NOTE: For this article, we’re jumping in the time machine and going back to mid January. I was about to publish this post when everything happened with Dixie, so, for obvious reasons, it got shelved. But, we truly loved our visit to White Sands and I wanted to share our experiences there.
White Sands National Monument is a symphony of contradictions and one of the most compelling places we’ve visited. On the one hand, it’s like a huge playground – a child’s sandbox writ large, a place where the National Park Service encourages visitors to buy a sled and hit the dunes! On the other hand, these same fun-loving NPS folks like to lay out the myriad ways you may meet your untimely demise while visiting this Fun Zone/Death Trap. By the time you finish reading their “All the reasons you’re probably gonna die while at White Sands National Monument” webpage, you’ll find yourself regretfully reaching for a scrap of paper from the floorboard of your car on which you’ll hastily scribble down your last will and testament before beginning your long, sad, ‘march of despair’ into their ‘sandbox of doom,’ bright orange plastic sled dragging on the ground behind you.
It’s pretty weird.
First a little background: The Monument, a 275 square mile park in southern New Mexico, is comprised of the largest gypsum dune field in the world. The dune field is the result of a weird confluence of environmental factors: Gypsum, a mineral found in the mountains that surround the area, is water soluble and, typically, would be dissolved by rain waters and eventually washed out to sea. But in this particular locale, there’s nowhere for the water to go. Therefore, gypsum-filled rainwater coming down from the mountains, eventually lands in this basin and evaporates, leaving the gypsum behind. A lot of gypsum.
The National Park Service maintains a 16 mile loop road that leads visitors into a section of the dunes.
There are parking areas and marked trails along the road as well as explanatory panels about how the area came to be, wildlife that can be found in the dunes, and historic uses of the Monument (lots and lots of movies have been filmed here.)
The dunes come in all shapes: gently undulating planes….
angular pyramids with razor’s edge lines…..
tall plateaus with soft rounded edges…
And wind-carved arcs and crescents…
And, while it may be hard to tell from the photos, the majority of these dunes towered over us. Most were at least 8 or 10 feet tall. Many were closer to 20.
The winds, which are almost constant, not only shift the dunes, but leave different patterns on the sands.
There are hiking trails that lead visitors through sections of the dunes and it is vitally important that visitors pay attention to the markers. As we were following one 2.5 mile trail, chatting and enjoying the scenery, we suddenly realized we had ambled off the trail (following footprints that led to alternate routes rather than our trail’s markers). It was no big deal and an easy mistake to correct, but it was a sharp reminder of just how easy it can be to head off course.
That’s what most of the warnings are about – the dune fields are enormous, once you get away from the road and the marked trails there are no good landmarks, and the winds can quickly cover visitors’ footprints. Additionally, trudging up and over the dunes is physically taxing and the temperatures can swing wildly across the day. These factors can create a perfect storm that leaves unprepared tourists exhausted and disoriented. Making matters worse, cell signals are weak or non-existent in much of the dune field so unsuspecting visitors can quickly find themselves in trouble without access to their usual lifeline.
But the NPS is also sure to let you know about all the other ways you might meet your untimely demise. Is it summer? Well, then you’re looking at sunburn, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, dehydration, and hyponatremia (too much water, not enough sodium). Is it winter? Well, you might be subject to wind burn or you could freeze to death overnight. Is it a day that ends in “Y”? Well, then you’re looking at all of the above PLUS altitude sickness, lightning strikes, sand storms, venomous snake or spider bites, getting crushed under collapsed sand, or dying in a freak sledding accident. (As the NPS site likes to remind people: you can seriously hurt yourself sledding.)
Speaking of which, the Rangers actively encourage sledding – even selling sleds at the gift shop -and we had a blast sledding down the steep hills!
