White Sands National Monument has been high on my list of places to see in the west. It’s the largest gypsum dune field on Earth and was established as a National Monument in 1933. Even though only a small portion of it is (easily) accessible, it is still vast and awe-inspiring.
Coming from Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona, we arrived in the late afternoon. The drive can only be described as monotonous (but I guess that’s true for all travel where you don’t veer off the freeway corridor). If it weren’t for the dire dust storm warning signs along the freeway and the enormous billboards announcing tiny souvenir shops, there’s really just a lot of empty landscape all around. Past the city of Las Cruces we went over San Augustin Pass and then it was “all downhill”, or so it seemed, and we arrived at the visitor center with enough daylight left to drive into the dunes to get a first glimpse at the dunes and an idea of the place.
Driving into the dunes is a surreal experience. One can’t help but associate snow, ice and cold with them. They have the shape of snowdrifts and driving on the unpaved part of the road feels similar to driving on a snow-covered road too, with the sound of the tires muffled and a certain “crunchy” feel to it – except that it is gypsum crystal sand of course, which provides far better grip (and as a plus, it isn’t cold either;-).
It is most fascinating how the color of the dunes changes. Their natural color appears to be a light beige, but the gypsum crystals they’re composed of reflect the light from the sky and clouds – and take on that color. On this particular evening, they appeared warm-toned at the golden hour and then turned blue with twilight, with pink tinges from the sunset clouds above. We would see more of these changing colors during two subsequent visits to the dunes, the next morning and on our way back from Carlsbad Caverns and Roswell.
Unfortunately, past sunset and before sunrise only visitors who camp are allowed inside White Sands National Monument. Night-time photography and sunrises aren’t possible unless you pitch a tent. We stayed in Alamogordo instead, 15 miles/24 km further north-east – with the comfort of a hot shower and a nice bed. We returned to the dunes the next morning, but here are the evening impressions for now.
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Food note: we had dinner at an Asian restaurant in Alamogordo. It was family-run quite apparently, and fun. I saw the guys at the next table over had Sriracha and I wanted some too, so I asked for hot sauce. Instead of Sriracha though, for whatever reason, they brought me a little cup with freshly chopped chilis (red, green, and orange ones too – habanero, danger danger!) I added some to my dish, tried – and it was the hottest thing I had ever eaten. The chilis had a good aroma though and I unexpectedly enjoyed the extreme heat they added to the dish. I had a warm tummy for about an hour after dinner! :-)