

 

Dunes Drive ends with a one-way loop road, Loop Drive, that serves many stops, parking lots, picnic areas and trailheads. Most stops are equipped with pit toilets.

 

For safety reasons, the park is closed at night. Therefore, there is neither an RV park nor a camping area in White Sands.

 

Loop Drive is very wide. At places, 3 or 4 cars could drive side by side.

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Me at the top of a gypsum dune, White Sands National Monument

Me at the top of a gypsum dune

 

We stop a few times on Loop Drive to take pictures. Always careful not to reawaken her sciatic, Marie does not wander too far away from the car.

 

Slightly more adventurous, and this is a mild overstatement, I climb to the top of a 150-ft high dune. The first steps are strenuous, I sink ankle-deep in gypsum. The next part is much easier. Battered by the wind, gypsum tends to form a hard crust, and it is much easier to walk on it. The last part is straightforward.

 

Still, I strongly encourage to stay on signed trails, wear a wide-brimmed hat (sun strikes hard !), generously coat yourself with sunblock cream (sunshine reflection on white gypsum is unforgiving !), and take water even for a 15-minute walk.

 

Speaking of water, there was an accident a few weeks before our visit at Alkali Flat Trail, one of the longest trails in White Sands, at 4.6 mi. A couple of French tourists and their 9-year old son got surprised by dehydration, heat and sunshine reflection. Both parents died, and the young boy owed his survival only to the small water bottle they had left him. So I strongly reiterate the park rangers' recommendation : it is of the utmost importance to carry along enough water with you at any time, let's say a half-gallon per person for a half-day hike.

 

At Alkali Flat Trail, as a safety precaution, there is a register at the trailhead, where visitors are required to register themselves. Those tourists had not registered, so no one could go looking for them when they went missing.

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Pristine white gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument

Pristine white gypsum dunes

 

We are now in the heart of white gypsum dunes, and there is absolutely not a single trace of vegetation here. This is a quite a dramatic sight, almost like we have left Planet Earth !

 

Marie took this picture at one of our stops on Loop Drive. Of course, we can't see that, but we must be about 100 ft. from the road.

 

The landscape is dramatic enough for our eyes. We do not go for a hike on Alkali Flat Trail. We enjoy what we can see, while remaining in a perfectly safe place.

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Pristine white gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument

Pristine white gypsum dunes

 

Our last stop on Loop Drive is at Backcountry Camping Loop Trail, quite an unexpected name for a place where there is no camping ground, in a park closed at night anyway.

 

From here starts a loop trail in the middle of the dunes. Great caution is recommended. The trail is signed with wooden poles, with the top painted in bright colors, to avoid getting lost. Before walking away from a pole, it is advised to have spotted the next few ones. The trail goes up and down, following the waves of the dunes. It is beautiful but strenuous, because at times, we sink in gypsum. Indeed, Marie gives up quite early.

 

I go further for another few minutes, and I end up walking back as well.

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White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument

 

Under a corrugated iron canopy, we eat a few snacks. Marie takes this picture of the huge parking lot, where there are only a few cars, including ours.

 

We then take the road again and leave White Sands National Monument and its absolutely dramatic landscapes.

 

Taking all our time, but without walking too much, we have made a really decent visit of this park in about 4 hours.

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Thunderstorm near Carlsbad, NM

Thunderstorm near Carlsbad, NM

 

We now have a 175-mi. drive to Carlsbad and our hotel tonight.

 

We pass along Holloman Air Force Base and then drive around Alamogordo, the only significant city in the whole Tularosa Basin. Later on, the crossing of Sacramento Mountains thru Lincoln National Forest is really beautiful.

 

Shortly before reaching Carlsbad, weather becomes ugly, and heavy clouds obscure the sky. Marie can't help taking this picture of a really huge thunderstorm cloud which, from afar, pretty much looks like a tornado. Fortunately, it is not one.

 

Our hotel is immediately outside Carlsbad, on the road that leads to Carlsbad Caverns, which we will visit tomorrow. In the meatime, the storm has caught us up and, hardly inside the room, a torrential rain begins to pour down. While Marie has some rest, I go for a swim at the pool, where I am the only guest. Considering what is falling outside, let me clarify that it is an indoor pool !

 

Later, after the storm, we go back out looking for dinner. There is nothing within walking distance from the hotel. We take the car again and drive back downtown. We have dinner at Pizza Inn, a very simple family-run place with a pizza buffet, catering to neighborhood families.

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