A night in the white dunes

Written by Chaz on 30 July 2012

IMG_1943Eric and I continued our journey east from Las Cruces through the Organ Mountains, headed toward White Sands National Monument. Based on a bit of Internet research I had done, we took a short driving detour through the Organ Mountain National Recreation Area, which sits just east of town on Bureau of Land Management land. It turned out to be a perfect detour on a hot desert day: a one-way scenic drive into the small but dramatic cluster of mountains that looped right back to the highway.

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White Sands National Monument is encompassed entirely by the enormous White Sands Missile Range, the largest military installation in the United States and the site of the Trinity nuclear test. Fortunately, lawmakers had the foresight to carve out the most beautiful portion for protection as a national monument. But the rest of the missile range remains in some mysterious use by the military, and in fact the park and the highway through it are closed from time to time to allow for unknown military exercises. Already, from the Organ Mountains drive, we could see mysterious government buildings out to the east in the middle of the desert, and we were warned to mind our business by a rather ominous sign.

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Returning to the highway, we pushed east toward the monument, stopping only briefly at a Customs and Border Protection checkpoint that was nearly 100 miles from the Mexican border. I had no idea that these internal checkpoints existed, much less that they could possibly be constitutional, especially since the only check performed seemed to be whether the occupants of each car were white. But there it was, and of course, Eric and I were waved through the absurd checkpoint without even a question.

The entrance to the national monument lay just beyond, and we pulled into the visitor center to register for the backcountry permit that would allow us to hike and in spend the night. At 4:30, only three of the 10 campsites had been reserved, so we had our pick of sites, choosing one that was a little further in so that we would be less likely to see other campers. The park ranger also gave us a stern warning about unexploded munitions that could still be scattered around the park from military tests of yesteryear. Given that the park is sand dune after sand dune, the chance that you would actually be able to avoid stepping on an unexploded munition seems low. Fortunately, we ended up emerging alive.

We stopped to apply sunscreen, since even in the late afternoon the sun was still roasting the desert, and were then ready to begin exploring.

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Our first stop along the eight-mile Dunes Drive was the Playa Trail, a short walk into a desert playa, essentially the remainder of what was long ago a lake. Though the park’s trademark white sand dunes were visible in the distance, we were not quite there.

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Our second stop was at the Dune Life Nature Trail, a loop trail that took us deeper into the beautiful white dunes. Our walk was narrated on a series of signs by Katy the Kit Fox, who explained that not very much wildlife is able to survive in the dunes, because there just isn’t anything to eat — not to mention the lack of water.

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But, as the signs explained, some things can survive in the dunes. Two struck me as noteworthy. In some places in the dunes, there are actually cottonwood trees growing right out of the sand. Cottonwood trees thrive near riverbeds, and because they need so much water, that’s usually the only place they can be found. In fact, the last time I saw them was along the Virgin River gorge when we were in Zion National Park. How, then, can they possible exist in a place as dry as White Sands? Apparently a generous aquifer is just a few feet below the surface in some places. You’d never know it from the surface. But these trees have their roots essentially in a riverbed, just as they like it.

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The second amazing bit of wildlife was three species of lizard that have all evolved, only within White Sands, to be white instead of their original darker colors so that they can avoid predators. As the dunes are only about 6,000 years old, this evolution is much, much faster than you can usually find anywhere else, and as a result, the lizards have gained national attention. The darker lizards must have been simply unable to survive at all.

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Returning to the car, we made one more stop at the Interdune Boardwalk, a short promenade into the dunes where we asked a stranger to take a picture of us.

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We drove the rest of the Dunes Drive around to the backcountry camping parking lot. On the way, we saw people engaging in what is apparently one of the most popular draws of the park: sledding. In a flat place that won’t get much snow, the dunes are a fun place to sled year-round.

The backcountry campsites are arranged around a loop trail, each about a mile’s hike from the parking lot — somewhat closer to the car than my last backcountry experience. We stopped in the parking lot to get our things together before heading into the dunes. It was a bit more organized than in the parking lot of the North Kaibab Trail, starting with the fact that we had actual backpacks.

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Along the mile-long walk to our campsite, we began to hit the true unadulterated beauty of White Sands. The unblemished snow-white dunes were unreal in their scale and grandeur, especially as the sun began to hang lower over the desert. If you visit White Sands and do not opt for the five-mile Alkali Flat Trail, I highly recommend the backcountry camping trail as a much shorter but equally beautiful alternative.

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We arrived shortly at our campsite and set up our tent in our incredible surroundings.

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Though our tent was in a dune basin, we climbed to the top of the closest dune to make dinner and watch the sunset. We had brought freeze-dried chicken and rice for dinner. Expiration date: “lasts for years.” We set up the camp stove and began to boil water as the evening light fell over the endless ridges of white sand that surrounded us.

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After we resolved some technical difficulties with our camp stove, the water boiled and we poured it into the plastic bags of dried chicken and rice. A few minutes later, our delicious feast was ready.

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As we watched the sunset from our position atop the dunes, we could see a forest fire raging far in the distance. Little did we know how close it would end up being to Eric’s vacation house in Ruidoso.

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We rose at 5:30 on Saturday morning and struck camp, stuffing everything back into our backpacks for the short hike back to the parking lot. The dunes looked radiant in the early-morning light.

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We had a quick bite to eat at the car before driving to the trailhead of the Alkali Flat Trail, a longer five-mile jaunt into the dunes. We rose early to avoid the extreme desert heat that the day would bring, and sure enough, the temperature had not reached 80 degrees by the time we returned to the car at about 8:30. Our 6:30 start also meant we were the only people on the trail, as the gates to the park aren’t open until 7:00. The only way to be inside the park earlier than that is to spend the night.

The Alkali Flat Trail, which guided us using a series of plastic orange posts that sometimes were not as evident as one might like, took us nearly to the edge of the dunes, where the sand fades into a large alkali flat. Off in the distance we could see more military buildings.

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We returned to the car, tired but accomplished, and logged our time-out in the trail register in the parking lot, presumably used to make sure no one is lost in the dunes.

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Though we didn’t meet Katy the Kit Fox during our time in the park, we did see evidence of plenty of wildlife. Seemingly around every turn was a new set of footprints, some apparently from mammals or birds, others from a creature we had been warned about at the visitor center — the stinkbug.

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I had wanted to visit White Sands for a while, since I realized how close it was to Eric’s vacation house in Ruidoso, and my eagerness grew when I discovered you could spend the night deep in the dunes, which sounded like a particularly exciting way to experience the park. The adventure didn’t disappoint. White Sands was absolutely beautiful, and spending the night under the stars among the dunes rated up there with our night in the Grand Canyon. As we explored the park’s trails, each fresh vista of dune after white dune was breathtakingly different from anything I’d seen before elsewhere.

We drove out of the park and turned east again, toward Alamogordo and lunch.

 

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