words + photos by Jean Kepler Ross
They say one picture is worth a thousand words. I believe being there is worth a thousand pictures.
For several years, I edited a travel guide about New Mexico and saw many photos of the gorgeous white sand dunes in southern New Mexico known as White Sands. Each photo illustrated the beauty of the dunes - sensuous mounds of sand, blooming yuccas, delicate lavender wild flowers, kids jumping off the dunes into space...it all intrigued me. I traveled in that area a few times but never had a chance to actually visit White Sands until a few weeks ago.
I was visiting a good friend who lives just out of La Luz, near Alamogordo. We watched sunsets from the west-facing portal of her house and, through a notch between mountains, looked out at White Sands in the distance...it beckoned me. I remembered all the photos I had seen and I knew it was the right time to go.
We visited White Sands National Monument late one morning. The monument is part of the worldʼs largest gypsum dune field - 275 square miles in all; about 40% lies within the monument and the rest is home to White Sands Missile Range. Some of the dunes are active and move to the northeast about thirty feet each year, while others move very little. Gypsum is clear and translucent, but scratches on the grains cause light to reflect in a way that makes them appear white.
We drove as far as the road went into the dunes, eight miles, then got out to explore. I knew it would be a lucky day when we spotted a white lizard as soon as we started up the trail. The lizards have adapted to their environment and are hard to see against the white sands, but we got to watch five or six of them scurrying around and hiding in the grasses. In order to photograph them, I had to note which grass clump they were hiding by and then focus on that to photograph the lizards. My eyes were too overloaded by the glaring brightness to see them through the camera.
We climbed up steep dunes, 20 to 30 feet high, and twirled around to take in the panoramic vista of massive mountains encircling the Tularosa Basin. The whiteness of the dunes dazzles the senses and the astounding, fanciful beauty of the dunes creates such joy that I started to laugh. My heart soared in this fantastical gypsum wonderland.
Itʼs possible to walk out into the dunes on nature trails and even further into the backcountry if you register at the visitorsʼ center. Itʼs always important to be prepared for desert treks with water, hat and GPS. My friend told me of local news stories about some tourists who wandered off into the dunes and couldnʼt find their way back. The wind erased their tracks in the sand and the bewitching beauty became dangerous. We were content to enjoy the vistas and watch families sliding down the dunes in plastic snow saucers - that looked like something fun to try on the next visit.
From my editing days, I knew that White Sands is open on full moon nights (May to October) and I was fortunate to be there during the full moon. My friend and I made another pilgrimage one evening and watched a one-woman dramatic presentation at the amphitheater in the dunes while we waited for moonrise. When the moon came over the dunes, we ran up the nearest dune toward the drama in the sky - the large, golden- orange disk slowly rising through the darkness, reflecting its light on the sands.
We had about ninety minutes more to explore the dunes in the ethereal light. Clouds covered a swath of the moon and glowed like opals as we climbed up a very steep dune in dim light. The sands were cold - surprising us by how quickly they cooled off from the heat of the day. We finally reached the top and took in the beauty as the clouds drifted off and the full moon glow shined down on the dunes and us. I thought of Cat Stevenʼs song, “Moonshadow,” as our moonshadows stretched out far behind us onto the white dunes. We could hear music and laughter in the distance from several full moon parties.
Something sweet was sending its perfume across the dunes through the night air...we sat and soaked up the splendor of soft air, sweet scent, moonlit beauty, and cool sands until time to leave. White Sands is other-worldly and I am smitten and hungry for more. I will try to explain to friends how lovely the site is and show them my photos, but I will try even harder to convince them that they must experience White Sands in person. A photo is an appetizer. Being there is the main course.
Jean Kepler Ross is an award winning freelance writer/photographer based in Santa Fe, NM. She was editor of GuestLife New Mexico for four years and her work has appeared in New Mexico Magazine, Glamour, Home & Away, Los Angeles Times, Santa Fe Visitors Guide, San Francisco Examiner, ASU Travel Guide, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.