White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument is another of those places that every New Mexican should come at least once. Its the only place in the world like it. The only gypsum sand dunes anywhere, an ever changing landscape with some very unique wildlife that have adapted to it. Its been used as a backdrop for numerous movies, most recently as Iraq in the Transformers movies and as a different planet in the upcoming Stargate Universe show.

The place is highly photogenic with spectacular sunsets and sunrises and amazing light and shadow effects in the mornings and evenings. White Sands is one of those must haves in your portfolio of any South West photographer, unfortunately we arrived at noon so I had to work a lot harder for my shots. I had to go a few notches lower on my exposure and my ISO sensitivity to not overexpose shooting white on a white background. I think I still got some good ones, what do you think?

As a kid we took several field trips to the dunes in grade school. The place is a blast! Running up and down the dunes, using any scrap of cardboard or snow sleds to slide down, digging tunnels, trying to build sand castles, great fun for a kid. Its like a day at the beach without the water. Keep in mind this is New Mexico though and even down here in the flats you’re at 4,000 ft and with the thin air and white surface reflecting all the light its easy to burn.

This may be a National Monument but it’s still a harsh arid desert and you need to take precautions like the signs will tell you. We went on one of the self guided nature hikes through the dunes, and I had Cece carry a large gatoraid bottle of water left over from our motorcycle trip and still in our gear even though she didn’t think we’d need it for a short walk. By the end of our 2 ish mile hike when I was starting to get a little thirsty she had already drank it all! So especially if you dont think you’ll get thirsty, take some water anyway you’ll need it.

As indicated by the white half of the roadway leaving the park the pavement ends after a ways into the dunes and you’re driving on crunchy hard packed sand.

Once out of the car there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot there just lots and lots of hot blindingly white sand and the footprints of those who came before that haven’t been erased by the winds. People tracks, sled tracks, sand ski? tracks, dog tracks…

Closer inspection reveals a myriad of intricately woven smaller tracks. Miraculously even out in this arid sea of white wildlife can scratch out a living. Theres beetle tracks, various lizard tracks, bird tracks, mice and fox tracks.

It takes a good eye to spot the source of the tracks though unless you can catch its movement.

Here I got the same lizard in a silhouette so it would show up better. See it now?

Yet another kind of white lizard, this one has brown stripes. Cece was much better at spotting these camouflaged guys than me.

Heres a board describing the evolution of all the “White Sands Forms” of the animals out in the dunes. Pretty interesting, they are the same species as outside the small area of the dunes but have become bleached white for survival. Any speck of brown or normal coloring and things would be very easily spotted for miles out here. We did not get to see the white horny toad, or the white praying mantis that I think is so cool.

Besides the very harsh climate for the animals to live in, the sand, the heat, the lack of moisture, and lack of color, its also a tough place for plant life to survive also for some of the same reasons. But the migrating sand dunes pose their own obstacles to overcome. Take this cottonwood tree that has grown to a stunted but healthy size out here in the lowlands between a set of dunes where water would accumulate.

The sands blow in around the trunk of the tree and can fairly quickly burry it up to the top under a big sand dune. Those leaves sticking out of the sand are the top canopy of a fully grown tree under the sand somewhere. Then it becomes a race against time to grow upward and keep some leaves above the sand. As long as some leaves stay above ground the tree can survive.

And when the sand blows away and the dune marches on it looks something like this, note the bushes that didnt quite make it. As the sands continue to blow away the tree or yucca or bush nolonger has any support and falls over and dies.

Other bushes will grow up through the sand in this same manner as the dunes blow in and instead form a tightly packed root column underneath so when the sands blow away there is a hard column of sand left. I forgot to get a picture of those.

Just like Death Valley there is a beauty to the stark desolation and harshness of the landscape but also also a beauty in the life that can take hold.

Even in the harshest of places a tiny flower can bloom.

What kind of motorcycle blog would this be without a few gratuitous bike shots. Black Harley on White:

I’m guessing these are servicemen from Holoman Air Force Base or possibly White Sands Missile Range judging by the high vis vests.

I was just a bit sad that we had to leave my V Star abandoned back in Ruidoso and take my mom’s jeep through here (more on that in upcoming posts). I was a bit unsure what riding on the sand would be like but would have liked to have experienced the dunes by bike, all of the ones we saw out there seemed to be having no trouble with the hard packed surface, even the freakishly heavy Harley on the side stand didnt sink in and fall over.

Once out of the park we got hit with a torrential down pour. It was raining so hard I could only see 100 ft ahead of me for a good half hour. I’m glad we had the car for this part at least hehe.

Then just as quickly as it started the rain stopped and the winds sprang up with dust devils dancing across the desert. Just goes to show how unpredictable the weather can be out here. From my brain is melting get me some water sun beating down on you to run for your lives flash flood to hang onto something nailed down so you dont blow away all in the course of half an hour.

So if you have kids and are in the area its well worth the visit. Come prepared with plenty of drinks and sunscreen, pick them up before you leave town as they have the market corned at the park with no civilization for miles and can charge whatever they want for them. After being out there for hours and dying of cotton mouth you’ll gladly pay it too.

And another note, no matter how careful you are, just know in advance theres absolutely no way you’re ever going to clean off all the sand before getting back in your car. You’ll find sand in your shoes, in your socks, in your clothes and in places when you take a shower that you’ll have no idea how it could have gotten there, and thats all without taking the opportunity to roll or sled down a dune. If you have kids expect to be vacuuming up a mind boggling amount of sand from everywhere for months.

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