Otherworldly locations seem to be the theme of the last few weeks travels with visits to Valley of Fires, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and now White Sands National Monument. We have been in the Chihuahua Desert during this time and have had a variety of experiences. We were able to visit the largest gypsum dunefield in the world located just outside of the town of Alamogordo in the Tularosa Basin.
White Sands is part of the much larger White Sands Missile Range development and lies on its southern border. The National Monument seeks to preserve this special place between the missile range and the Holloman Air Force Base.
Through the interaction of gypsum, water, and wind, this unique landscape exists and it is difficult to describe. Is it like a valley after a windblown snowstorm? Or a beach without an ocean? Perhaps, a mirage of a giant’s sandbox? In reality the Tularosa Basin, which has no outlet, keeps the gypsum from dissolving and simply washing downstream.
This dunefield, covering 275 square miles, has a surprisingly large amount of vegetation and wildlife all of which have adapted to the harsh and ever changing conditions. Some of the dunes shift an amazing 35 feet year. These tend to be the “younger” dunes which do not have developed plant life.
Plants such as the soaptree yucca and skunkbush sumac are able to thrive in these conditions. Various animals and insects are able to live dependent on the vegetation that does exist.
A popular activity is to sled down the slopes on snow sleds. The park store not only sells the sleds but also the sled wax to speed them on their descents. Certain areas of the park have numerous groups giving the sledding a try.
At thirty minutes before sunset there is a nightly ranger-led hike that we were able to take. It is timed to take advantage of the spectacular sunsets that are common behind the San Andres Mountains that occupy the west border of the valley. Our guide was excellent and truly helped Celia and me understand the environment that we were visiting. As the sun is setting, we bundled up against the cool desert night and hiked back to the Silver Fox.
We stayed in the Oliver Lee State Park campground overlooking the San Andres Mountains to the west and the Sacramento Mountains to the east. The folks in the visitor center even loaned us some sleds! We enjoyed our time at the Park and our view from the Bighorn was fabulous!