If you have followed my blog for a while, you may have seen an older post I made about the areas around Las Cruces, New Mexico. In May of 2011, I had driven down to Las Cruces to visit some friends and clients that were living there. While in town, I decided to cruise up to White Sands National Park.
White Sands is about 52 miles (84 kilometers) northwest of Las Cruces, New Mexico, along US 70. It is also only about 15 miles (24 km) further to Alamogordo, New Mexico, if you’re looking for a close place to stay. The park is entirely surrounded by White Sands Missle Range – a huge US military test facility.
White Sands is not really sand at all. The white sand is actually gypsum deposits that were buried under ancient seas many, many millennia ago. Near the end of the last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago, rain and snow melt carried this gypsum out of the surrounding mountains down into Lake Otero.
Around 10,000 years ago as the climate got drier, the lake began to evaporate, and over several more thousand years the relentless winds broke down the larger crystals into today’s sand like grains that accumulate into massive dunes.
White Sands has fascinated me since I was a kid. I would run across the tops of the dunes as fast as I could and see how far I could jump out from the tops. It was a blast! The sloping, soft sand made for perfect landing spots. As I grew a bit older, I became perplexed at how anything could survive in this incredibly harsh environment.
Southern New Mexico is a desert. Add in the gypsum, which is quite caustic, and anything living in this terrain is simply amazing. Once in a while, I would come across some old bleached animal skeleton – the last remains of some poor creature that had ventured too far into the huge gypsum dunes. Deep inside the park, there is almost no drinkable water.
And then there are the plants – the cacti that find some spot away from a dune and stake a claim to life there. Most photographs of White Sands feature the beautiful prinstine dunes, but I find the intersection of the sand and plants intriguing. This is literally “life finding a way” as Ian Malcolm (Jeff Golblum) said in “Jurassic Park”.
The yucca plants are very striking, with their beautiful yellow blooms contrasting with those dark green, sharply spiked leaves. How these plants can find enough water and balanced nutrients in these “soils” is a mystery to me. The older yuccas have a lot of dead leaves built up around their bases. This gives them a soft, almost furry look from a distance.
The yucca flower stalks are actually edible. If you cut one open, you’ll find a melon like “meat” inside. It has a lot of water content, so yuccas can be a survival food. No, they do not taste like watermelon as I was told in Army ROTC summer camp in high school. They’re not tasty, just kind of bland.
You can find more detailed information about White Sands at the National Park website: https://www.nps.gov/whsa/index.htm. If you go, the summers are hot! Water is only available at the park headquarters and visitor center, so come prepared. It is windy most of the time, and in the winter the temperatures can be quite cold, especially after dark. The dunes move around almost constantly from the wind. If you venture over a few dunes past the parking areas, it would be wise to bring a GPS (satellite navigation) and/or a compass and know how to use them. There are really no landmarks, and with the wind, it is easy to have your vision obscured. Getting lost is all too easy here and could prove disastrous.
Hopefully, this brief post about the White Sands of New Mexico has been enjoyable. Stay safe out there and keep blogging! And thanks for stopping by.