White Sands National Park protects 145,762 acres of soft gypsum sand dunes and adjacent Chihuahuan Desert transition zones in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico. It was first protected as a National Monument in January 1933 in the waning days of the Hoover administration. On December 20, 2019, congress upgraded it to a National Park, increasing its total area by some 2,000 acres and making it the sixty-second of sixty-three National Parks.
Earlier plans to consider expanding the monument were ultimately subsumed into the Tularosa Basin’s military use and legacy. The Park is surrounded by White Sands Missile Range and is adjacent to Holloman Air Force Base. The Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945, is about sixty miles from White Sands National Park in the northern part of the Tularosa Basin.
The deep time legacy of the place was underscored in September 2021 when researchers announced the discovery of 23,000-year-old human footprints in the Park, hard evidence that not only had humans arrived in the Americas earlier than standard textbooks claim, but they had pushed far into the interior of North America some 10,000 years earlier than the 13,000-years-ago date that had until recently been accepted by mainstream archaeology.
Truly, White Sands is a special place.
For my forty-third birthday on November 12, 2021, Sean and I spent the whole day exploring the Park, the third birthday I’ve now spent in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Sean’s flight had arrived at 10:40pm the previous night, and by the time we got to the hotel and had some churros I’d saved from my supper, we got to bed quite late. So our 6am alarm was a little rough. We were showered, dressed, packed up, and checked out by 7:15, though.
And after a stop at the Coffee Box down the block, which I’d been frequenting all week, we were on the road by 7:30, lattes, apple danish, and macarons in hand.
The White Sands Visitor Center is less than an hour and a half drive from downtown El Paso. On the way, I regaled Sean with my adventures the previous few days in El Paso as we shadowed the Rio Grande north on I-10 into New Mexico.
At Las Cruces, we left I-10 and started northeast on US-70, straight toward the Organ Mountains, one of the most striking small ranges I’ve ever seen. As we drove up and over San Augustin Pass, Sean played a couple albums I hadn’t heard before, Walk Through Fire by Yola and Long Lost by Lord Huron.
We began the long, gradual, bright descent into the heart of the Tularosa Basin. Immediately to our left were San Augustin Peak and the San Andres Mountains. Across the basin the Sacramento Mountains loomed. This was classic Basin and Range country with north-south trending mountain ranges on either side of long, flat basins.
After passing lots of warning signs about occasional closures and the dangers of the Missile Range, we turned off the highway into the entrance to the National Park. We pulled into the Visitor Center parking lot, which was right at the entrance.
Park thirty-seven. Happy Birthday to me.
As we went into the Visitor Center, we noted that there would be a sunset stroll at 4pm.
We stamped our passports, did a little shopping, watched the Park film, and checked out the exhibits.
We particularly liked a photography exhibition celebrating the role of women at White Sands over the decades, including the current Superintendent, Marie Frias-Sauter
After we filled all of our water pouches and bottles, we were ready to go on a hike.
We passed through the entrance station and drove out along the park road past a field of little bluestem, a hint that for all the barren sand we were about to encounter, the water table is very near the surface here.
Soon the transition zone gave way to the dune field proper, and gleaming white gypsum drifts looked like snow on the side of the road. When we reached the loop at the end of the road, sand completely covered the pavement.
We pulled into the large parking area adjacent to Alkali Flat Trail.
The visitors seemed to be split into three even groups: families playing and sledding on the dunes, hikers, and influencers taking pictures of themselves and each other.
At the car, we had a snack, readied our packs, and slathered on sunblock before setting out.
The warning signage did not mess around. That day it was supposed to he a high of 70, and after the hike Sean and I agreed we wouldn’t really want to do it if it were any hotter.
Alkali Flat Trail is a five mile loop trail through the dune field out to Alkali Flat at the edge of the cooperative zone with the Missile Range. It is by far the longest marked trail in the Park.
In addition to the swath of footprints, the trail is indicated by bright red metal posts in the sand. Signage at the trailhead advised that we should always have the next post in sight before we passed the closest post.
