White Sands National Monument Things to Do

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    by toonsarah
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Best Rated Things to Do in White Sands National Monument

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    Alkali Flat Trail

    by toonsarah Updated Jan 23, 2012

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    The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. It should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy. But even if you don’t fee l you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here is enough to get you into a different world – the crowds are left behind and you can easily find a corner to yourself. There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking.

    The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure indicates, to enjoy the spectacular scenery. And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Las Cruces.

    After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By this time it had got a lot busier, with children playing on the dunes and a coach-load of tourists arriving. I was amazed that some of these set off on this trail dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see. If you plan to walk any distance on this trail, please pay heed to the warnings on the park website:
    “The trail is marked by white posts with orange reflective tape at the top [see my photo four], so look carefully for the next trail marker before continuing. If you cannot see the next post because of blowing sand or dust -- do not proceed. Turn back. The strong winds, especially in the spring, can reduce visibility to a few feet, making it easy to get lost. Please be sure to sign in and out at the register at the trailhead, so we know you got back safely.

    There is no shade or water along the trail, and summer temperatures can exceed 100 degrees F (38 ° C). Heat-related illness is common in warm weather and can be fatal. Hike during cool times. Carry food and at least two quarts of water. Rest, eat and drink when tired.”

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    Interdune boardwalk

    by toonsarah Written Jan 22, 2012

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    The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It leads through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here describe the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explain how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. The plants make interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

    This was our first stop in the park, and just right for a pre-breakfast stroll. It got us in among the dunes while the light was still good, although if I were to visit again I think I would head straight for the far end of the loop drive even if it meant driving a little further before stopping, as there were quite a few people on this boardwalk even at that early hour and it would have been good to have a more peaceful introduction to this eerie landscape.

    One bonus here is that the trail is fully accessible for people using wheelchairs, which otherwise must be a real challenge to manoeuvre on the unstable ground provided by the sand.

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    Visitor Centre

    by toonsarah Updated Jan 23, 2012

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    When we arrived at the White Sands National Monument the Visitor Centre was shut – while the park opens at 7.00 am the centre only does so an hour later at 8.00 am. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on way out – to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

    The exhibition area is not extensive but there is lots of interesting information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed here, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

    I was impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

    This is my last tip; if you wish you can return to my Intro page.

    One happy visitor!
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    Sunset Stroll Nature Walk

    by richiecdisc Updated May 24, 2009

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    There are ranger led activities, one of which is the Sunset Stroll Nature Walk which starts at varying times depending on when sunset is that particular day. Inquire at the visitor center and reserve your spot. The walk itself meets about five miles into the park at a sign marked appropriately enough “Sunset Stroll,“ right on Dunes Drive, the main road in the park. It is a casual walk, stroll is a good name for it as you don't go particularly far. The ranger gives you little tidbits about desert life especially regarding the various plants that thrive in the harsh conditions. You stay on the dunes right up to sunset and then everyone makes their way back to the trail head and cars. You pretty much have to leave the park immediately after that as the gates are closed when it gets dark. This is well worth doing and free.

    the evening light starts to glow you learn a lot about desert plants like the Yucca the sky starts its lightshow these island dunes are explained by the ranger lucky conditions prevailed
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    now, this is a place to take photos!

    by richiecdisc Written May 21, 2009

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    White Sands National Monument is a photographer's paradise. Though it looks like a lot of the same-all white sand, there are lots of beautiful plants that provide great contrast to the stark dunes. The sand is quite reflective so it pays to have a polarizer with you if you are taking pictures during the middle of the day. But the best plan is to be shooting early in the morning or evening when the light is low and warm hues envelope the dunes, making them so much more friendly.

    the lonely Yucca follow the yellow brink road start dune life the wonder of the cottonwood
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    Dunes Drive

    by richiecdisc Written May 21, 2009

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    The Dunes Drive is what most people who visit the park will do and it is a great one. You feel like you're driving across the moon's surface. It is sixteen miles round trip but allow plenty of time for the various pullouts explaining a bit about what you're seeing and hopefully you're feeling up to getting out and climbing one of the dunes. It'll take you a little more than a half hour but you could certainly spend longer, especially if you like taking photos and do it early morning or later in the day when not only is the light better but the heat factor is better too. Remember to bring water and something to eat. There are no facilities after the visitor center.

    lots of great plants just off the side of the road by all means, get out of the car for photos
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    Alkali Flat Trail

    by richiecdisc Written May 21, 2009

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    Hiking in the park is a bit limited. As you can imagine, trail maintenance would be murder. Most would better be termed nature walks and are over boardwalks, some wheelchair accessible. One full fledged trail is the Alkali Flat Trail. It's an in and out hike of about four and a half miles. Obviously, a formal trail wouldn't work on this terrain so they use while plastic polls buried into the sand. You have to keep a keen eye out for them and if you don't see one, head back until you do. There is no shade whatsoever and no water. Bring at least a couple liters per person, wear sun block, a hat and sunglasses. We did it in spring and it was already pretty hot. Try to do it early morning if possible. The finale is a dried out lake from the ice age and admittedly a bit disappointing. The destination in this case is not the highlight, it's the scenery on the way. Don't expect the spectacular. It's a subtle beauty and a sense of utter isolation will envelope you.

    a cool little lizard with great camouflage it's quite a workout in the dunes into the abyss
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    Get a plastic saucer from the Visitor’s Center

    by jumpingnorman Updated Jun 5, 2009

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    Your kids will have great fun sliding down the sand dunes, and the White Sands National Monument has a visitor center which gives away plastic saucers specifically for this activity.