However, that reminded me of my most favorite NPS warning. You see, the Monument is entirely contained within the White Sands Missile Range – a massive area used by the U.S. Military to test all kinds of weapons (the Trinity Site – location of the first nuclear test – is about 65 miles north of the Monument.) About twice a week, roads leading to the park are closed because the military is blowing stuff up and – I’m not making this up – sometimes their missiles go off course and end up LOST within the confines of the park. So the Rangers are sure to warn visitors to watch out for anything that could be an unexploded bomb.
Have fun sledding!!!!
Anyway, when not trying to murder us in 100 different ways, the dunes were mesmerizing. We marveled at the soft, cool sand in our hands (the sand never gets hot and doesn’t stick to your skin), we basked in the utter silence that surrounded us, we gazed out on miles of undisturbed, pristine sands…
We broke out the selfie stick.
Then Kevin got bored with me taking pictures and just wandered off…..
Look at him… ambling off into the sunset with his hat, all mysterious….
There he goes….
Speaking of sunsets, White Sands is pretty great place to watch one… All afternoon, we watched the shadows grow longer and the colors of the dunes change…
As the sun dipped behind the mountains to the west, the eastern sky grew pink and yellow and the mountains turned purple. The sands in front of us were pristine, soft, and undisturbed. Once the sun was gone the temperature quickly dropped causing us to bundle up, turn back toward the car, and take one last look around. A perfect view to cap a perfect day.
Truth or Consequences
One hour north of Las Cruces is the tiny, weird, town of Truth or Consequences. While it might seem like the name of some comic book utopia for police and prosecutors, their funny name is actually the result of a radio show promotion back in the 1950’s. Formerly known as Hot Springs, New Mexico, the town took part in a radio contest and won – changing its name and cementing their status as one of the most memorably named towns in America.
Its former name, Hot Springs, was no accident. Much like Hot Springs, Arkansas, the town was famous in the 20th century for its mineral baths that reportedly brought relief to those who came to visit. The baths are still available in various forms. Some friends we know through Instagram (Hi Jaimi!!) had been there and suggested we visit River Bend Hot Springs, a hotel and spa in the town. You can visit their common area pools for $12 per person, or rent one of their private pools for an hour for $30. Given the $6.00 difference, we opted to get a private pool and it was really nice. The resort overlooks the Rio Grande and we were able to watch some of the wildlife play in the water while we soaked.
After our dip in the springs, we wandered around the town for a bit. It’s a bizarre place. There are tons of little art installations and quirky shops, but hardly anything was open and there were very very few people around.
For our friends who’ve been to Bisbee, AZ, think of Bisbee, but where everything is closed and there’s no one walking around. Weird, right?
We stopped in the visitor’s center and the volunteer there was incredibly nice. He said that most of the businesses are sole proprietorships and folks just open when they feel like it. Neat…except when there’s nowhere for visitors to go on a Saturday afternoon.
Another tiny town we visited while in the area was Hatch, New Mexico. Hatch is known for the chilies they produce. Every September, there’s a massive festival where thousands of people descend on the town to celebrate the harvest. The rest of the year is pretty quiet but there are lots of small vendors who sell various chilies and chili products. We loaded up on chili goodness and found a couple standout restaurants, namely:
The Pepper Pot…
And Sparky’s, home to the famous Hatch Chili Burger:
I could describe these dishes more, but really… do I need to???? Say it with me: “YUMMMMMMMM”
Finally, just a couple miles north of White Sands National Monument lies the life changing awesomeness that is: Pistaschioland…
Not only can you sample and buy every type of pistachio and pistachio product known to man, but you can also bask in the glory of the world’s largest pistachio.
While we didn’t have time to take their factory and farm tour, we did have time to hit their incredible sample bar…
(There’s always time to hit the sample bar.)
In addition to all the pistachio goodness, the site also offers a winery and an ice cream parlor. Really, you can make a day of it… and someday when we return to the area, we just might…
Next up, a week in Lake Havasu….
Where we stayed: Hacienda RV Resort, Las Cruces, New Mexico