24th February – At the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert, lies a mountain-ringed valley called the Tularosa Basin. Rising from this are the glistening white sand dunes of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument, considered one of the world’s great natural wonders. Relentlessly advancing in strong winds and covering everything in their path, these great, wave-like dunes have created the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
Approximately 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo, the White Sands Visitor Centre is a beautiful, carefully designed Pueblo style building, constructed from adobe made bricks and plaster and definitely worth a visit. After our recent very cold and grey weather, we are lucky to begin our day here with a perfect blue sky streaked with ribbons of cloud……although it is not to last!
As we enter the desert, the dunes are just a few feet high and plant life manages to survive here. Further into the dune field however, there is little or no vegetation, only a few plants are able to grow rapidly enough to prevent being buried by the rapidly moving dunes.
We see amazing examples of where plants have anchored parts of a dune with their roots and continue growing on a sand pedestal, even after the dune has moved on.
We are too early to see flowers in bloom, as this happens later due to the cold air from the surrounding mountains that settles in the basin at night.
High temperatures during the day mean that most wildlife stays underground, only emerging as it gets cooler. Many species of birds have been recorded including the Roadrunner, New Mexico’s state bird and a year-round resident of White Sands. Incredibly, there are several types of small creatures inhabiting the dunes that have gradually evolved a lighter coloration for survival here amongst the white landscape, such as a Pocket Mouse, lizards and several insects.
Walking amongst these dunes of gypsum crystals is an unforgettable experience…..everything is white and dazzlingly bright. The 5 mile Alkali Flat Trail is the highlight of our visit here at White Sands, taking us into the heart of the sands where unbroken dunes of various sizes and shapes, stretch for miles into an amazing white vista. The trail is not visible in the sand but is marked by white posts set at varying distances apart, eventually leading to the edge of the Alkali Flat, a lakebed that dried up thousands of years ago.
And the weather does change, with herds of puffy cumulus racing in building quickly to threatening storm clouds, hiding the sun and creating a dramatic and changing landscape of shifting shadows amongst the dazzling white. The changes in light create a spectacular sight and have given us a chance to experience the desert’s changing faces and to acknowledge just how insignificant we can become in this vast and unforgiving wilderness.
When lightning flashes and thunder rumbles in the distance we decide to turn back from the trail, not quite reaching the Flats. The distant posts have already become difficult to make out and it is easy to see in these sudden changes of weather how people can become disorientated, sometimes with fatal results, especially in the summer months when temperatures are over 100 degrees and without shade.
We were hoping to explore a lot more of New Mexico but an extended winter and ice storms further north have closed roads. If we return one day, it will definitely be a state that we will come back to. And so tomorrow we will move on into the ‘Lone Star State’ of Texas.