Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sledding, Shifting Sands: White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument, view from top of a dune
If you stand stock-still at the top of a gypsum sand dune in the two hundred and seventy-five miles that make up the White Sands National Monument, and stay there for a year, your bleached bones could move, depending on the location and type of the dune within the park, up to thirty-five feet from where you succumbed to the heat.

The gypsum sand will stay cool to the touch, however, so if you choose, as many do, to instead buy a round plastic sled at the gift store and spend a day sledding in sand, you'll likely have more fun.

A few days ago, I spent the day wandering in the mid-afternoon blaze and then returned, post-hydrating, for the cooler sunset ranger walk to hear more about the gorgeous, alien landscape.  

Toppled yucca plant
Thanks to Ranger Carmen, on our barefoot stroll through the dunes I learned that yucca plants adjusted to the dune movement by getting taller and taller faster; a soaptree yucca that looks tiny above ground can have 30 feet of plant underneath it, evidence of a growth spurt of up to 12 feet a year that keeps it from being swallowed up by dune. As the dune moves on and exposes it, the yucca will topple over, but even then, undaunted, it will adjust, rearrange itself, and keep living.  

The beginning of sunset.  Part of a sumac pedestal
to the right. 
Desert survival is like that: slow down, speed up, adjust, move on, adapt. 

The sumac adapted by holding onto the dune as it moves through, creating rock-like pedestals of roots and sand that serve as condo homes for the many creatures that burrow into it.  During monsoon season, the sumac pedestals become islands, with prey and predator seeking higher ground during the floods.

Don't let the sand fool you. Dig anywhere in the park, and you will find water, lots of it, underneath. The cottonwood trees grow by the largest caches, something the coyotes figured out when they moved into the area. They dig for their water by those trees, creating nice attractive pools to lure prey.

The kangaroo rat will not be lounging by those pools; they are so adapted to the desert that they do not drink water. They get all the moisture they need from the food they eat.

Pale lizard
Long shadows in waves of sand.
Desert creatures in White Sands are slowly getting paler, natural selection at work; blending in with the sand leaves them less obvious to predators, giving them more time to procreate. Lizards that are dark brown only a few miles away are white, some with blue markings that further allow them to disappear into the sand and brush.

It is the sand itself, the quantity and quality of it, that leaves you stunned though.  High winds periodically remove all the footprints, sweep the house clean. Some sandstorms are so massive they can be seen from space. Delicate gypsum, softer than a human fingernail, breaks down into the softest sand, providing a canvas for creatures to decorate as they amble or scurry, from the crazy circling prints of the darkling beetles (aka stink bugs), the waggling feet of lizards, to the barefoot tromping of groups following a ranger.

Just watch out for missiles. Periodically, White Sands National Monument is closed to the public when the missile range next door runs drills. No matter how fast your sled ride careens down a dune, you're unlikely to outpace an errant missile.
Sand and footprints in hot midday sun. 


  1. Hi Cynthia:Looks like a fascinating place....I haven't been there. I do have a place to add to your"see sometime" list. The northern side of Lake Superior from Duluth, Minn to Thunder Bay, Ontario and then on down the other side to Saute Ste Marie, Michigan is stupendous....I was blown away by it. The first day to Thunder Bay was a brilliant sunny day. The second day was very rainy so I'd like to go back and do the thunder Bay to Michigan part again. Totally uncrowded...beautiful scenery.....waterfalls, lots of lakeside driving, islands, etc. Home now to the real world...trying to adjust!!!!!

    1. I'll put that on my list - it sounds fabulous! Hard to go wrong with waterfalls.