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Unexpectedly arising from southern New Mexico’s barren landscape is a natural arrangement of larger-than-life rocks reminiscent of urban high rises.   Formed of hot volcanic ash that solidified nearly thirty-five million years ago, these formations have been carved by the elements into gnomish shapes and fanciful columns that can reach forty feet high.   Only a handful of places in the world have formations like these.  I know all too well they are not easy to climb.  I tried.

Popular with many overnight campers, the “city” is webbed with pathways that I curiously trundle through, feeling dwarfed along the way, until dusk.   It is during the golden hour, when the sun begins to set, that the magic begins.   The sun’s rays bounce from the ancient volcanic rock giving off an exquisitely rich cornucopia of color—sparkling hues of pink, orange, yellow, and purple—that you can only see in these moments.   The “city” comes to life, making this an ideal time to begin clicking the camera’s shutter.

The reason to visit City of Rocks is to escape routine and stress.  Trust me, it will be you and the rocks and no phone signal when you visit.  The landscape is a nice blend of the west’s rugged rock formations and grassy plains.  You’ll be in the desert, tho’ the land is not barren like you see in Arizona or Southern Utah.

I always to see Fred Flinstone as the large rock formations literally remind me of Flinstone’s Bedrock.  Close your eyes and envision for a moment.  You see this, too.  Don’t you?

City of Rocks
LATITUDE
32 ̊35’24” N

LONGITUDE
-107 ̊58’33” W

ELEVATION
5,250 feet (1,600 meters)

AREA
1,230 acres (497.8 hectares)

Flying high above Elephant Butte offers a delightful study in contrasts.   The lake’s stunning cobalt-blue water strikes my eye as if a painter had left masterful strokes on the desert floor below.   Draining into the once mighty Rio Grande, the blue water sends out tendrils in brilliant complex shapes, like veins.   The colors vary splendidly in pastoral shades of green and yellow where water nurtures the conspicuous vegetation clinging to life at its banks.  Have Van Gogh or Monet been here with his artistic touch, I wonder?   The answer is clear, as is the evidence of the importance of the Rio Grande.

Over one hundred million years ago, this area was part of a vast shallow ocean. Once the sea receded, the area was the favorite hunting ground of the Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur.  Evidence of the Rex, one of the largest land-dwelling predators of all time, and other dinosaur species have been discovered in area rock formations.  Evidence has also been found at Kilborne Hole, which I wrote about in a previous post.

Although fossils of the Stegomastodon (a primitive relative of today’s elephant) have been discovered near the lake, the area was not named for its former inhabitants, but for an island in the lake—once the core of an ancient volcano—that is shaped like an elephant.  The lake itself formed when a dam was constructed across the Rio Grande in 1916.  Forty miles long, the lake shoulders more than two hundred miles of shoreline.

The flow of  the Rio Grande River through Southern New Mexico and West Texas is controlled at Elephant Butte.  At certain times of the year river water flows like a mighty river and at other times one might wonder if the river has dried up.  

Elephant Butte is yet another example of the beauty you can find if you take the time to explore El Paso and one hundred and twenty miles around.  All of the areas I mention throughout this blog may seem like a massive amount of area to cover.  The truth is, however, each destination is roughly a day trip from El Paso.  

I’m a fairly particular traveler in that I never want to feel as if I’ve wasted my time traveling to a place.  I’ve gone to great extents and expense traveling to some places.  I know the feeling of disappointment.  So, when I highly recommend exploring the Desert Southwest, I do so with confidence.  I do so knowing you’ll be in awe if you follow these trails yourself.

Snow white and mysteriously beautiful, New Mexico’s White Sands National Park is the world’s largest gypsum dune field, with huge, wave-like dunes that constantly roll across some 275 square miles of desert in the Tularosa Basin.   These pristine waves affect me more than any other place in this world.   Here I am in awe of the dune’s ever-changing natural beauty.   I like the notion of the blowing wind shifting the sands into different for-mations, as this reflects my own life.   Not much ever remains the same for me over time, and I look forward to change.

