As part of our big 2021 Road Trip, Vicki and I drove to White Sands National Park in Alamagordo, New Mexico, and checked out the beautiful Sand Dunes. We had heard about backpacking in the park, but discovered that the backcountry camping area was closed due to Covid. So, we modified our plans and explored the park by car.
After spending the early morning hours in Albuquerque at the Balloon Festival, we decided that we wanted even more than that from New Mexico, so we blasted down the highway to the southeast in proper “Road Trip” fashion. It was a long drive, but we arrived at the park in the early afternoon. We stopped at the entry gate and picked up a park brochure. This had the map we needed, detailing all the cool places to see along Dunes Drive, the main road within the park.
The welcome sign still said National Monument, but it had recently been declared a full-fledged National Park. We bypassed the visitor center and got right down to checking things out. As we learned from the first roadside interpretive display, we were currently in the Chihuahuan Desert. As we progressed further, we would enter the Interdunal Zone. Deeper still, we would eventually reach the “Heart of the Dunes.” I liked the sound of that.
The car said that the outside temperature was in the upper eighties, which was hotter than we liked, but we weren’t going to let this stop us from enjoying the park. It was October, not July, so we figured that we could handle it, as long as we brought sufficient water along with us.
The first stop of the day was the Dune Life Nature Trail. It looked short and easy, so we parked the car and took a mellow little hike. We walked down a path through the desert plants and grasses, then climbed up and over a white sand dune. The sand was soft, and there were many bushes growing within the dune. It was the edge of what the rangers might call the Interdunal Region. This was the area with the most wildlife and plant life. Interestingly, we learned from the brochure that this “sand” wasn’t exactly sand, at all. It was made of gypsum, not silica. In other words, it contained calcium, not silicon. Regular sand is silicon, and is created by erosion from granite and other rocks. These Gypsum grains were created by the wind rushing over dry lake beds, which were formed by water that contained dissolved calcium drying up in the desert heat.
I’ll admit right now that we didn’t complete the entire Dune Walk Trail. It was too darned hot. So we headed to the car and drove back a short ways on Dunes Drive to the previous attraction, which was the Playa Trail. We walked further on this one. It visited a dry lake bed. This time, however, the lake bed was still a lake; it had a bit of water in it! It must have rained recently. It was a very crusty place, with plenty of salty minerals on the surface. It reminded us a bit of the basin in Death Valley, because it even had Pickleweed growing along the edge. Pickleweed has adapted to grow in even the saltiest of places. We had a feeling that some of the gypsum sand in the dunes may have come from this dry lake bed.
We got back in the car and headed deeper into the park. On the right, we parked at the Interdune Boardwalk, which was a raised metal pathway that led visitors out over the dunes. It was handicapped accessible, which was nice. Not only did it protect the fragile desert ecology, it was much easier than slogging through the deep sand. There were plenty of interpretive signs and plaques along the way. Quite a learning experience. There was even some shade at the far end, which we happily took advantage of.
A short ways further down the road, the pavement ended. The road was now a wide, smoothly-plowed path into the Heart of the Dunes. The sand was firm, and there were no traction issues, which was mildly annoying. To me. I bought a four-wheel-drive car, and I wanted to use it! But all that expensive hardware really wasn’t needed at all. Any car could have driven there. I heaved a big sigh, and engaged four wheel drive mode anyway.
As we continued forward, almost all signs of vegetation disappeared. This was a region where the shifting sands held sway. It truly felt like the Heart of the Dunes.
Next stop: The Backcountry Camping Loop Trail. We knew that we couldn’t go backpacking there without a permit (and there were no permits being issued due to Covid) but we still wanted to check it out. We also weren’t too upset about it because of the high temperatures that day. I’m sure it would have cooled off significantly that night, but in the meantime we would have roasted, trying to carry our heavy backpacks over the deep sand.
Instead, we hung out on top of the dune near the parking area and checked out people sledding down the dunes. There were all sorts of people doing this, not just kids. In fact, they sold the cheap plastic sleds in the Gift Shop! All it would take is one good wind event and all traces of the sledding would be wiped out, with newly-surfaced dunes awaiting the next bunch of sledders. One of them let Vicki borrow her sled, and Vicki was completely unable to do it. She sat on it correctly, the slope was steep enough, she wiggled her butt to get started, but it simply wouldn’t work. We’re still not certain why. I sure felt like a fool taking a video of this sorry episode, but there it is. Vicki handed back the sled and we slunk away in defeat.
Video of a visitor successfully sliding down the sand dune on a plastic sled, but Vicki didn’t have much luck:
The next parking lot was called the Yucca Picnic Area. They had a bunch of picnic tables mounted on concrete slabs, complete with sturdy wind/sun screens. It looked like a bulldozer or big Cat could simply pick them up and move them, if needed. Meanwhile, they did a good job of shielding us from the elements while we ate our lunch.
A bit further up the road was a parking lot that was called the “Horse Area.” There were no horses present. In fact, it seemed that midweek in early October was a bit too early for the main tourist season, as the park was decidedly uncrowded. That suited us fine. All that sledding (failing to sled?) had gotten Vicki’s mind stuck on finding something snow-like that she could do. She headed purposely toward the nearest dune and began climbing uphill. She was carrying her nylon Winter jacket. What on earth was she up to? About halfway up, she put on the jacket, complete with hood, and lay down on the sand. Then she started waving her arms and legs back and forth. Ahhh! She was making a Sand Angel! I applauded when she was done. It was the only one in the park, to our knowledge.
We continued around the loop to what was called “Area 19” on the map. What on Earth was Area 19? We had no idea. Maybe it was related to the old days when these dunes were part of the White Sands Missile Range. We got out and walked around anyway, and took a selfie or two.
After that, it was time to head on down the road. We thought about the “sandplow” operator who had to keep these roads in shape. We had read one sign that mentioned him saying that he could plow 24/7 and never be completely finished with the job. It was always windy, and there was always more sand. Job security.
We stopped at the Visitor Center and Gift Shop so that I could buy myself a souvenir T-Shirt: “Life Is Better In The Dunes” is what it said. So true. All in all, it was a pretty cool park, and an amazing place. I love hiking in mountains, but I have to admit that sand dunes are special places. And the white gypsum sands in this park were unique in my experience. We learned a lot and had a fun day exploring the park.
For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page
For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page