    There are special events held regularly and guided tours, and so it is wise to drop by the center and see for yourself what is available. In our case though, we did head off directly to the White Sands because I was too excited to see what was in the park and because we arrive when it was almost close to sunset. But the park ranger told us that there was a guided tour at 630 PM and told us that the meeting place was somewhere in the dunes.

    Family at White Sands National Monument,New Mexico White Sands National Monument,New Mexico White Sands National Monument,New Mexico White Sands National Monument,New Mexico
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    Visitor Center

    by richiecdisc Updated May 21, 2009

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    While the visitor center is not amongst the best of the National Park system, it does give you some insight into desert life and some of the creatures that call it home. The real stars of the visitor center are the rangers maning it. They were amongst the nicest and most knowledgeable of any of the many parks we visited in the summer of 2008. We would have never learned about backcountry camping if one of the rangers hadn't suggested it when we expressed our discontent with the opening hours. The visitor center also provides much needed respite from the relentless sun and heat outside. It's a good place to cool down and take a break. There are lots of covered areas to provide ample shade. It's built in a Spanish Colonial style and the courtyard area is charming. You can even catch a siesta on one of the long wooden benches. When we were there, there was an amazing blooming cactus back there too.

    lovely cacti outside the visitor center the desert in bloom
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    Hiking to the dry Lake Lucero - source of sands

    by jumpingnorman Written Apr 24, 2009

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    On a monthly basis, reservations can be made for a guided tour for the source of the gypsum white sands, Lake Lucero. Just call (50) 679-2599 or 479-6124. You will be asked to drive your own vehicle through 17 miles of paved road into the park, and then you will hike ¾ mile to the lake. Just remember that you will need adequate water, sunscreen and sunglasses and suitable clothes for the weather.

    The primitive backpacker’s campsite is available on a first-come, first-served basis – and backpackers must register at the Visitor’s Center.

    White Sands National Monument, New Mexico Twins at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico White Sands National Monument, New Mexico White Sands National Monument, New Mexico White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
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    Sites by Car

    by KimberlyAnn Written Jul 16, 2003

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    After visiting the Visitor Center, hop into your car and drive the 16 mile round trip scenic Dunes Drive. You will find wayside exhibits at pullouts along this drive that will give you information about the natural history of the area. A number of parking areas along the drive will allow you to stop and walk onto the white sands. Allow at least a half an hour driving time plus additional time for walking, photography, stopping at the pullouts, or picnicking. Be aware that it is illegal to remove or disturbance of any archeological or natural objects, including sand, plants, and animals. Observe the posted speed limit and stay on the road and only park in official parking areas

    Capturing a Dune
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    A Short Easy Hike

    by KimberlyAnn Written Jul 16, 2003

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    The Big Dune Trail is a one-mile self-guided nature trail, which allows you to get out of your car and take a walk in the largest gypsum dune desert in the world. The heart of the dunes is mostly sand, but one can also view sparsely spaced plants. Soap Yucca can elongate its stem to keep its leaves above the shifting sand. When the dunes eventually move away from these dune top Yuccas, they will collapse and die.

    Soap Yucca and Dunes
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    A Short, Wheelchair Accessible Boardwalk

    by KimberlyAnn Written Jul 16, 2003

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    The Interdune Boardwalk is a wheelchair-accessible ¼-mile nature trail. This is a good introductory trail, or an excellent trail for people with small children, or who have problems walking short distances. Although we only saw two or three birds, and a couple of insects, lizards are common on the desert. One lizard, the “bleached earless lizard” has evolved to be white, therefore blending in with the sand. This would be a very hard lizard to spot, unless you were lucky enough to catch his movement.

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    Dune Life Nature Trail

    by TooTallFinn24 Written Feb 24, 2012

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    About 2.5 miles from the Visitor Center is the first hiking trail. Dune Life Nature Trail introduces you to a wide variety of interdunal features and plant life. While it is only a one mile loop it will take you about forty minutes to complete. To keep you from getting lost on the Dune Nature trail there are metal rods in the sand that have white and orange colors

    One of the great things the National Park service does on the trail is to provide exhibit panels that provide information oriented both to small children and adults. For example, information is provided on lizards that is understandable to children as well more advanced text for adults.

    One of the first things that become clear on the trail is how difficult it is for life to survive on the dune field. There are no nutrients in the sand such as nitrogen, potassium or phosphorous to allow plants to grow. So plants have to develop a cyanobacteria layer that will eventually form a sort of popcorn soil that will allow seeds to sprout and plants to begin growth. There are several good exhibit posts that provide this information.

    While animal life is hard to come by during the day we did see both a stink bug and a lizard on the trail. Both moved rapidly to get out of the sun and seek shelter.

    There are only two short climbs on the trail that are the least bit difficult. Other than that it is an easy trail but be sure and wear sun glasses, sun screen and protective clothing when you are on the trail.

    Dune Life Natural Trail Yucca on Dune Life Nature Trail Skunk Grass on Dune Life Nature Trail

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    White Sands NM Visitor Center

    by TooTallFinn24 Written Feb 24, 2012

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    Driving into White Sands National Monument one of the first things that strikes you is the design of the visitor center. It is immediately clear that great time and energy when into its construction. It was completed in 1938 as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program. The building is considered to be of Spanish Pueblo Revival style. The walls of the building are constructed from adobe mud bricks. The bricks are sixteen inches long, ten inches wide, and four inches thick.

    The visitor center contains a few interesting exhibits of the history of White Sands, how the dunes are created and the flora and fauna of the area. There is an approximate twenty minute film on the dunes that is worthwhile seeing and helps orient you to the park.

    White Sands NM Visitor Center

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