Last March we went camping at White Sands National Monument for the first time. The weather was fairly mild although a bit brisk in the morning. The winds were impressive. It turns out that 50 mph gusts are not unusual in the windy season. We enjoyed the trip, but since we only stayed the one night we didn’t get to do as much hiking as we would have liked, so we decided to return during the off season. With our schedule it turned out the second half of January was a good time, and watched the weather and the launch schedule for the missile range to plan the date. This last week the weather was perfect for photography – cloudy with rain in the forecast and temperatures unseasonably warm with to lows above freezing, and no closures scheduled. Off we went…
It being a full eight hour drive from Phoenix we left around six on Thursday morning to give us plenty of time to get set up. Depending on the time of year the Park requires you to get your permit by a certain time to make sure you still have daylight to set up. For late January the time is 4:15pm. We got to the park shortly after two and got our permit taken care of quickly. Having camped there before, we got the abbreviated safety brief with an additional cautionary tale about keeping food secure. According to the Park Rangers, some recent campers called 911 in the middle of the night claiming they were surrounded by a wolf pack. As far as anyone can tell, there are no wolf packs near White Sands, and even the coyotes stay well away from the camp area. The nervous campers left with the authorities rather than stay the rest of the night. The park staff determined that the site was visited by a single kit fox (a small fox, about the size of a Chihuahua) that was investigating the Kentucky Fried Chicken remains that had been left outside the tent. The campers in question no doubt wonder why they aren’t allowed to have nice things…
The camp sites are fairly close together on the Backcountry Loop Trail, starting about a mile in. Hiking can be a little more strenuous than you would expect for a mile because of the soft sand, although recent rain had firmed up the footing on the dunes. By Friday it had dried out enough to make walking noticeably more work. Even with it being off season, there were two or three other campers and several people on day trips, although with the terrain there is no feeling of being crowded since high dunes separate the camps. In the afternoon you may see other people from atop the dunes, but there is no loss of privacy. It took about a half hour to set up camp, mostly because this was the first outing for our new 3 person MSR tent. We were going to get another two person, but this one still weighed less than the old light weight tent it replaced. It’s amazing how much the technology improved over 20 years.
With camp taken care of we heated up our dinner then grabbed our cameras. On our last visit there was very little in the way of cloud activity which as spectacular as the terrain is, still makes for a ‘meh’ picture. Not a problem this time. With lots of winter storm activity in the southwest we were treated to dramatic skies. As the sun started getting low, the low clouds northeast of us glowed a fantastic shade of orange. The effect only lasted a few minutes when the sun was at just the right angle. As the sun dipped below the horizon the clouds above the mountains to the south east got the benefit of the last bit of color.
We were prepared to do some star photography if the conditions permitted, but skies were too cloudy. Not a surprise since we came during weather, but you always want to have a plan. When it’s clear the night sky is spectacular. Even if you’re not a photographer, should you camp at White Sands make sure you get out and see what the night sky looks like without all the light pollution near even small towns. Astrophotography being out of the question we retired to the tent to settle in. It took Trix (our Border Collie) a little while to adjust to the sound of the wind and sand. She’s comfortable in the tent with us, but when the rainfly is properly taunt it acts as something of a drum head. Soon we were settled down for the night.
For some reason I’ve always slept soundly when camping out (as long as I’m warm enough) so we woke up early Friday morning which allowed us time for coffee and breakfast before time to photograph the sunrise. As with sunsets there’s about an hour of really good light, but what most people don’t realize is that there is often a fantastic burst of color that only lasts for a few minutes. The trick is to be ready for it since it passes so quickly. Once we finished up we hiked back to the car leaving the tent set up to get our camping permit for the next day. (White Sands only does daily permits since closures may happen on short notice. The Park is fine with you leaving your camp site set up and getting a new permit each day. If you plan to do this you want to get back to the office first thing or the camp site may be given to someone else.)
The formalities taken care of we drove to the Alkali Flats Trail trailhead and packed our lunch in our day packs for the 5 mile hike. The dune fields are created by the gypsum that blows in from the Alkali Flats, so you hike into the lee side of the dunes on the way out which is the softer and steeper side of the dune. While some areas are packed more than others, it’s tough going for the first mile and a half. A note on the “trail”: Because of the shifting sands there are no terrain features to follow. The trail is marked by orange posts spaced so you usually can see at least two, and more often three markers. The direct path is not always the easiest so meandering a little between posts may increase the distance you travel but decrease the time it takes. Because visibility can become poor quickly it’s important to always keep the posts in site. White Sands like all desert terrain can be an unforgiving place.
As you get closer to the Flats the trail becomes easier as the height of the dunes become less. As stark as it is, the formations the dunes make are fascinating, particularly with the contrast of the mountains in the background. Plants that manage to take hold in the dune fields also make for some interesting islands.
It took us about an hour and a half to get to the edge of the Alkali Flats, and we took a break for lunch. The dune fields just seem to end and suddenly there’s miles of flats. You can clearly see Holloman Air Force Base to the north, and the Organ Pipe Mountains to the southwest. When we finished lunch and started back we noticed we had the advantage of walking into the gentle windward slope of the dunes. The lee sides were just as steep as the hike in, but much easier going down than climbing up! At first the slopes were a little intimidating since the dunes are 15 to 20 feet tall and steep, but the sand is loose enough that you create a step wherever you plant your feet. The only problem I had was Trix wanting to bound down the slope whether I was ready or not…
Because we hiked in the morning the south side of the loop was the most photogenic. Had we been hiking late afternoon the north side would have likely had the best light. We completed the loop in about three hours which was actually quicker than we expected since we stopped frequently for photos. We took a little time to repack our gear and took a leisurely hike back to camp where we had an early dinner so we could have everything put away should the impending rain arrive suddenly. That done, we used the remainder of the daylight for more photography.
The rain held off till around 5 (sunset was around 5:30) and by then the clouds were heavy enough that all color was pretty much gone from the sky. We did have wind and rain most of the night, but the dune fields must be porous since there was no puddling. We also lucked out in that the rain quit by about seven in the morning allowing us to break camp and hike out in good conditions. We had a great trip and while we had more wind than we expected (I think you need to assume it will be windy regardless of the season) we got everything done that we had planned on.