Travelogue: White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument was pretty much the inspiration for our entire trip to New Mexico. Those dunes of gypsum sand cover 275 square miles of desert and have been on my must-see wishlist for years. And they did not disappoint!

I’m a ways from finishing a travelogue about our week-long road trip in the “Land of Enchantment,” and when I do, I’m sure there won’t be room for many of my favorite photographs of White Sands (I have so many). I thought it best to share the details of our days in the sands of the Tularosa Basin in a separate post. We visited three separate times in 24 hours and saw the landscape in such dynamic conditions that it was hard to put my camera away. The dunes are incredible!

When we spotted White Sands—directly on the heels of a hike into Carlsbad Caverns and a 200-mile drive—we were surprised to see dark rain clouds overhead. We expected sunny days with wind, but no precipitation—apparently these are the conditions approximately 330 days out of the year.

When we arrived, the skies were cloudy and, with the 20mph wind, visibility was very low. Aron remarked how similar it felt to driving up to Tahoe in a snowstorm.

Nonetheless, we stopped into the visitor center to get some maps and pick up a sled: they had a stack of used saucers for $10 each that, if returned with a receipt, they’ll buy back at $3. Someone in line suggested we wax them and handed us her small cube of surf wax.

There’s a single loop drive, eight-mile Dunes Drive, and the ranger told us that the dunes are largest the further you go, so we drove all the way to the turnaround point before pulling into a parking area and jumping out of the car. Hudson quite literally sprang from his seat and was the first one down one of the hills with his saucer. Skyler got a lift up from Aron before taking her turn. With the least weight, she was definitely the fastest down the slope. She started off with a big smile, but when she fell off the saucer and sat up to find the sand blowing in her face, she was none too happy about it.

So while the three of us dug into the dunes and braved the passing sandstorms (see a video), she climbed back into the car. I had a feeling things would be more to her liking the following day—at least I hoped!

As we drove out of the park to go in search of some dinner, we agreed that while the conditions weren’t the picture-perfect ideal, the place was nonetheless amazing! Just the feel of the cool gypsum on your feet is awesome.

But then, as we dug into some frozen custards and chili dogs in the car, we noticed the skies clearing and saw that the wind was slowing. We still hadn’t checked into our hotel, but knowing that the sunset could be stunning, we turned the car around and drove back into the park to catch the last of the light.

The first four miles of Dunes Drive are paved and the last four miles are a hard-packed, gypsum road. The landscape seems so untamable, that I found it incredible that the road remains.

Untouched dunes beckoned as far as the eye could see. We were amazed by the views in all directions.

We all ran and played until a ranger drove past announcing that the gates would be locking in twelve minutes, at which point we hurried back to the car and drove to our hotel.

If one did want to stay and see the night sky, there are backcountry camping permits handed out each morning for a small number of sites. You are told to place your tent within 5 feet of site markers and be set up by dark so as not to become disoriented. The wind can erase footprints in minutes! Has anyone ever camped there?

I can only imagine how much sand that Marriott must vacuum out of their carpets every night.  It was everywhere! We were so glad we had a rental car.

The next morning was a completely different scene. Bright and clear, it looked like we had landed in some tropical paradise that was missing its sea.

Skyler was much happier to slide down the hills and play with the calm skies. Still, I think everyone’s favorite activity was simply digging in the sand and watching the way it would shift; on the slopes, mini landslides would build momentum with a starting nudge.

It’s hard to make out here, but Hudson is checking out the tracks of a darkling beetle—or stinkbug. We found lots of animal tracks when we arrived in the morning: paw prints from a kit fox, a mouse, and—we think—the tracks of a roadrunner! There’s a nice display in the visitor center for stamping tracks in a tray of sand, and of course the ranger was happy to help us identify them, too.

Skyler was inspired to be like a frog and make some tracks of her own.

Have you been to White Sands? It’s incredible!

P.S. 10 National Parks for a Destination Wishlist

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