White Sands National Monument — Photo Tour

Ewan Grantham
Mar 11, 2018 · 10 min read

A trip through White Sands National Monument requires a bit of advance planning. While the Visitor Center (shown above) has some of the supplies you might need, checking the website first is always a good idea to make sure you won’t run into a closure of the road or the park due to testing at the nearby missile range. On the plus side, I have yet to run into any evidence of craters in the park itself.

At the visitor center you can stock up on water (though it’s obviously cheaper to bring your own), as well as rent sleds for sliding down some of the gypsum dunes.

Gypsum is responsible for the features here, which is why the dunes are so white. It is also one of the reasons the park almost disappeared when there was talk of allowing the gypsum here to be hauled off for commercial use.

Across from the visitor center is this butte. As you can see, another clear day ahead.

In one of the gardens around the visitor center I found this cactus in bloom.

As well as a blooming yucca plant.

At one of the first stops inside the park itself, you see the transition from a dry, level area to an increasingly white, and barren, collection of dunes and flats. Here you still have quite a few low-lying bushes and other plants eking out an existence.

This sign is repeated in several places throughout the park. Mostly good advice, and it does help that there is decent cell coverage if you need it.

A flatter area with some more bushes and grasses.

I liked the look of this wood fence near the entrance to this parking area. You can get a sense for how the gypsum is shaped around objects, as well as a feel for how dry it is in general.

Still, there are spots of color here and there if you are observant.

A closeup of a different small flower in bloom.

At this first stop is a covered area where occasional ranger talks are held, and where you can get a bit of shade and rest. Because there is still a number of plants, they encourage you to stay on the path — which also makes this section more accessible for someone in a wheelchair or using crutches.

From the trail, you can see some of the peaks to the west of the park.

This is also not far from where the road changes from paved to packed gypsum. It’s not too different from driving on packed snow, but you need to be a little careful when cornering or stopping.

Also, to be aware that you will likely get home with gypsum in your shoes, and around your car. A quick rinse is suggested for both.

Driving from there to one of the trailheads, I noticed this small tower of packed gypsum.

The moon seemed about as white as the sand, and going further into the park felt a bit like moving to a different world as well.

Arriving at the start of the Alkali Flats trail — my main destination for this trip — I found this sign. What the sign doesn’t tell you, is that the trail markers assume you are taking the trail starting to your left, and proceeding clockwise. I, of course, ended up going the other way around. It wasn’t a major problem, but did mean I ended up going up a couple taller dunes that they assumed you would be going down instead.

At the start of the trail you are in a reasonably flat area, with a lot of visible footprints. At the edges of this photo you can see how my camera (a Panasonic FZ1000 at the time) was having issues with that much white against that deep of blue.

Off to the left of the main trail were these two folks with their sleds. Nearer the park entrance there are some areas that are almost exclusively filled with families enjoying some warm weather sledding.

A shot of the moon again as I start making my way to the first post.

Well, that was easy enough. Maybe this hike won’t be so hard after all. Note that the post is designed to be read on the way out, but the marker is designed for folks who are returning.

And the next marker is… up there huh? Well, time to do a little climbing.

One of the tricks I had to learn early on was how to read the patterns in the gypsum. You generally want to look for areas like this — where the gypsum is packed more firmly and you won’t sink up to your ankle (and on some dunes up to your knees).

Another example of some of the patterns the wind makes on the gypsum.

At the top of this dune, I was able to see three markers in a row. One of the other things I learned was that you needed to keep the markers in sight, but you didn’t have to walk literally from marker to marker. For some of the dune placed ones, keeping to the windward side of the dune and keeping the marker in sight while finding the next one saved some climbing effort.

Behind me, some of my footprints in the packed gypsum. Even here you can see you sink in a bit, and have a bit looser footing than you might expect. For a five mile hike, this made things a bit more taxing than usual.

Next to the dunes would sometimes be areas that were flat enough to keep a little moisture when it rained. Which encourages a bit of plant life even in the middle of all this “white sand”.

Continuing my hike, I found the patterns the wind had made to be pretty interesting.

Looks like one person had been here earlier, so trying to read their footprints to find the best trail. Of course some of them are nearly filled in already.

Off in the distance, a small bush in the middle of a vast field of white.

While continuing on the path there was this small bush that appeared to have been pushed over by the wind.

Looking at my own tracks, you can see an area that wasn’t quite as packed as I thought it would be. Also the way the wind is already filling them back in.

The flat area next to this particular dune had this surprising bit of color. And next to that…

A small lizard trying to stay hidden in the grasses.

Have come quite a ways, and can see several of the markers I’ve passed. Post lets me know I’m about at the halfway point of the hike.

And this ridge gives you a sense of how the dunes fall away to each side.

Another set of markers ahead for the next section of the hike.

Looking at the base of this one, you can see how the PVC pipe they use to mount these fills in with gypsum which is then sculpted further by the wind.

At this portion of the trail, you have a clear view of the neighbors.

And another dune to navigate around.

A closer look at the little sculpted gypsum tower at the base.

Of course this was when the wind decided to pick up.

I mean, it started to get even more windy than it had been.

I mean, REALLY WINDY. Was starting to understand why folks might want to have a scarf to put in front of their mouths to keep from inhaling this.

Another marker and…

A close-up of the post telling me the area I had just been through was the area that the overall trail was named for. Which also confirmed I was taking the trail “backwards”. Oh well…

More dunes and a flat area that was sculpted with ridges.

Some grasses in the flat area being bent by the wind.

And here, I had reached the bush I had seen earlier in the hike. A smaller bush with it’s own sculpted dune, and behind it…

Another bush clinging to a small hill of dirt even as the gypsum was building up behind it.

By the way, did I mention the wind had really picked up at this point? :-)

Another marker, and a post letting me know there was about a mile left to go.

A view of the bush from the “gypsum side”.

Here there was some sand getting mixed in with the blowing gypsum.

OK, who put the next marker up THERE?

Yup, it was still windy.

Off in the distance, the first people I had seen in over an hour.

A little more hiking, with a broken marker to walk past.

And there, in the distance was the first post and marker from the start of the hike. Five miles, and I was more than ready to call it a day.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my recounting of this trip, and that you’ll make your own way to visit the dunes on your next vacation!

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