Out of this world: White Sands National Monument

Trip Start Nov 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of United States  , New Mexico
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

You can see White SandsNational Monument from outer space,
but luckily you don't have to hop a rocket to enjoy one of earth’s most unusual spots. An "otherworldly" landscape rewards the earth-bound visitor of this site in southern New Mexico.


White Sands contains the world's largest gypsum dune fields –far and away dwarfing the others in a handful on the planet. Its expanse of 275 square miles is visible from outer space.


Close up, the landscape’s gypsum granules are pure white, as far as the eye can see. They look like…even behave rather like…snow, but these little grains aren’t icy. They are a rare form of sand: the residue of an extensive ancient lake that was rich in the mineral gypsum. As it dried, the gypsum crystals became granules that the wind blew into dust and sand storms. They in turn became the magnificent sand dunes of White Sands National Monument. [video--coming soon. Trouble uploading it.]


“No place else in the world do you find these alabaster dunes with the beauty and splendor of the Great White Sands,” boasted local Tom Charles. And his words helped convinced the federal government to declare it a national monument in 1933. [photo]


A World of White


Even the animals here have evolved into whiteness to dwell among the dunes. There are forms of white reptiles that blend with the dunes: prairie lizards, little striped whiptails, horned lizards, and the bleached earless lizard.  And the list also includes mammals like white pocket mice. Even among the invertebrates: white forms of beetles, crickets, and mantis inhabit the area; natural selection outfitted them to this unusual environment. [photo] You probably won't see any of these white critters unless they move. But their tracks in the gypsum granules are unmistakable. [photo


Life is difficult for plants in the harsh dune fields—even for natives of the surrounding Chihuahua
Desert. Only about 60 species of plants have found a way to survive --that’s only 25% of the plant species found in the area just outside the dunes. The constantly wind-rolled dunes engulf and swallow all but the most cleverly adapted to this environment. [photo]


The words of Edward Abbey, American author and essayist, apply White Sands’ nature lessons to our human lives:

Anything that lives where it would seem that nothing could live,
enduring extremes of heat and cold, parching aridity and sudden cloudbursts,
among burnt rocks and shifting sands, any such creature, beast, bird or flower,
testifies to the grandeur and heroism inherent in all forms of life. Including
the human. Even in us.


Lots to do


Hiking is a natural here and, because gypsum sand doesn’t absorb the sun’s rays and become hot as quartz sand does, you can walk barefoot on the dunes even in the heat of the
desert summer. There are marked trails [photo], and you may also stride off-path to explore the area on your own. But hiking here comes with a caveat: without landmarks, it is quite easy to get disoriented, especially during a sandstorm. Hike with a friend.


For many visitors—young and old—the dunes offer a chance for some old-fashioned sledding with a new twist: dune-sledding! Bring your own plastic saucer, or buy one at the visitor’s center and sell it back to them when you leave the park. [photo]


Park rangers regularly guide scheduled activities like star talks, nature walks and special
caravans to the Lake Lucero area where the gypsum originates. Picnicking is fun at the areas provided—but bring your own water. The only drinking water provided is at the visitors’ center at the park entrance.


And, speaking of the Visitor’s Center—don’t miss it! White Sands became a federal monument designation at the time of the Great Depression. The Roosevelt administration's focus on public works to stimulate the economy was lucky for the park. WPA money and workers built this Visitor’s Center—so it’s not a tacky “government issue” building. Reflecting an authentic Southwest theme, its woodwork and architectural details feature real craftsmanship. The building, worth a visit for the architectural details alone [photo], offers lots more: exhibits, audio-visuals, and a gift shop.


Both spectacular and real


In an array of Earth’s diverse beauties, White Sands National Monument reflects a facet of natural wonder quite unlike anything else. This magnificent place will reward your visit with an experience that is both novel and authentic. It may be out-of-this-world, but it’s also genuinely down to earth!
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