Monday, June 23, 2008

Desert Destination: White Sands

When you hear the word desert, what images come to mind? Perhaps sand dunes? I often think of sand dunes, even though we don't have any near our house. But there are some big ones about two hours away (because lots of neat stuff is about two hours away!). Today we'll venture farther away, to White Sands National Monument, located in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico.

I've visited lots of sand dunes over the years. Sand dunes frequently form in deserts when there is loose sand, high winds that often blow the sand in one prevailing direction, and a mountain range to force the wind up, upon which it drops the sand particles and creates the sand dunes. White Sands is unique in that the dunes are made of white gypsum sand, and covering 275 square miles they are the world's largest gypsum dune field.
White Sands at sunrise
Contrary to popular belief, many critters live on or near sand dunes. But life isn't easy when you have sand suddenly being blown on top of you or blown away from your roots. Some of the plants have adapted by elongating stems and growing upwards more than a foot a year, like the soaptree yucca (Yucca elata), or anchoring their roots on a dune so that after the dune moves on, they can continue to grow on a pedestal of sand. Some of the animals that live at White Sands have adapted by becoming whiter, so they blend in better with the gypsum sand. One example is the bleached earless lizard (Holbrookia maculata ruthveni).

Several picnicking areas are found in the park, but don't plan to picnic for lunch during the middle of summer. During the sunlight hours, the white sand reflects the heat and you literally get baked from above and below. The best times to go are very early or very late in the day. We planned our trip to coincide with the full moon so we could enjoy a moonlit hike.

White Sands is a harsh but fascinating environment. The constantly shifting dunes and designs in the sands make for great exploring and photography. If you'd like more information, visit

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