White Sands touches deep within my soul, often serving as a healer—a place of solace, if you will.   When life becomes hectic, the pure silence of the dunes provides calm, allowing my mind and spirit to become centered once again.   There are no distractions, and what sometimes appears impossible in other surroundings reveals itself to be the opposite.

This is where I retreated to make some sort of sense of my father’s sudden passing at an all-too-young age, and where, saying goodbye one last time, I was able to let go.   Only me, the dunes, and unfiltered thoughts of a man who worked so hard to give me so much.   Too, after being diagnosed with a virus that will never leave my body, it was the white sands I kicked, pounded, yelled at, then cried over from fear and disappointment.   And it was among the graceful dunes that my partner of twenty-four years and I reconnected, strengthening our relationship well beyond words.

Yes, I’ve spent countless hours hiking White Sands as far as possible, seen more than a million stars overhead, watched the sand illuminate under the full moon, and have had the good fortune to view the area from overhead, hanging out of a small plane.   The dunes of White Sands have a personal hold on me.   I may go in with a heavy heart from time to time, but I always leave knowing I am not running from anything; instead I am running to- ward the day with eyes wide open.   For this, I will be forever grateful.

Gypsum sand is rare, because gypsum is usually dissolved by rain and carried out to sea.   But the deposits of gypsum washed down from the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains that ring the Tularosa Basin are trapped there, for the basin has no outlet to the sea.   When shallow pools left by the rain evaporate, they leave on the surface a layer of gypsum in a crystalline form called selenite, which forms in crystals that can be well over a foot long.   Whipped by constantly blowing winds and exposed to extreme temperature changes, the crystals are eventually pounded into a fine-grained sand that gathers in brilliant white drifts moving across the desert floor. Because the terrain is in constant motion, only a few plants and animals survive here, adapting to the changing conditions in unique ways.

 

Whether I’m hiking or mountain biking, Cloudcroft is my top spot to escape the West Texas Summer heat.  Nestled up in the Sacramento Mountains high above the desert, this is where I enjoy a glorious view of White Sands in the far distance before starting out on my favorite trek—Trestle Trail.  What a sublime scene it is.

The area’s elevation and closely woven pine trees offer immediate relief from the West Texas heat.  As I descend the winding trail, the air cools almost to a chill.  Vegetation becomes denser and more varied, with clusters of vines clinging to any support they can find.   The murmur and trickles of water can be heard as streams make their way to the high canyon floor.  The sights and sounds are calming.  This is beauty in nature at its best.

This trail is not to be rushed, as it is here that nature awakens the senses to its idyllic beauty, its euphonic natural sounds, its savory green and earthy scents.   The treat at the end of Trestle is to lie in the tall wispy grasses at the bot- tom, without a care for anything awaiting outside these mountain walls.   Its as if the world slows; the roller coaster of life comes to a halt, even if for a brief moment in time.

The village of Cloudcroft and its environs lie within Lincoln National Forest, a protected forest in New Mexico that encompasses more than a million acres.   The forest is birthplace of Smokey Bear—known to generations of children as the embodiment of forest fire prevention—the forest was named in honor of Abraham Lincoln.

The name Cloudcroft, which means a pasture for the clouds, suggests the area’s high elevation compared to that of the surrounding Chihuahua Desert.   The town of Cloudcroft was put on the map in 1898, when a railroad crew discovered that the area wasn’t just an accessible source of timber—it was a place that could attract visitors.  If you visit at the weekend, you’ll immediately be met with a throng of other visitors.

In the winter, Cloudcroft offers sports such as cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and ice skating.   Winter or sum- mer, the area confounds the expectations of those who believe the Southwest is invariably hot and dry.  

Pack your hiking shoes, pull out your walking stick, wheel out your mountain bike or rent a cabin to extend your stay.

Morning Flight

It was morning, and the new sun glimmers across the sand of the desert floor.  “Clear!” beams Suzie, as she pokes her head out the twin engine’s open window.  Flashing a mischievous smile at me she asks, “Are you ready?”  “Of course,” I respond, thinking nothing of her facial expression.

