Not since Thelma & Louise have I thought of Brad Pitt as a reason to hit the road in the American Southwest. But after seeing his iconic post-divorce photo shoot by Ryan McGinley in White Sands National Monument for GQ a couple years back, I knew I had to go.
Encompassing 275 square miles, White Sands, which is managed by the National Park Service, is the world’s largest gypsum dune field where visitors can drive, hike, and sled. It’s a seemingly endless sea of snow-white sand dunes that is extraordinary at sunrise and sunset, even in an era of social media where special sunsets and sunrises have become quotidian. Ten lucky groups of travelers can camp overnight amidst the dunes. That, I decided a few months ago, is what I wanted to do for my birthday this year.
I long hated planning my birthday. Travel planning with friends inevitably disappoints, and that only strikes harder with the heightened emotions of a birthday. So, I figured, why not do it in a place that no matter who came, I’d be happy just being in one of nature’s wonders. Plus, White Sands allows dogs, so I’d have at least one companion who wouldn’t annoy me.
That’s what I’ve come to love about the desert and dune fields—silence. Just after the sun disappeared, I finally had it. Not that I don’t love my friends, but this void-ish silence was what I craved. And so I sat on the top of the dune that rose up behind our campsite. The pearly white sand sparked under the illuminated half-moon. The San Andres Mountains to the west were shadowed against the evening sky. A band of purple and orange light stubbornly hung on.
After 10 to 20 minutes, the voices drifted up to me—my friends speculating among themselves if somebody should come get the birthday boy. Disturbing my peace wasn’t what held them back, I soon learned; rather it was the fear of being the one to violate my privacy if I was having stomach problems and trying to have some privacy. Sighing, I got up and shouted down to them, saying I’d be down in a minute. While outwardly dramatic, I wasn’t mad. I’d gotten some silence, and besides, I was in the midst of a perfect 24 hours.
White Sands is in the southernmost portion of New Mexico within the Tularosa Basin. It’s the famous test site of the first atomic detonation on July 16, 1945. In fact, the nearby White Sands Missile Range is still active, so make sure to check the National Park Service website before going to find out if the park portion is closed. The portion of the desert that is a national monument was created by Herbert Hoover in 1933.
That perfect 24 hours started roughly 12 hours before my thoughtful friends disturbed my peace. We spent the night prior about an hour south in El Paso (weirdly the only country song I knew growing up was Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” so I was excited to be there).
I woke up early and with a close friend drove to the visitor’s center to line up for a shot at one of the coveted camping sites doled out daily.
Unlike Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado—where I camped back in June—White Sands has designated backcountry camping sites and well-worn trails about a half-mile into the dunes. And, the White Sands adventure is significantly easier to experience than Great Sand Dunes, because the actual dunes are a fraction of the size of the Colorado dunes, which can reach 700 feet. Thanks to the pure white gypsum, the sand here doesn’t heat up to the point it can give you serious burns.
From El Paso, both of the main routes to White Sands go through a Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint, which made me feel incredibly ignorant: I had no idea these existed within the U.S. I was glad we got there about 45 minutes early and waited at the WPA-era visitor’s center before it opened at 9 a.m. There were already four groups ahead of us and a couple of them arrived as we left. I’d highly recommend going early if on a weekend. (I won’t lie, after some companions mocked me for being so tightly wound about going early to get permits, I found a sick satisfaction when we returned that afternoon to the park and overheard people asking for backcountry permits only to be told they’d long since been filled.)
Once you have your permit, you don’t need to enter the park right away. Having learned my lesson on other dune camping trips about the limits to hours of midday fun in the dunes (especially considering water supply) we headed back to El Paso for breakfast at H&H Car Wash (a famous cafe in a car wash), wrangled the rest of the group, and took our time packing up and checking out.
I knew I wanted to get there around 3 p.m., do some dune sledding, and then hike, set up camp, cook and eat dinner, before gallivanting around at sunset and playing photographer to some of my more photogenic friends. That gave us time to stop in Las Cruces for lunch. After three squares of Tex-Mex for a few days, we opted for the Corner Deli with the torched car out front. Appearances aside, it was a truly fantastic bite.
Then it was on through the CBP checkpoint, a quick stop at the visitor’s center to get sleds, and on into the park. As you drive through the park in the afternoon sun, the sand is more cream-colored than white but the surreality of the place starts to hit home when about a half mile from the gates you start driving on plowed roads where the powdery substance you’re cruising over does resemble snow.
To dune-sledding enthusiasts, I’d say you might find the relatively small dunes of White Sands a tad tame, at least when compared to the Bruneau Dunes outside Boise or Great Sand Dunes. But for first-timers it’s fun, and it does look strangely like sledding down a snowy hill. While the sand wasn’t hot, direct sun got to all of us (especially my dog who has never understood pacing herself) so we ended up just relaxing in the lee of a dune watching as she furiously dug herself a pit to lay down and cool off.
