White Sands National Park

Alamogordo, New Mexico – November 24, 2022

(Editor’s note: alert readers may note that I haven’t posted any updates on this blog for several months. We did lots of things between visiting the Barbed Wire Museum in May and White Sands National Park in November, but I’m going to post this now and fill in the months in between.)

On Thanksgiving Day, Gunther and Nancy and I went to White Sands National Park. It’s near the town of Alamogordo (Spanish for “fat cottonwood”), New Mexico, where we camping for a week. We were a bit surprised at the number of people who’d also chosen to visit the park on Thanksgiving, but, judging from the languages and accents we heard, we think a lot of them were tourists from Japan.

White Sands was first declared a national monument in 1933 and was re-designated as a national park in 2019. Nancy and I visited the then-monument during a trek through New Mexico in 2015, but were happy to share the experience again with Gunther. White Sands is the most-visited of the two national parks in New Mexico; a typical year sees 600,000 people stroll, slide, stumble, and tumble down its dunes. During the last two years, the pandemic increased that visitation to more than 700,000 visitors annually. (Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the state’s other national park, receives about 440,000 visitors each year. Two of those were Nancy and me; more to come on that.)

White Sands National Park is on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, which encompasses about 175,000 square miles. This desert, the largest in North America, stretches 1,200 miles from Alamogordo southward well into Mexico.

We took a walk on the park’s Interdune Boardwalk, which provides a lot of introductory information about the park’s ecosystems, and then hiked a two-mile loop in the dunes themselves along a marked trail where backcountry camping is permitted. There’s not a path in the dunes; the wind would scour away any trail in the sand within a couple of days. Instead, the route is marked with tall posts.

That’s a grass known as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in the foreground. Little bluestem is very common throughout the Great Plains and the intermountain west, and can survive in the desert here at White Sands National Park because the water table is typically only two or three feet below the surface. While on our hike, we noticed that the sand between the dunes was actually pretty wet. The Tularosa Basin, which includes the town of Alamogordo as well as the national park and White Sands Missile Range, is bordered by the Sacramento Mountains on the east (in the background of this photo) and by the San Andres and Oscuro mountain ranges on the west. The Tularosa Basin is about one-third larger than the state of Connecticut.

Some more rather staggering numbers regarding White Sands National Park: the sand has an average depth of about 30 feet, some of the dunes are 60 feet high, and the scientists figure that the dunefield contains about 4.5 billion tons of sand.

This photo, taken from the passenger seat of the Goddard’s six-wheeled towing unit, shows not snow, but sand. White Sands National Park features the largest gypsum dunefield in the world: at 275 square miles, it’s so big that it can be seen from space. (Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado measures about 30 square miles and contains several different minerals.) Only about 40 percent of the White Sands dunefield is in the national park; the rest is in the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), which surrounds the park, and is strictly off-limits to the public. WSMR has an area of 3,200 square miles and is the largest military installation in the United States (it’s 32% bigger than Kit Carson County in eastern Colorado). The national park is occasionally closed to visitors because of missile testing on the range. The world’s first atomic bomb, Trinity, was detonated on the northern edge of the missile range on July 16, 1945, as a test prior to the United States releasing atomic bombs in Japan to bring World War II to an end.

Here we see a visitor to White Sands National Park and her ill-behaved dog (it’s Nancy and Gunther) on the Interdune Boardwalk, a short elevated trail with many exhibits along the way. A good variety of desert plants, including shrubs, grasses, and cacti and succulents, thrive in some parts of the dunes.

The sand is remarkably white, and remarkably fine – most of the grains are smaller than crystals of table salt or sugar. Where did all of the sand come from? The answer lies, as many do, with the fact that this part of the planet was covered by a vast inland sea during the Permian Period (about 300-250 million years ago). The waters eventually evaporated away and left immense deposits of gypsum (also known as the mineral calcium sulfate) in the former seabed. Tectonic activity then uplifted the mountain ranges on either side of today’s Tularosa Basin. Over tens of millions of years, rain slowly dissolved the gypsum deposits in the mountains and ancient rivers carried the minerals to today’s White Sands National Park. The dunefield is relatively new, geologically speaking: it’s only 10,000 years old.

Gypsum has a number of beneficial uses for humans: it’s the prime component of drywall, which is used in building construction, plaster of Paris, and toothpaste. It’s also found in all kinds of food, including canned vegetables, white flour, ice cream, and in the production of both beer and wine; people ingest almost 30 pounds of gypsum during their lifetimes.

The mineral’s usefulness led to the designation of White Sands as a national monument in order to protect the area, and its plants and animal ecosystems, from commercial development.

Soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) is a really interesting desert succulent. Native Americans had more than 100 uses for the plant, including as a source of food, fibers for the manufacture of textiles, and true to its name, soap. The stem of the soaptree yucca, which grows underneath the sand, can be many times longer than the height of the plant above ground. As sand moves and threatens to cover the plant, the soaptree yucca continues to elongate its stem so that the plant’s photosynthesizing leaves stay above ground.

The seed pods of soaptree yucca (shown here in their dried form at the end of November) had many uses for Native Americans, and they’re also important to the desert ecosystem. The park is home to 800 different animal species, 650 of which are moths. Thirty-five of the moth species are found only at White Sands. Several different types of moths are responsible for pollinating the soaptree yucca, and they also lay their eggs in the flower pods.

One thing the scientists don’t know is why Gunther enjoys running on the sand so much. He did this at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, and he’s done it on beaches at reservoirs and lakes. He’s kind of a nut.

The wind carves the sand on the dunes into all kinds of interesting patterns of ripples, shifting nearly imperceptibly but constantly with every gust. I included the footprint in this crop of the photo to provide some scale; who knows who left it, and how many thousands of years has it been imprinted in the sand? (I left it, about five seconds before taking this photo.)

Here was a fun little surprise: I wasn’t expecting to find rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosus) in the desert sand, but here it is. We planted several of these at our home in Denver, and they were hosts to hundreds and hundreds of bees, along with lots of butterflies, during their late summer blooms. Rabbitbrush’s pollen is important source of food for butterflies during their migration. Native Americans used the yellow pollen to dye textiles, and they used other parts of the plants to make baskets and arrow shafts.

We saw a few invertebrate species of animals, including some beetles, but we didn’t see any mammals during our hike in the dunes. The park is home to American badgers, coyotes, black-tailed jackrabbits, desert cottontails, bobcats, and several different rodents. Most of the larger animals beat the heat by being nocturnal: staying in their burrows until nightfall. I think some kind of bird left the tracks on the left, and I’m fairly certain the photo on the right shows tracks from a northern Chihuahuan desert wolf. (I’m just kidding with you right now; they’re Gunther’s.)

The northern Chihuahuan desert wolf Gunther stopped running around long enough for me to take this picture on our two-mile hike on the dunes. The lower areas between the dunes provide a sheltered and well-watered place for plants to grow. The black dot at the top of the dune on the left side of the photo is another hiker.

White Sands National Park is an incredible treasure. A short hike up a 60-foot sand dune rewards one with a wonderful view of mountains, sky, and … more sand dunes. Nancy and I wondered, while on the two-mile hike, what it would be like to camp on the dunes. It would probably be an eerie experience — quiet except for the wind and occasional coyote yip. The stars would be beyond beautiful at night, though – something to consider for another trip to the park.

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