Like several times before, the plane’s engines rev causing a slight vibration on the floor board as we slowly roll toward runway one at Santa Teresa’s Municipal Airport.  The buzz I feel in my feet and legs always has a calming pre-flight effect on me, though little did I know this take-off would be different.  After negotiating the slight curve onto the main runway, I vaguely hear Suzie’s voice through the headset,  “Mark, it’s your turn to take off and fly.”  As the words quickly register in my brain, no doubt my eyes widely pop open and my heart thumps as if it will burst from my chest.  No thoughts race through my head except, “Good Lord, please let my fly today!”  There is no time to second guess her decision or my ability; or lack of ability, as I’ve only ever been a passenger during these flights.  Keeping outwardly calm, yet tightening every muscle in my body, I intently listen to Suzie’s instructions.

I reach for, and pull the throttle with a slight tremble, causing the plane to move faster.  Reaching a speed of 60 mph, I steadily draw the steering column towards me as far as it will extend, and with this movement, the plane gradually sails upward into the morning’s blue sky.  “Tower, this is Lima Papa. We’ll be flying around Kilbourne Hole this morning for aerial photography,” are the next words I remember as my breathing and heartbeat regain their normal rhythms.  There is an instant feeling of relief and peace inside me as the sky opens up its cobalt tent; the space beneath stretching as far as an ocean.  The weight of the world swiftly lifts off my shoulders allowing me to connect with the desert below as I navigate towards Kilbourne Hole, an 80,000 year old inverted volcano crater stretching nearly two miles long and well over a mile across.

A remnant of an ancient volcanic explosion, Kilbourne Hole is a crater in southern Dona Ana County’s desert basin between the New Mexico’s Potrillo Mountain Range and the Rio Grande River, approximately 40 miles northwest of El Paso.  The “hole,” or crater, is roughly elliptical in shape, and is known as a Maar; a pit or depression caused by a volcanic explosion with little material emitted except volcanic gas.

Circling around Kilbourne for a bird’s eye view, Suzie takes over the plane’s controls descending and looping until we swoop hundreds of feet deep into Kilbourne.  The curve causes the plane to slow until the wind seems to whisper around us, until the walls of the crater encompass the plane.  The exposed rock, in a near plastic state, is dull black or brown though erosion reveals a brilliant, sparkling yellow and green interior of olivine glass granules like treasured jewels in a sunken ship.

Looking forward, I see the crater’s end wall racing towards the plane’s front with great speed before Suzie noses the plane swiftly upward till the flat undisturbed desert plain lay calmly below.  Her playful smile returns as she glances toward me and there were no words needed to show my appreciation for this episode.  Exploring the desert southwest can always be an experience, though one just might find the adventurer sleeping inside one’s soul along the way.

360 View of White Sands National Monument.  The endless sea of white sand dunes and the Sacramento Mountains of Southern New Mexico are in full view.

Before there was an actual 360 Degree Camera, there was me with a small video cam physically turning 360 degrees until my head would spin and I’d nearly fall to the ground.  Visualise this.  True story and this is how I captured the video seen in this post.

By now, everyone knows the affection I have for White Sands.  Now with more photographic and video armoury in my caché, I’ll return to this great sand dune area for updates.

In the meantime, have you ever wondered how the white sand dunes move?

According to the National Park Service –
Sand can only be moved by strong, steady winds. The air must be moving at least 17 miles per hour to be able to pick up sand grains. In the Tularosa Basin, it is primarily between February and April that the winds are strong enough. These winds are called unidirectional winds because they always move in the same direction, from the southwest to the northeast. As the wind blows, it pushes the sand ahead of it, so individual dunes are slowly moving to the northeast.

Sand is not as easy to move as you might think. Even very strong winds can’t lift the sand any higher than three feet above the ground. As the wind blows, it lifts small sand grains a few inches off the ground, then drops them. When they hit the ground, they bump into other sand grains and cause them to jump up and be caught by the wind. It’s almost as if the sand is playing leap-frog, jumping and bumping along. This kind of jumping movement is called saltation. You can see this kind of movement on the windward side of the dune, or the side facing the oncoming wind. But what about the leeward side of the dune, protected from blowing wind? What causes the sand to move on that side?

