We have left Scottsdale and are headed up to Denver via a scenic route. Neither one of us has ever driven through southern Arizona and New Mexico. Tucson is a bit of a disappointment but our real goal is White Sands, New Mexico.
Walt was reading some article online last month where the author said of all the national parks, her favorite was White Sands. We’d never heard of it. The missile range, sure; but not the park.
After reading a little more about it, we decided it would be worth the trek. Last fall we spent a night in the campground at the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado and were disappointed that we hadn’t planned better so we could spend a night backcountry camping on the sand dunes. It would have been a very hard hike with heavy packs but totally worth it, we think.
At first we are dismayed by the sight of the white sands. We were expecting the same huge dunes that we saw in Colorado, where the dunes are 700 and 800 feet tall. The white sands look tiny in comparison, nothing like the towering dunes of Colorado.
Still, we are here so we get in line at 9 a.m. to be sure we snag one of the backcountry camping permits for that night. There are only 10 camping sites and you can only reserve them for one night.
Permit in hand, we head into the park. We can’t set up until after 1 p.m., so we explore the park. By national park standards, it’s not very big and there’s not much to do. We had hoped to go sledding but when Walt asks about sled rentals at the visitors’ center, he is told: “we are officially sold out.” We’re not sure what that means. Does the park service not want anyone sledding? The website and the big sign by the door all say sled rentals are available at the visitors’ center. It’s 9 a.m., surely they haven’t rented them all yet? We don’t press the issue.
Ok, cross that activity off the list.
We follow a couple of short (1/2 mile and 1-mile) nature trails, reading the signs and learning about the geology of the gypsum sand (as opposed to regular beach silica sand) and the animals that inhabit the dunes, mostly birds and bugs but also foxes, mice, bobcats. No bears.
Then it’s on to the 5.5-mile loop trail. It’s overcast and a little windy, which is good because the sand is so white that it’s got to be incredibly reflective on a sunny day. We have sunscreen but mixing wind, sand and sunscreen would make for an uncomfortably sticky, sandy hike.
It’s weird to be hiking up and down the dunes, just keeping our eye out for the next big orange “trail marker” in the sand.
I find the uphills fill my shoes with sand to the point where my toes are in pain. I stop to take them off and dump out the sand, finding that it is so much more difficult (at least at my age) to sit on the sand and try to get my shoes on and off without anything to sit or lean on other than the sand. We’re used to woods where there’s always a log and/or a rock to sit on and balance against. Here, there’s nothing. Walt laughs and takes pictures of me trying to put on my shoes.
We finish up the hike in good time and head to the picnic grounds for lunch. We haven’t thought this through very well, despite having gone to a grocery store the night before. We eat trail mix, peanut butter and crackers and Gatorade for lunch.
Backcountry in the Dunes
It’s late enough that we can head out now to our campsite, so we re-pack our overnight gear into our packs (we only brought the essentials on the loop hike) and head across the dunes to the backcountry camping area.
It’s only three-quarters of a mile to the campsite and even with heavy packs we make it in 15 minutes.
The dunes surround little low pockets where grasses grow and campers sleep. There’s a big orange stick with our campsite’s number 10 on it. We are told to camp within 5 feet of the stick to minimize the disturbance to the dunes. It’s still windy and we have to work carefully to get our tent set up. I blow up our air mattresses inside the tent and set the rest of our gear inside. We haven’t seen much in the way of critters but I don’t want to take any chances of getting a scorpion or a stink bug in my pack.
It’s warm and cozy in the tent, so I settle in to read and snooze a bit. Walt wanders around to the other campsites before joining me for a siesta.
Before sunset we get up and head about 40 feet up to the highest spot of our nearby dunes to watch the sun set. We can’t see the other campsites, hidden in little pockets to our north and east but we notice that other campers have also come up to the top of the dunes to watch the sun set. We look like a bunch of prairie dogs popping out of our holes.
The clouds and sky are beautiful and we linger until it’s pretty dark. The sand is so white that we easily get back to our tent. Cooking dinner outside in the wind is a bit of a chore, it takes forever to get the water to boiling. We don’t really have anything but our bodies to shield the flame from the wind. A large piece of aluminum foil would have been a huge help. Eventually the water boils for our freeze-dried meal.
We take our food into the tent so we can sit on our air mattresses out of the wind to eat. We did remember to buy cookies for dessert.
The wind stays strong for a long time, blowing against the tent. It’s also pretty light in the tent: it’s a mostly full moon and the light just bounces off the sand. Despite this, we go to sleep. At some point we wake up and realize the moon is setting. We get up and walk to the top of the dunes again to see the incredibly clear sky, bright moon, tons of stars and marvel at the wonder of it all.
This landscape is so unique, this is like nothing we’ve ever experienced.
In the morning, we make a quick breakfast. Walt hollows out a “seat” in the dunes as we try to determine which creatures made which sets of tracks in the dunes. Stink bugs, mostly. But also a mouse, maybe a small fox. We didn’t see anything but stink bugs, even when we got up at night, but clearly the desert is much more alive than we can see.
We leave the white sands very happy that we decided to visit. It’s like no place we’ve ever been and probably like no place we’ll ever be again.