Around 5 p.m., we began the quick hike to our campsite, which was easy to find. The sand had already begun to take on that stark white quality that makes these dunes famous. The first thing you’ll want to do is get barefoot. After hurriedly setting up, we realized if we wanted to enjoy the sunset we’d need to do dinner afterwards, and so we raced up to the top of the dune and began to traverse the dunescape, stopping here and there to take it all in. Re-energized, my dog (Ella) raced around as if she were playing in snow. The best way I can describe the orange sunset out there (which is magnificently long, and even after the sun itself disappears there’s a multi-colored band above the mountains for an eternity) is the sunrise opening scene of The Lion King.
With little light remaining, we ended up cooking dinner mostly by headlamp, before I escaped for my brief interlude of silence. I also couldn’t be too angry about being interrupted since my friends wanted to sing Happy Birthday to me (and roast s’mores over the small camp stove). Almost immediately, my dog (a rescue that is half-lab, half-schipperke) began to growl as we could hear coyotes yipping in the distance.
As all sunlight disappeared and our sole natural light came from the moon, we all clambered back up the top of the dune to lay down and watch the sky. Calling us even amateur astronomers would be generous (although two in our group could definitely be considered experts in astrology), but I could pick out the Big Dipper because it was bigger than I’d ever seen in my life and right on the horizon line.
Then another strange thing started to happen. Everything started to get wet. And I’m not just talking about bunch-of-people-in-a-sealed-tent-breathing-as-temperature-drops kind of wet. Boots, bags, containers all around the site began to have a layer of condensation on them. That night, as the temperature dropped, and dropped, and dropped again, fitful sleepers would wake up with soaked hair. My dog was even cold and let me cuddle her in a way she never would otherwise. Convinced we were experiencing something unique, I asked one of the park rangers upon leaving what was up with that, and she surmised that it was because of heavy rain in the week before we arrived.
I had thought what we experienced was special. But the phenomenon of waking up in a puddle in a desert sent me down a massive rabbit hole. It turns out that water plays an incredibly important role in the creation and continued existence of White Sands.
Gypsum sand is what makes the dunes pretty. It took an incredible confluence of events to allow a dunefield of gypsum to exist at all, since gypsum (a material that makes up chalk, drywall, plaster of paris, and alabaster) dissolves in water.
Hundreds of millions of years ago, the American Southwest was largely underwater in the Permian Sea. Gypsum was one of the many minerals that ended up dissolved on the sea floor. Tens of millions of years ago, when the tectonic plates in the region shifted—colliding and pulling apart—mountain ranges were created. But so were deep basins when the ranges split apart. One of those basins was the Tularosa, which became a lake fed by the Rio Grande. Large deposits of minerals found their way into the lake, which had no outlet. On top of that, climatic changes over tens of thousands of years led to run-off from the surrounding mountains, which filled the lake with even more gypsum. When the Ice Age ended, the lake pretty much evaporated, leaving behind large amounts of gypsum crystals that, when exposed to wind, shredded into sand that accumulated into a dune field.
Amazingly, this process is still going on today, albeit on a smaller scale. Rainstorms wash gypsum-rich deposits off the surrounding mountains into what remains of that lake (Lake Lucero), which then evaporates, is shredded by the wind, turns to sand, and is blown over to the dunes. And while this may not seem crazy to a hydrologist or a geologist, it is gobsmacking to me that White Sands, a sand dune field in the American Southwest desert, is actually sitting just a few inches above lots of groundwater (the technical term for the one here is a perched water table). In fact, my biggest mistake packing was not bringing pads for the sleeping bags as the ground was hard. That’s because the dunes here are actually moist. That moisture (the dunes themselves are at 99 percent humidity year round) is what keeps them intact and prevents them from blowing away. And right under the dune you’re sleeping on could be water that’s been trapped there for 50 years, or, the Park Service notes, it “can be over 6,000 years old.”
But I knew none of this when I woke up at 5 a.m. to put on my damp boots and take Ella for a headlamp walk back to the parking lot to get winter jackets out of the car for those still sleeping. In the lamplight, the “snow” positively sparkled. After dropping off the jackets, Ella and I sat atop a nearby dune while I jotted down some of my thoughts from the day and watched the sky wake.
At first the sky changed from a milky black with all the stars and half moon to a black-eye purple with a hint of peach accenting the distant mountains to the east. This was followed by a dark navy blue, call it tuxedo blue, with the purple relegated to a band just above the peach. Briefly, the whole scene turned pink before the familiar pale blue sky washed over it all.
Soon, everybody was awake, and we just walked for a good 30 minutes across the dunes. It’s hard to convey how spectacular the dunes are in the pale morning light. There is a gentle sensuality to these small waves of dunes (we even found a set of dunes that, depending on what floats your boat, resembled cleavage or the top of a butt crack), and turning around to go back to the camp for breakfast was only possible because I knew I didn’t want to be out here when the sun really started beating down. I’m not a wistful kind of person, but I was that morning.
Later that day, as we drove to my favorite family friend’s house in Santa Fe, I found myself reading about the sand that had given me one of the nicest morning strolls of my life. It turns out somebody at the National Park Service has a sense of humor. In a brief that outlined different types of sand, it notes that a significant portion of organic sand (usually found on beaches in tropical areas) is from fish poop, in particular parrot fish poop. It then poses a question I never thought to ask myself:
“The next time you plan a vacation think carefully. Would you rather build castles out of fish poop at a beach or gypsum?”