This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but unless you want to camp (and back-country camping at that) this is not an option, as there is no other accommodation in the park. If like us you are staying instead in the nearest town, Alamogordo, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.
So you’re there at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!
Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my main photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my new camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field (although sadly the panoramas don’t reproduce as effectively here on VT as I would have liked).
Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my main photo is Chris!
Sometimes things work out even better than planned. Some moments are just that: perfect. I sat looking out over endless miles of white sand, heaped in massive dunes with the sun still low in the sky. It was only a little after eight in the morning and I'd been taking photos for about an hour, initially in moon light, waiting for the sun to creep up over the horizon. As usual, I didn't get to truly bask in the most beautiful light. I am generally too busy trying to capture it for that. But I managed to get one shot of my wife doing just that unbeknownst to her and maybe it prompted me to stop just a few minutes earlier than I normally would have. That magical light doesn't last long and now we sat together on a massive dune, eating a simple breakfast, glowing in the very last remnants of red light. We didn't talk, the silence was too beautiful. We sat quietly, eating, listening to the wind sweep across the sand, looking as much at the incredible dunes still bathed in warm light as we did the actual sun. Even eating peanut butter and drinking Gatorade, life doesn't get much better.
White Sands National Monument was always on our itinerary, a loose plan of traveling around the US for six months, camping, hiking, and generally saying goodbye to a country that had lost its luster for me and my new wife who seemed to be treated as a wary intruder despite my obvious love for her. The trip west from our South Florida home had been a fun, fast paced classic road trip that took in Bourbon Street, Graceland, lots of local foods, and left us way over our budget. It was time to start camping and we were disappointed to find White Sands didn't list any such facilities on their website. We felt lucky to find a great campground at Oliver Lee State Park, about 45 minutes from the park entrance. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
It wasn't long before it became too hot to do much more exploring so we took refuge in a space age picnic shelter, eating some salty snacks and drinking lots of liquids to fend off hyponatremia and dehydration, common problems in this intense hot, arid climate. We finally sought refuge in the visitor center and enjoyed the small displays on desert life and spoke with a friendly, knowledgeable ranger. When we lamented the lack of camping and the late opening time, she told us you could, in fact, camp in the park but that it was in the back country and required a short walk in. They had taken it off their website because a lot of people arrive expecting to drive right up to their sites. We smiled and asked where and when we could sign up. She said we had to come in the day of the planned trip. This being a military testing area, they didn't know if there was missile testing until that day. While we were there we signed up for a ranger led sunset walk in the dunes. This would allow us to stay in the park after the normal closing hours and enjoy the low glowing light we craved.
The evening walk with the ranger was enlightening and the light was as expected: gorgeous. It was very dark and late by the time we got back to our campground at Oliver Lee so we slept in the next morning and got over to the Monument long after the gate had opened. Our ranger friend happily told us there would be no missile testing that evening so we were free to camp in the dunes. We were glad we had broke down camp and gleefully paid the three dollars per person fee for our backcountry permits. The hike was only three quarters of a mile so we wouldn't start it till late afternoon so we went back into the park to explore more with some some small walks without our backpacks. We knew the ropes and were back in our spacey picnic shelter by high noon. We even made a trip to Wal-mart to get into the air-conditioning for an hour and pick up some supplies. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
We got to the area late afternoon and enjoyed a beautiful sunset at the State Park, no slouch in the scenery department in its own right, before retiring to our tent for the night. But we forgoed a nice slow morning and our warm sleeping bags and made our way over to the Monument in the dark. It was freezing cold and there was one car in front of us, waiting for the gate to open. I thought it odd there was a gate. Generally speaking, the National Parks are open around the clock but they only have people collecting fees during the set popular hours. Finally, a ranger arrived to let himself in and he came up to our car to explain that the park didn't open until 8:00 AM. He had only come this early to let the person parked in front of us in an hour early, a privilege she had paid $50 for. He seemed to feel bad for us but he couldn't let us in without the required permit.
It was too late to go back so we waited for the official opening and drove into the pretty much deserted park. The light wasn't bad and we enjoyed frolicking in the huge dunes with not a soul to intrude on us. We then drove further into the park as the sun got higher and saw the woman who had paid to enter early already apparently leaving. Even she couldn't have gotten into position for the actual sunrise and I couldn't see paying that much money without that accomplishment. My heart sank at the thought I'd not be able to do it either. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
We hadn't really planned on backpacking until we got to the Grand Canyon but this gave us the chance to go through all our gear and get a dry run at packing too. The walk in was short but not overly easy as walking through the steep dunes carrying full packs was harder than we had anticipated. It was a good thing it wasn't a more typical backpacking distance of ten miles! It was easy to navigate, thanks to posts guiding the way. Otherwise, of course, it would have been nearly impossible to find our way in the nearly landmark-less terrain. We set up camp quickly and bounded up the dunes sans packs to enjoy the sunset, this time with no ranger or entourage in sight. We got some great shots and the resonating light was as amber as the evening before but ironically the sunset and the sky was not as spectacular. There just weren't enough clouds. That's what makes each sunset unique. Being on our own out in this magnificent setting more than made up for it. Once the sun was down, we enjoyed watching some of the desert life as it came out to enjoy the cooler hours, including the funny little “stink bug.” True to form he reared his butt up at us and looked to be ready to spray us ala a skunk. We headed back to the tent to escape his wrath.
