Sledding in the Desert

White Sands National Monument
Monday&Thursday May 7
th & 10th, 2007

We spent two days at White Sands National Monument, one to learn, and one to play. White Sands is a large(275 square miles) series of gypsum sand dunes. Gypsum, the material used to make drywall, starts out transparent, but as the sand is blown by the wind, they rub against other sand particles, scratching them up. This makes the light reflect better, giving the dunes their namesake appearance. On a sunny day, the sand is literally blinding – even with a hat and dark sunglasses, I was constantly squinting when we were out on the dunes.

Arriving early enough at our new campground to allow some sightseeing, we drove out to the park, which is about 15 miles west of Alamogordo, NM. We started at the Visitor Center, a wonderful traditionally constructed adobe building built by the CCC in the late 1930’s. The Visitor Center and adjacent seven buildings were designated as the White Sands National Monument Historic district in 1990. There Vance embarked on what was one of the most thorough Jr. Ranger programs he’s worked on. We spent several hours in the center working on his activities, learning about other New Mexico parks in the meantime.

Each evening at 6:45 there is a Ranger led ‘Sunset Walk’, where you are led up into the dunes. Ranger Holly gave a wonderful talk on the geology of the park (how the dunes were created), and we learned quite a bit about how plants have adapted to live in such a harsh environment. Of particular interest were the Soaptree Yucca (the New Mexico state plant). When a dune would move enough to cover the Yucca, it would rapidly grow, ‘keeping its head above water (or sand, in this case). When the dunes would ultimately move on by, uncovering the now tall, skinny plant, they typically would fall over and die. The importance of microbes in establishing a ‘beachhead’ in the interdune areas, breaking down dropped or blown organic material, was discussed at length.

Finally, the highlight was sunset itself. With the sun setting over the San Andreas Mountains to the west, and shining colorfully on the Sacramento Mountain range to the east, it was spectacular. Other than the sound of the wind, the dunes are quiet. Many people come out to the dunes just to sit and watch the sunset.

White Sands is unique – there are only two other places in the world with the white gypsum sand dunes, and they are both much smaller. If you are interested in the geology, look here for a kid friendly explanation. Otherwise, suffice it to say that it has to do with Gypsum eroding from the nearby mountains into a basin with no rivers that drain it. When it rains, large shallow ponds form, which ultimately evaporate, leaving the gypsum. Through a combination of factors, this eventually winds up as sand, which is blown by the wind into the dunes. The dunes are young - geologists believe they are only about 7000 years old.

The Park Service has to plow the main road through the dune area of the park constantly with a snowplow. Eventually the dunes, which are in constant, although slow, movement, will cover the roads to the point where they have to be moved. Everything in the dunes is portable – buildings, amphitheaters, boardwalks, etc. Our guide, Ranger Holly stressed …..”The dunes are always going to win. So we don’t fight it.”

The Park Service puts an emphasis on desert safety – in the Junior Ranger Program, the exercise on do/don’ts while in the park was required, and thorough. Although the dunes look harmless, they aren’t. Recently a man died on a hike – shirtless, and without water, he died from heat exhaustion. The hike was only 4 miles long, which seems incredible that someone could get overheated in that short of a distance, but it happens.

One of the big factors they stress is it’s easy to get lost. The dunes look much the same, with the undulating white sand stretching in every direction once you get back off the road a little bit. This is one of the very few Park Service facilities where you aren’t limited where you can walk – it’s all open. The problem is ~ there aren’t any real landmarks other than plants. If a sandstorm starts blowing and you lose your references, such as the sun and surrounding mountain ranges, it is very easy to get turned around. The Rangers constantly ask for help from the U.S. Border Patrol to find people who have gone missing in the dunes, using some of the high tech equipment the Border Patrol has for detecting illegal immigration attempts.

If the wind kicks up, you can get in real trouble. The wind has to blow above about 15mph in order to disturb and blow the sand. However, it can get a lot windier than that, and when it does, you can get a whiteout from the pure white gypsum blowing around.

We were shopping in Alamogordo one afternoon, nearly 15 miles away, when a sandstorm kicked up. In just a matter of minutes the entire city looked to be in a white cloud. It felt like being sandblasted, and we all had gritty white particles on us when we got back to the camper. Looking back toward the park, all you could see was a billowing cloud of white. Not something I’d want to get caught in.

We came back a couple of days later on a bright and sunny day for Vance to play on the dunes. They range from 15-20 feet high, and are fun to sled down. The gift shop at the Visitor Center sells disks for sledding, and I had brought along our trusty ‘Torpedo’ sled from home, in case we bumped into any good snow in the Rockies. On smooth, undisturbed sand, Vance was able to sled fine (I tended to sink in a little bit!). The water table is not far below the dunes, so the sand under the surface of the dunes stays wet. This causes the surface to form a crust when it dries out in sun and wind, somewhat like Plaster of Paris when it dries (also made from gypsum).

We had a grand old time – Vance and I would tackle each other and roll down the dunes, turning the both of us pearly white! We spent a good part of the afternoon playing in the sand, and just goofing off. Denise earned her keep as the water girl and photographer.

The park has Holloman Air Force Base on one side, and the White Sands Missile Range on the other, so there is a lot of military activity going on in the area (jets flying in, etc…). US Hwy. 70 has a big sign just outside of Alamagordo warning of highway closures due to testing on the Missile range. This park is not far (at least by western standards) from where the first atomic bomb test (Trinity Site) was performed.

White Sands is very nice and fun. The sand was made of the mineral gypsum. This was all formed by water millions of years ago. There are many plants and animals that live in the monument. A lizard called the Bleached Earless Lizard does a pushup when he is out in the night.

The first day we did a sunset hike. The ranger told us about how the dunes were formed and the wildlife. Some plants form around piles of sand called pedestals. It is so hot in the day, most animals come out in the cool evening.

You might be surprised by the following!


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