White Sands

The silence of nature is very real.
It surrounds you, you can feel it.
-Ted Trueblood

A couple of hours east of Bosque is another naturalist and photographer destination – White Sands National Monument. The original plan was to drive down one afternoon, hike the dunes at sunset, spend the night in the nearby town of Alamogordo, and then return at sunrise to photograph the dunes in morning light. That plan came apart when the chosen morning date was accompanied by one of the periodic closings of the monument due to missile tests at the adjacent White Sands Missile Range. So, only one afternoon was spent away from the birds at Bosque, but what an afternoon it was.

Valley of Fires

Valley of Fires Recreation Area (click photos to enlarge)

On the drive to Alamogordo you pass through miles of high desert bounded by mountains. The landscape changes little until suddenly you pass through what looks like a charred moonscape known as the Valley of Fires. Highway 380 cuts across a huge lava flow four to six miles wide, 160 feet thick and covering 125 square miles. The lava flow dates back about 5,000 years and is considered to be one of the youngest lava flows in the continental United States.

Valley of Fires pahoehoe

Pahoehoe in the Valley of Fires

Walk cautiously out onto the flow and you can see the structure of the lava which includes many features that are more often seen in fresh Hawaiian lava flows. One of the most apparent is the pahoehoe texture of the surface of the flow. The texture forms when the surface of the flowing lava begins to cool, and the underlying, hotter lava is still flowing. The cooler surface is dragged along by the flowing lava underneath, and forms the wrinkled or coiled rope appearance.

White Sands National Monument 3

Peak of a dune at White Sands National Monument

After passing through more desert (oddly sprinkled with some groves of Pecan and Pistachio trees) you arrive at White Sands National Monument. From the Visitor Center, the view reminded me of the tallest sand dune on the East Coast, North Carolina’s Jockey’s Ridge, only with mountains in the background instead of a sound or ocean. But when I drove through the auto loop, it became apparent that this place was Jockey’s Ridge on steroids. And instead of the tan sands I am accustomed to, these sands are snow white.

Sand patterns

Sand patterns

The dunes at White Sands are derived from gypsum-bearing marine deposits laid down in a shallow sea over two hundred million years ago.  With the subsequent rise and fall of the surrounding region, the present day Tularosa Basin was created, nestled between the San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges. Since no rivers drain the basin, runoff from the surrounding mountains, laden with gypsum and other sediments, is trapped in the basin. This water then pools in low spots, often forming huge shallow lakes. When that water evaporates in the windy, dry environment, it deposits gypsum in the form of selenite crystals, which eventually break down from weathering into sand-sized particles. The white sands can now be moved by the winds and shaped into the dunes that cover 275 miles of desert, creating the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

Untouched dune landscape

A short hike leads to an untouched dune landscape

A hike in the dunes is eye opening and ear challenging. Without the birds of Bosque, the scene is eerily quiet. A Kit Fox had left tracks across one dune face and that, along with two beetles, were the only signs of animal life in the dunes other than scattered human and dog tracks. You take to heart the signs warning you to be cautious, have enough water, and to not get disoriented in the vastness of the dunes.

White Sands National Monument 21

Late afternoon light at White Sands NM

As the sun sinks toward the mountains ringing the horizon, the light changes and the dunes begin to transform. Their delicate hidden details begin to emerge, outlined by artistic shadows thrown by the low angle light.

White Sands National Monument 24

The golden glow from low angle sun changes the dunes

Everywhere you look, the sand is a rapidly changing palette. I see how people can get lost – the tension of the desire to walk over to that dune ridge for a photo fights the desire to find a sure route back through the dunes to a vehicle…a dune dilemma for sure. But since the gate closes promptly at 6 pm this time of year, the choice becomes clear at last and I seek the direction of the car.

White Sands National Monument 25

Yucca in evening light

But on the drive out, the light intensifies and a new dimension is added to the landscape –  plants clinging at the edge of the dune field. Who could resist? Just a few more images…

Some other scenes from the day away from Bosque…

Cactus spines

Cactus spines in the Valley of Fires

Valley of Fires cactus shadow

Valley of Fires cactus shadow

Dune crest

Dune crest

White Sands National Monument late in day

Looking out across dune field late in the day

White Sands National Monument 13

Dune movement in black and white

White Sands National Monument 16

Dune textures

White Sands National Monument 20

Flow of lines in a dune field

White Sands National Monument 22

Low angle sun highlights textures in black and white

White Sands National Monument belly button dune

The belly button dune

dune crest line

Almost an endless landscape of sand

Kit Fox tracks on dune

Kit Fox tracks on dune

Dune patterns in black and white

Dune patterns in black and white

dune expanse

Expansive views surround you at White Sands

4 thoughts on “White Sands

  1. HI Mike… these images are just stunning…. be sure to include a few at the CPA event… oh my. such beauty… i especially like the black and white image…. (nita)

  2. Looks like a field guide to angle of repose. Lovely. I didn’t realize that the lava there was only 5kyo; I wonder what the native people thought.

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