As the tiny sand grains slowly work their way up the windward dune face, they finally reach the crest or top of the dune. They fall over the crest and start to pile up because they are protected from the wind. Now gravity steps in to move the dune. As more and more sand grains pile up, the angle of the leeward face becomes steeper and steeper. A pile of loose material, like sand, can only hold a slope of about 34 degrees. When the slope gets greater than 34 degrees, gravity pulls the loose sand down. Small avalanches occur. The sand might run down the leeward face like a waterfall, or the whole side might slip at once. When the entire face of the dune slips, it’s called slumping.

How fast a sand dune moves depends on a number of things. Of course, the speed of the wind is a big factor. A wind that is blowing 45 miles per hour will move more sand than at 17 miles per hour. The size of the dune is also important. Smaller dunes with less sand move much more quickly than large ones. The vegetation also plays an important role. The dunes get caught on the plants that grow in the basin, and that slows them down.

There are 4 types of dunes at White Sands National Monument. The first ones to form, the “baby” dunes, are called embryonic dunes. They are usually not more than 20 feet. high, and speed along the basin floor as much as 40 feet a year. Transverse dunes form long ridges of sand and can be very tall. They move much more slowly – usually between 8 to 12 feet a year. Barchan dunes are crescent-shaped. This sand dune looks like a new moon. The arms or horns of the barchan dune always point in the direction the wind is blowing. Barchan dunes are also very large and move between 8 and 12 feet per year. The last type is called a parabolic dune and looks like an inside-out barchan dune. The movement of this dune has been slowed down by vegetation, and rarely moves more than 5 feet per year.

Obviously, I’ve visited White Sands often.  What strikes me most is the dunes are never the same each time I’m there.  The power of nature is awe-inspiring.

Map Showing The Location of White Sands National Monument ::

 

Destination:  White Sands, New Mexico, USA

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If it is possible for a landscape to touch the soul, then White Sands is the place.  Large white gypsum sand blows across the Tularosa Basin forming various types of dune formations.  White Sands is a vast sea of white in the brown Chihuahuan Desert with the Sacramento Mountains in the background.  A bit out of the way, but not too far if you want to be left speechless by a brilliant landscape.

Why should White Sands be on your travel list?  There are the obvious reasons:  the unimaginable landscape, the coolness of the sand, or the large patch of white in the otherwise brown Chihuahua Desert.

Then there are my deeper reasons for those in a quest to find something extraordinary.  

My List Of Why White Sands Should Be On Your Travel List:

:: Your mind will travel miles away from everyday life.

::  White Sands will touch deep within your soul.

:: You’ll notice every breath and hear your every step.

:: The silence will let you hear your thoughts.

:: You’ll better understand the power of nature.

:: You can test your strength inside and out.

:: No better place to get yourself centred.

:: One of the most amazing landscapes you’ll ever see.

Consider these ten interesting facts about White Sands National Monument ::

1. The White Sands National Monument is made up entirely of gypsum crystals that form dunes that stretch over 275 square miles.

2. The park is on the Register of Historic Places and can be found in any New Mexico travel guide.

3. The idea to make this area a National Park was first thought of way back in 1898.

4. The White Sands National Monument is completely surrounded by military installations and is periodically closed for a few hours at a time while they carry out testing.

5. Located in the Tularosa Basin, the park and the dunes are fully enclosed; there is no outlet to water of any kind, so the gypsum never gets dissolved in water.

6. Four marked trails allow visitors to explore the dunes on foot; guided tours are also available where a Ranger leads the expedition.

7. Visitors can go sledding year-round at the park. Sleds are available for purchase at the visitor centre and you can spend the day having fun in the sun.

8. The site of the first atomic bomb detonation is located on the northern boundary of the National Park.

9. Gypsum, what makes up the dunes is actually a clear substance; the dunes appear white like snow because the gypsum grains are constantly banging into each other. The scratches then reflect the sun’s rays making them look white.

10. Gypsum doesn’t absorb heat from the sun, so even on the hottest day of the year; the dunes are cool and comfortable to walk on.

I’ve written extensively about White Sands on this blog and this landscape dominates my last book, El Paso 120.  Rest assured there is more to come.

