White Sands National Monument is located in the south central region of New Mexico, near the city of Alamogordo. Rising from the heart of Tularosa Basin, the 275 square miles of glistening white gypsum sand dunes is one of the great natural wonders of the world. It is the worlds largest gypsum dune field. The dunes are always in motion driven and sculpted by the strong southwest winds.
The visit to White Sands was part of our road trip to south east part of New Mexico from Dallas. The first stop of our road trip was Hobbs. Hobbs is around 7 hours drive from Dallas and is conveniently located near Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains. After our 2 night stay at Hobbs we started towards Alamogordo near White Sands. The drive to Alamogordo is through the beautiful Cloudcroft (9000 ft elevation). The view of White Sands from Cloudcroft is breathtaking. It looks like an enormous milky white lake at the foothills of the San Andres mountains.
The rain and snow in the San Andres mountains dissolve the gypsum from the rocks and carry it into the Tularosa Basin. These are deposited in crystalline form as selenite. Winds break down the selenite into sand size particles which are carried by the wind. The gypsum mineral is rarely found as sand because it is water soluble but since this is a basin area and there is no outlet the gypsum particles form the sand dunes. White Sands National Monument is one of the few places with gypsum white sand dunes and is the largest in the world.
The wind forms beautiful design patterns on the sand dunes and these looks beautiful against the back drop of blue skies.
The sand dunes are constantly shifting due to the strong south west winds. The movement of sand dunes leave behind a footprint at the base of the dune comprising of long ridges.
Interdunes Flora and Fauna
Interdunes are low lying flat area between dunes and is a fertile area for flora and fauna. Cyanobacteria are prevalent in the interdune area and sustain all the plants. Soaptree Yucca is the most common plant found in White Sands and have adapted well to rough environment. They are able to survive dune movements by elongating their stem. The stem of these plants can be as long as 30 feet buried beneath the dunes. When these trees have grown so tall and the dunes move out, these trees fall on their own weight and die.
Like Yucca, Skunkbush Sumac and Hoary Rosemary mint also have the ability to grow their stems and outgrow slow moving dunes.
Some plants form large pedestals on the gypsum sand. Skunkbush Sumac and Hoary Rosemarymint are examples of pedestal building plants. These plants bind the gypsum sand around their tangled branches and roots and outgrow slow-moving marginal dunes. As the dunes move the sand around the plant stays put and what is left is a plant stand or a pedestal.
Cyanobacteria thrive in the interdunes and is the main reason plants thrive in the interdune areas. Cyanobacteria are also known as blue green algae and are responsible for the green tinge just beneath the surface of the interdunes. These bacteria have the capability to absorb nitrogen from atmosphere and provide it as nutrition to the plants. Cyanobacteria along with the fungi form a lichen crust in the interdune area. These crusts are very fragile and we were advised to not walk over them but around them. As shown in the photo below they provide soil health, stability, water retention and protection.
The water table in the interdunes is just 3 to 4 feet below the surface. There is abundance of ground water. The ranger took us to a spot where they had dug a hole to show the depth of water table. The ground is porus and the water from rain easily seeps underground.
Our initial plan was to just spend a day in Alamogordo and visit the White Sands National Monument. My little one developed a stomach infection so we had to cancel our trip to Truth or Consequences. We ended up staying in Alamogordo for 3 days. Every evening we would spend in White Sands and the kids simply loved it. Due to earlier rains one area had a large puddle of water. The kids loved making sand castles near that puddle.
We had also bought a Sled from the visitors center and all of us used it to slide down the dunes. We had picked a really high dune ( > 30 feet) and we all had a blast.
It is always raining around the mountain side surrounding the White Sands and the thunder clouds look beautiful in the backdrop of the white sand dunes. It looks as if people are walking in the clouds.
Gods must have been happy during our visit to White Sands. We were twice treated with beautiful rainbow over the sand dunes.
“The Sunset Stroll Nature Walk is an easy (less than one mile) stroll through the dunes to look at the geology, plants and animals of the dune field. Some climbing on the dunes is involved.The walk is timed to end at sunset in order to provide good photographic opportunites.The Sunset Stroll is held every evening throughout the year, except when staff is not available. The starting time varies.” – nps.gov
While on the stroll the ranger showed us the flora and fauna of white sands, how the plants adapted in this area, the cyanobacteria and how it supports plant life in the interdunes, etc.
The stroll ended with the sunset when all the visitors got ready with their cameras. The sunset was beautiful.
Our visit to White Sands had a dramatic end. While we were about to finish our trip we saw white dust on the far side and figured out the wind was creating a sand storm. We quickly packed our stuff including kids 😉 in the car and headed towards the area where the kids were playing near the puddle the earlier day. The puddle was no longer there and we parked near the base of the dune. Suddenly we saw the storm approach us. There was no way I was going to miss experiencing the sand storm. I put on my dark glasses to protect my eyes and ventured out above the dune. I loved every moment of it. The wind was howling and the sand particles were pinching my legs and arms. When I reached the top of the dune I saw a few people on the other dune also having fun.
I went back to the car and took my elder daughter out with me. My wife also ventured out and took a video of the storm. It was a perfect end to our White Sands trip. It was one of the most memorable vacations.
Tags: white sands national monument gypsum soaptree yucca rosemary mint sumac sunset rainbow reflection sled slide cyanobacteria Alamogordo crust interdune tularosa basin cloudcroft hobbs carlsbad gaudalupe