White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, February 2017

About an hour north east of Las Cruces in the Tularosa Basin there is an amazing 275 square mile area of giant white gypsum sand dunes. This is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world and most of it is protected within the White Sands National Monument.

The basin is surrounded by the San Andreas and Sacramento Mountains.  There is not much rain here but what rain there is dissolves the gypsum in the higher mountains and it flows down into the basin.  There is no outlet so the water pools in two lakes, Alkalai Flats and Lake Lucerno.  As the water evaporates the gypsum forms selenite crystals.  These fragile crystals can grow to three feet in length but break down in the wind into sand-like particles which make up the dunes.  Gypsum is rarely found in this form. 

The wind blows the gypsum sand into many different shaped dunes.  Since the gypsum is water soluable if it gets wet it can form a firm layer on the surface of the dunes.  And since it does not absorb the sun’s radiant energy like normal sand it remains cool enought to walk on in your bare feet even on the hottest days.

The day we were there it was cool enough for a jacket.

Unlike most sand this gypsum sand is firm.

A popular activity is hiking out in the dunes to a big hill and sliding down on plastic flying saucers, just like what we did when we were kids in Minnesota on snow.  You can buy a “dune disk” for $18.  When you are done they will buy them back for $5.  They also had “refurbished” used disks for $12.  What a racket!  No rentals.

Some “kids” go further into the dunes than others

The gypsum sand is very fine, almost like sugar but fine.  Almost a powder. And it clumps together if you pick up a handful and squeeze it.  Just under the surface it feels damp because it is.  The water table here is only 3-6 feet below the surface – more if you are standing on top of a dune.  The water is not suitable for drinking but it keeps the sand moist and provides for a wide variety of plants that grow here, most with very long roots.  Plants have adapted here to grow in the moving sand dunes.  Some make their own little island that the dunes move around. Others just get taller and taller as the dune moves over them to stay above the surface.  These do not survive when the dune moves on leaving them sticking up high and dry.

There is a loop road through part of the dunes so most visitors can get out and see them.  There are many stops, picnic areas, trail  heads and a couple of board walks out into the dunes.  All of this is just graded sand.  A road grader goes through a couple times a week to smooth it out.

Definitely white sand.

Anything goes.

White Sands is pretty neat. Like many places it could have been exploited but it was set aside as a National Monument in 1933.  The park’s Visitor’s Center was built by the CCC in 1936. As far back as the late 1800’s  it had been proposed to create Mescalero National Park after the Mescalero Apache who were here long before exploration by the US Army in 1849 and farming communities were settled in Tularosa in 1861.

White Sands National Monument lies entirely within the White Sands Missle Test Range.  The Monument is closed about twice a week for a couple hours because of missle tests.  The Trinity Site, a National Historic Landmark, where the first nuclear bomb was detonated lies on the northern most boundary of the White Sands Missle Test Range.  This is a place I would like to visit.  It is open to visitors one day in April and one day in October each year.  After more than 70 years the area is at least 10 times more radioactive than normal area so visits are short.

Back to Leasburg Dam State Park.  There are private RV parks in Las Cruces but they are mostly full of snowbirds and one-nighters for close to $40 per night.  The state park is 1/3 of that and much nicer. 

More later.  We’re off to see a Dude Ranch near Demming, NM.

Roger and Susan

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