Destination:  White Sands National Monument

It’s no secret White Sands is one of my favourite desert landscape areas – anywhere in the world.  Visit once, twice or more and be in awe each and every time.  As the winds blow, the sands shift in perpetual motion so the dune formations are never the same.  I love this about the sand dunes – ever changing.  My life is at ease with constant change.

Do you have a special place to go when all seems discombobulated in your world?  No doubt I visited White Sands as a kid, though it wasn’t until about ten years ago I visited when I seriously decided to be a photographer. Obsessively, I’d return over and over to photograph this amazing landscape.  It was also during this time everything wasn’t so hunky dory in my world.  Things just weren’t right.

I’d pack up the SUV, drive to the dunes and spend hours in the quiet.  Me, my camera and only a breeze whispering in my ear.  I’d beat the dunes as I climbed to the top, taking out my frustration or disappointment along the way, then sit taking it all in.  There might be a few great photographs from this time as well.

Each time I’d leave the white sand dunes my mind would be clear, I felt calm and a heckuva lot better than when I went in.  I didn’t consciously travel to White Sands to rejuvenate, though this is exactly what happened (and happens) while I’m there.  This area is a special place to me, and undoubtedly unique to this world.  After all, it is the largest gypsum sand dune area in the world.  White Sands is also an area that touches my soul without even trying. 

White Sands National Monument is off the beaten path.  A state highway from Las Cruces, New Mexico or Alamogordo will take you directly to the park.  No major interstate provides direct access.  Is the trip worth your time?  I’ll just say everyone who visits White Sands is in awe.  No one believes it exists even when they stand atop the white gypsum sand.

Perhaps I’ll meet you there one day.

Destination:  White Sands, New Mexico, USA

Travel Destination :: White Sands National Monument

Idyllic, Awe-Inspiring, Breathtaking, Speechless, Silence, Mind-Boggling, Overwhelming, Wondrous – all appropriate words for The white sand dunes of Southern New Mexico.

Rising unexpectedly out of the otherwise drab brown Chihuahuan Desert, the white dunes are the largest of their kind anywhere in the world. Yes, White Sands National Monument is huge. The gypsum sand dunes derive from Lake Lucero near the base of the Organ Mountains. Rainfall drains from the mountains into the lake. When the water evaporates the gypsum forms, dries, then blows to create the dunes.

Constant winds blow off the Organs shift the sands day to day so the dunes are ever changing. You’ll never find two the same nor will the sand dunes ever stay the same.

The sand at White Sands National Monument is almost pure gypsum. Gypsum is different from many other rocks because it is readily soluble. That means it will dissolve in water, just like sugar or salt. When rain falls on the mountains, the layers of gypsum start to dissolve, and the gypsum runs down the mountains as fast as the water can carry it. You may wonder why there aren’t gypsum sand dunes on the other sides of the mountains. The rain certainly washes gypsum down there too. Why is it only in the Tularosa Basin that the gypsum forms sand dunes?

The Tularosa basin has no rivers running out of it. There is no way for water entering it to get out. There are large rivers to the east and west of the basin that carry rainwater to the Gulf of Mexico, but all the rainwater that falls inside the basin stays here. It collects at the lowest spot on the basin floor. This spot is called Lake Lucero, and it’s located at the southwest corner of the dune field.

It is here at Lake Lucero that the sand dunes begin to form. Lake Lucero is a playa or seasonal lake. Water only collects there during the rainy season, and the rest of the year is it dry. Even when the lake has water, it is only about 12 inches deep, so it is not a place you could go fishing, or swimming. As the water begins to evaporate, the gypsum that is in the water begins to form a crust on the lake bed. Some of the gypsums form beautiful crystals called selenite.

Selenite crystals are very soft. You can scratch them with your fingernail. They are so soft that it doesn’t take very long before the wind and rain begin to break them apart into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces. Soon they become so small that the wind can pick them up and carry them for short distances. When the pieces get to be this size, between 1/400 to 1/12 of an inch, they are called sand.

There are many things that help to build the gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument. The mountains supply the gypsum. The rain washes the gypsum into the basin. The shape of the basin keeps the gypsum from running into the sea, and the wind breaks up the gypsum crystals into sand grains.