It was still early in the year so the sun did not start to rise until 7:00 AM and it was only due to the moon still being high overhead that I could start taking photos that early. But rise it did and a half hour later, the light was about as perfect as it can only be in such a breathtaking setting. Perfection is often fleeting and this was no exception but there was still maybe another half hour of decent light before we stopped running around and enjoyed our breakfast in what remained of the morning. No time to reflect, nor look ahead. This was a time to enjoy the moment. It wouldn't last long. But in our souls, it would last forever.
White Sands is 228 sq. miles in size; its Visitor Center is open daily except for December 25th. From Memorial Day to Labor Day the center is open from 8:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. In addition full-moon nights featuring a guest-speaker are held two days a month May - September at 8:30 P.M. The remainder of the year it is open from 8:00 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. Audiovisual programs, exhibits, information, bookstore, and a gift shop may be found within this Visitor Center. A 3-hour, ranger-led tour of Lake Lucero is available monthly by advance reservations. Backcountry hiking and camping in primitive backcountry campgrounds require a permit. Picnic areas are available within the monument on first come basis. Be aware that drinking water is only available at the Visitor Center. For more information write Superintendent, White Sands National Monument, P.O. Box 1086, Holloman AFB, New Mexico 88330 or telephone (505) 479-6124.
The Visitor Center is on U.S. 70, about 190 miles from Carlsbad Caverns and 15 miles southwest of Alamagordo on U.S. 70/82.
The White Sands National Monument web page address is: www.nps.gov/whsa
I just loved the red adobe building so indicative of the area. The center provides info on the origin of White Sands through exhibits and a sound & light show. There is also a 30 minute orientation video, bookstore, giftshop.
Open: Daily 8 am - 7 pm Memorial Day to Labor Day
8 am - 4:30 rest of year
Closed: Dec. 25th
Favorite thing: When you reach the Heart of the Dunes section of the White Sands National Monument you will come across some unique picnic tables. The picnic tables were constructed by the NPS to both provide a place to eat and give individuals some shelter from the heat and the blowing sand. In spring the blowing sand can be worse than the summer heat and the aluminum shade is necessary for shelter. There are three designated picnic areas with raised grills in the Heart of the Sands area. When we were there we saw only one other table in use.
Instead of charging per car, this park charges per person - a VERY reasonable $3.00 each.
An additional perk: Save your receipt if you are planning on remaining in the area for a bit as your admission fee is good for the next 6 days! You can return another day, or return for one of the night events!
Favorite thing: As soon as you arrive, go to the visitor center. You have to watch an explanatory video before you go into the park. The video is extremely useful; it explains how the dunes were formed, the vegetation, and the wildlife. It's a short video, not a full length feature film, so bear with it ;).
Favorite thing: The sand at white sands is made of a mineral called gypsum (a hydrous form of calcium sulfate for all you chemistry fans out there). It is rare in the form of sand because it's soluble in water. The gypsum gets dissolved from the surrounding mountains by rain and snow, where it becomes trapped in the basin. The water evaporates, leaving crystal beds (selenite), where they get broken down by erosion into particles light and small enough to be carried by the wind, forming the dunes.
Favorite thing: There are four marked trails for you to hike, 3 of them are short and the last one (Alkali Flat) is the longest one. One of the hikes contain a nice boardwalk, with a nice place for you to rest and relax.
Favorite thing: It is possible to ride your bike there, but I think most people opt for driving... there is a paved road, where you drive through and stop along the way for short hikes. the drive is surreal, all of the sudden you have this bright white sand around you...
So you might ask yourself, what exactly is the white sand that gives the park its name? Here's the story: gypsum, a very water-soluble mineral often found in caves and oceans, is dissolved by rain and drained from the mountains on either side into the Tularosa Basin. Once in the basin, the water is trapped, as there is no river exit as there would be in a valley. Instead, the gypsum-laden water collects in the lowest point, Lake Lucero. There, in the very dry heat of the New Mexico summer, the water dissolves, leaving a massive field of pure gypsum crystals.
The howling wind blowing from the southwest off the San Andres slowly wears down the crystals, whittling off small grains. These grains collect in a nearly endless sea of dunes, always marching northeast.
Favorite thing: The dunes are almost exclusively made of gypsum. The surrounding mountains have a "stripped" look to them, which essentially means that the rains have taken the mountain sides and deposited the sediments from those mountains into the valley, thus creating the dunes. It is quite a facinating site to see these dunes in the middle of no where!