Saturday, May 25, 2013

White Sands National Monument, NM

White Sands National Monument is located on Highway 70 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo.  The drive is through flat desert part of which is in the White Sands Missile Range.  At times White Sands National Monument and Highway 70 are closed due to military tests!
After miles of flat desert the white dunes seem to just appear out of nowhere!
Be sure to stop by the visitors center to watch a brief free movie explaining how the white gypsum dunes are formed and about the wildlife that lives on them.   If you visit White Sands National Monument, be sure to check out their website for planned events. They offer a variety of guided hikes during the day and evening, as well as full moon bike rides! Admission to the park was only $3.00 per person and the receipt was good for at least 5 more consecutive days! 
One of the first things you'll notice besides the wide expanse of white are the interesting ripples created by the wind!  Walking on the gypsum barefoot is encouraged!  It is said not to get hot underfoot even in the heat of the day, as it is gypsum and not like regular sand.  It looks very soft, but is surprisingly firm to walk on.
There are other surprises to discover, too! 
As you progress further into the dunes, the road turns from blacktop to plowed gypsum!  It's startling to hear the ranger say that this will happen, but don't worry, as the moistened gypsum is like cement.  The loop through the park is only 8 miles.  The white sands actually cover 300 square miles! 
There is a large picnic area with space age looking shelters!  The strange surroundings combined with these shelters will make you feel like you are on another planet!  There are grills, tables, trash receptacles, and restrooms, so enjoy a picnic while at the park!  A tent camping area is also available within the park!  An overnight stay would be an interesting experience! 
Bring a sled and enjoy some dune sledding on the dune of your choice!  The visitor center gift shop sells new disc sleds for $15 and will buy them back at a portion of the original price.  Used sleds are also sold. 
Here is a synopsis of what we learned about the formation of the dunes and the plants that survive on them.  Gypsum leaches into the water flowing down out of the gypsum rich mountains.  The water settles into land locked lakes that eventually dry out.  Gypsum crystals are left behind.  The strong desert winds break the crystals into flakes and blows them along breaking them into increasingly smaller sizes.  The crystals start out opaque to clear, and take on the white color from the scuffing that occurs as they bounce along.
Don't be fooled by the plants you see atop the dunes!  They may appear that their seeds blew in and established themselves there.  The truth is that many grew with the dune as it increased in size.  Some of these Yuccas have plant growth going 30 feet deep!  When the dune eventually moves on, the Yucca is left without support for its full height and will topple over and die.  
Some plants get their roots solidly deep into a dune.  When the dune blows onward, the plant is able to sustain itself by pulling moisture into its own foothold of sand!  The dunes within the interior of the park are reported to advance up to 15 feet a year!  The perimeter dunes only move a few inches due to the surrounding desert vegetation. 
Regardless of understanding how the white sand dunes came to be, we left the park in awe of a place like this existing on Earth!