Prepare yourself. White Sands moves its visitors touching deep into your soul if you let them. This is a place where all cares go away, crunching sand beneath your feet rumbles like engines and each breath you take is refreshingly noticeable.

Add White Sands National Monument to your travel destination list now. This extraordinary landscape is neither near nor on the way to your next adventure. Make it so.

White Sands is open year round, though the hours change with the seasons.

I write extensively about White Sands National Monument throughout the blog as it is one of my favourite landscapes in the world. A huge thrill for me was Taking Flight Over White Sands which you might enjoy.

Map Showing Location of White Sands National Monument

MAP SHOWING LOCATION OF WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT
MAP SHOWING LOCATION OF WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT

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White Sands in Southern New Mexico is off the beaten path.  You have to know the sand dunes exist and then you must make an effort to get there.  You’ve seen the sea of white in movies, music videos, and ad campaigns.  You may have even seen Brad Pitt’s painful looking photo shoot in GQ Magazine accompanying his redemption article after his split from Angeline Jolie.  If you did see the article, I’m sorry this could have been your introduction to a landscape larger than Brad will ever be.

White Sands always fascinated me on the ground.  I often found myself amongst the dunes when I needed to clear my head, understand the world or to simply take a deep breath.  Someone once told me White Sands touches my soul and I believe this to be true.  The landscape is unforgiving and what seems to be endless waves of white sand dunes amongst the brown Chihuahua Desert in the Tularosa Basin.  There is a purity to the white gypsum sand accentuated by the Sacramento Mountain range in the background.

If you allow it to be true, White Sands brings balance and understanding to an otherwise nonsensical world.  Everything seems to come together and make sense at White Sands.  We need this today, don’t we?

As I was preparing for my book, “El Paso 120: Edge of the Southwest,” I visualized a variety of unique perspectives to photograph this beautiful southwestern landscape.  I’d also visit the area at various times of the day for different lighting situations.  The images I captured were pleasing enough though my mind kept wandering until I decided aerial images of the landscape must be brilliant.  I didn’t know for sure since I had only seen White Sands from a long distance when landing at El Paso’s airport.

So, I asked around.  I knew a pilot who flew me around West Texas on a number of occasions.  Each time we’d fly I’d ask, “Suzie, can you fly me over White Sands?”  “Oh, I don’t know Mark,” she’d reply, “White Sands sits under protected airspace.  We’ll get shot down if I fly us over there.”  Sometimes a gentleman can be persistent, and I am.  After about the fifth time I asked, Suzie, told me she thought she knew someone who could help.  “I’ll call him,” she said.

I didn’t hear more about the possibility of a flight until a few days later when a strange New Mexico phone number popped up on my phone.  It was Kevin who, with a jovial tone, said, “Hey man, I hear you want a ride over White Sands.  When do you want to fly?”  I’m sure I had the biggest smile possible hearing those words, and it took a bit for me to get my answer out.  “How about tomorrow?”  Kevin just chuckled. He told me I had to wait as there is a process to go through to be considered for such a flight.  He told me to be patient and he would keep me up to date on the progress.

After a year of waiting for security clearance, I had the incredible opportunity to fly over White Sands in Southern New Mexico.  The airspace around White Sands is protected due to the nearby military base.  The journey included me and Kevin, the pilot.  Kevin asked if I was up for a bit of adventure and when I said yes, he took off the door of the plane and put a harness on me then secured me to the inside of the plane.  Yes, I not only got to fly over the dunes I love so much, but I also got to hang out of the plane and over the incredible landscape.

Being above and hanging out of a plane with a camera tightly held in my hands offered an entirely new perspective.  My awe stepped up into the stratosphere.  The experience was more than I ever could have visualized.  As the sun rose, the mountains glowed and the sand crystals glistened like I had never seen before.  I got to see the desert floor come to life that morning.  Quite honestly, I didn’t want to land.

My appreciation for White Sands National Monument grew to new heights that morning.  My appreciation for my pilot, Kevin, is even greater.

Some of the aerial images are included in my book – “El Paso 120: Edge of the Southwest.”  For the first time, you can view more of these images right here on the blog and my YouTube Channel.

Destination:  White Sands National Monument

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