The weather had been mild, not rainy nor windy, so weeks worth of visitors’ footprints were captured along the trail. It made me think about the ancient footprints that had been announced in September. They had been made by young people, a group of children and teenagers, in mud along the shore of what had been Lake Otero. During the last Ice Age, this area had been lush with lakes, grasslands, and pine-clad mountains. The footprints of Wooly Mammoths, Dire Wolves, and Giant Ground Sloths have also been found here.
Researchers determined the 23,000 years ago date by carbon dating seeds embedded in the footprints. People have been on Turtle Island a very, very long time indeed.
I received birthday texts throughout the day, hence the multiple photos of my looking at my phone.
There weren’t that many people on the trail. In fact we only passed two going the other (clockwise) way around the loop. We were overtaken by one pair of hikers, and we overtook and passed another pair.
What I found surprising was the variety of texture and the abundance of plant life in the dune field, particularly compared with the Panamint Dunes at Death Valley National Park or the dune field at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Although the sun was omnipresent and the trail fairly long with lots of up and down, the hike didn’t feel particularly strenuous. And I’d fully recovered from my death hike five days earlier.
The trail gently arced west toward the San Andres Mountains, which separate the Tularosa Basin from the Rio Grand Rift Basin and the Hatch Valley (of green chile fame) further west. The San Andres Mountains are largely off limits to people, since the bulk of them falls within the boundaries of the Missile Range. Instead, they are ruled by one of the largest herds of Desert Bighorn Sheep in the Southwest, some four-hundred head. It’s a reminder of the interplay between militarized and conserved land, like Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver or Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie outside Chicago. Or hopefully the proposed Castner Range National Monument in El Paso.
The interdune areas were fascinating for the relative abundance of hardy plants and for the graceful patterns made by ephemeral water in the sand.
We reached a rolling section as the trail headed due west to Alkali Flat.
Off in the distance we spotted some military buildings on the Missile Range.
The the trail led us down onto Alkali Flat proper.
Here we were out of the dune field and on an enormous playa.
Here also we encountered warning signs, this time warning visitors away from dangers not associated with heat, sun, and dehydration. Although still in the National Park, Alkali Flat is part of a shared use area with the Missile Range.
While the playa of Alkali Flat is the remnant bed of the vanished Lake Otero, at its southern end the ephemeral Lake Lucero comes and goes depending on rainfall. Because it is in the cooperative use area, it’s only accessible to visitors via special tours.
From here, our trail trended southeast as we looped back toward the parking area.
Lower than the San Andres Mountains, the Sacramento Mountains sat on the eastern horizon.
Midday on the dunes was not the optimal moment for photography. That would come later on the sunset hike. The soft, white sand gleamed so bright that it threw off the way my camera registered light and dark generally, rendering the mountains and even sky darker than what may seem natural. But the light also had this effect to the naked eye. It was hard to adjust from the brightness of the dunes to a more “natural” impression of the ranges or the blue above us. That’s why I haven’t tried to “correct” the photos. This strangeness in the light is what we experienced as we hiked along.
The dune field is gigantic, and we were only seeing a small portion of it. It would be very easy to get very lost out there beyond the marked trail.
The dunes are constantly moving and shifting, creating sculptural interplay with the hardy shrubs living in them. Here a Skunkbush Sumac, still quite alive and tapped into the water table, clings to a pillar of sand. When the shrub was young, it would have been sitting on the surface of a dune. But as the dunes have shifted, it’s now perched on a remnant pedestal held together by its own root system.
(I just love the patterns of water flow between the dunes.)
And suddenly we were back in sight of the parking area.
We arrived back at our Subaru at 1pm. We’d done the five-mile loop in two hours, fifteen minutes. Not bad at all.
We refueled with cheese and crackers and a couple kombuchas before heading off to our next few short hikes.
(Again, the Park Service is not messing around in this Park. Even the sticker to attach the entrance receipt to your car window reminds you to drink water.)