After a short but lovely hike in the mountains of Cloudcroft, I came back down into the valley and hiked a place I've long been curious about- White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument is as remarkable as it is strange. Between two tall mountain ranges lies a veritable ocean of gypsum sand stretching as far as the eye can see. From the nearby mountain tops, it almost looks like fog or undercast. Down in the valley, these curiously migratory dunes create an ethereal sight. Hiking Alkali Flats Trail is the best option for getting a taste of this one of a kind park.
Roads of Sand
White Sands National Monument is less than 10 miles from the town of Alamogordo- a city by rural New Mexico standards. Hours of operation
are extremely strict due to military presence. You're on an active
missile range when you hike the monument so don't miss your times to get in and out. Having said that, it still retains its wilderness character. You'd never expect that not far from here, the first atomic bomb was exploded
Now I've heard of ice roads before but I've never heard of sand roads! The single road in and out of White Sands is almost entirely sand based. Thankfully the road is regularly maintained (plowed?) so any vehicle can handle the road. Don't be surprised if your wheels are white for many miles after leaving!
Alkali Flats Hike
The longest day hike in the park starts at the end of the road in a large sandy parking lot. This is the only trail that is over 5 miles in length in the park. Some people chose to backpack into the park's more remote wilderness areas but these are not on established trails. The Alkali Flats trails is marked with red posts conspicuously driven into the ground. I generally did not find trouble with navigation although without them I would have been disoriented.
One thing you realize early on in the hike is that without the backdrop of the mountains, the dunes entirely disrupt your depth perception. What looks like a short walk away is actually a half a mile distance and vice versa. I saw the tracks of many who took advantage of the liberal hiking regulations in the park and hoped that they eventually returned! People get lost out here all the time- bring a map, compass and GPS. Nevertheless, as long as I followed the red posts I stayed the course.
Another unusual part about hiking in the dunes is that although they're all roughly at the same elevation, you are constantly going up and down hills. Some of theme are very steep but just down if you don't mind getting sand everywhere. But treat this hike with the strenuousness of any mountain hike and plan accordingly
Moonrise over the Dunes
I really hit the jackpot as the sun was setting- a blue super moon rise! I've never cared to really research whether the concept of a "super moon" is something that can actually be appreciated by the naked eye but this evening the moon rise was phenomenal. The lack of depth perception in the dunes meant the moon felt extremely large and close. Try and hit the dunes during a full moon!
Altogether, I was hiking for about 3 hours. Several other shorter trails run through various zones of the park and I wished I had time for them. I noticed the dunes towards the entrance of the park were heavily vegetated and almost looked like the dunes of a seashore whereas the dunes of the Alkali Flat Trail were mostly barren. If you spend a full day here, you won't run out of things to see.
As for me, I was on my way back to the mountains near Ruidoso.