Backcountry Camping in White Sands National Monument | New Mexico

7.01.2018 White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, USA

“Hollywood has shot here more than 20 major movies since the 1950’s including the Transformers. Astronauts can clearly see these dunes from the space. Today, the vast white sand dunes said to be the world’s largest gypsum sand dunes was calling us on an unforgettable camping experience. As we followed the trail markers in the middle of the desert hiking from one marker to the next with my feet gently pressing onto the soft and surprisingly cold gypsum dunes in the middle of afternoon with our backpacks on our backs in search for our campsite, a rush of curiosity seeped in. Are we prepared for a backcountry camping experience? What if we get lost? What if we get dehydrated?

It was also an excitement that was running in our blood - the joy of sometimes running on the dunes, sometimes bowing down to the dunes, sometimes conquering them, sometimes talking to each other on if we are on the same track, sometimes shaking ourselves to believe again and again that the sand is indeed white and not photo shopped, sometimes wondering how the plants survive, and sometimes simply enjoy the journey of our curious minds.

It felt so much like fiction, but all of this was very real. Part of that was because this place was not hoarded with people, it still had somehow retained its exclusivity out of the eyes of people. So when we were hiking to the campsite, for quite a while, we were the only ones hiking on the sands.

There were for sure was a few cars on the dune drive but still this place was the least crowded of all national monument or national parks I have been to yet.

Balloon Fiesta happens every year at White Sands, that attracts crowd! (Pic Credit: Shutterstock)
                              This year Balloon Fiesta is on Sept 15 - Sept 18, 2018

We saw the moon rise from our campsite to the sun setting down all at the same time with the backdrop of dunes. We even had our own little Aladdin moment - where the winds was strong and roar at night almost making our tent fly, and as we pressed onto our tent to hold on from all the sides to whatever we had, the grumble of the winds was determined to shake our tent to press and kiss onto our bodies and cheeks making us realize that we probably need a better tent when out in the open all to ourselves. But for that moment letting go and let god was all we can. A part of me wanted to fly with the wind exploring the vistas of dunes my feet would take days to hike, another part of me wanted to comfort my soul into the starry night of moonshine tucked in my blanket in my camp. All this while the dunes had already moved the next morning a slight bit with the beautiful sunrise on the other end. We concluded our experience by sledding in the sands and taking a spectacular all white dune drive”.

This is one of the rarest landscape on planet earth. Only a tiny handful of gypsum sand systems exists, and this is the world’s largest. Watch our vlog on the whole backcountry experience.

Does the whiteness of sand dunes remind you of something?

Yes, snow for sure? Plaster of Paris anyone? Yes, Gypsum is a $100 million a year industry. It is the main ingredient in drywall and plaster of Paris. Did you know this mineral is found in all kinds of food, household products and medicines?

Time-lapse from the Transformers movie set at White Sands

The making of Gypsum Sand Dunes

The rise and fall of the sea millions of years ago made the gypsum that was now resting under our feet. When the sea level used to fall, salty minerals left behind formed a layer of Gypsum. When the sea level rose, it buried the new layers. When it fell again, it added another Gypsum layer. Powerful forces from deep under the earth changed everything - some places rose and then separated. The rift in the crust pulled apart mountains, leaving openings called basin. Once buried layers of Gypsum came back into view.

The nearest Airport is

We previously had plans to explore Santa Fe and White Sands for 4 days, but due to some urgent work, we had to squeeze in white sands for just one night and skip Santa Fe altogether.

El Paso is the nearest airport, about 1.5 hour away from White Sands.

We however had landed in Albuquerque because we wanted to do Sante Fe and White Sands both prior.

New Mexico has a different look and feel and how?

Right from the start - from the statues at the Airport to the different styles of seats to the carvings , the paintings and the exhibits I felt that creativity was oozing out. May be someday I’ll come again and explore some more..

The Drive - Albuquerque to White Sands National Monument

We rented a car from Budget.  He gave us Santa Fe Sport. We drove from Albuquerque (Airport) to Alamogordo to White Sands National Monument. 

There are two routes from Albuquerque and they are:

We took the route Albuquerque > Los Lunas -> San Antonio -> Alamogordo. There is another road that goes through Truth & Consequences (yes that's the name of some place on the map ). Even though that name sounded thrilling, we took the route our car rental company suggested.

And we drove at night. The roads are good enough for the drive. There are couple of short uphills and downhills - one of the reasons why the car rental company told us to upgrade the car was that the roads are little hilly in places. Although we did not feel that an upgrade would have been that necessary, it was still easy on us with the upgrade specially with the Dune Drive.

“What surprised me on the road trip was how raw New Mexico , USA felt. There is absolute nothingness with just the road and the surroundings to enjoy. The companion could be low laying mountains, sometimes trains, sometimes sunrises, sometimes fields. As we neared the desert, even mirages on road. ”

Tips for Backcountry Camping Experience in White Sands

Call the visitor center a day or two prior to cross verify if the campsite is closed for missile launches on your dates. They usually release dates on monument closures on their website.

You can also find more information on White Sands here:
  1. If its open, then arrive early at the visitor center and grab a seat in front of the visitor center before more people join in. What I mean by early is, if the Visitor Center opens at 9am, arrive by 7ish- 7:30ish to be part of the queue. 

  2. We were there on Apr 29, and it wasn’t even a long weekend. It was just a regular weekend and the queue started sharp at 7:15 am. There are just 10 Backcountry camping sites in the area based on first come first serve and it’s very popular on the weekends.
  3. We found that once you enter the visitor center, it gets a little chaotic. They give each a form. And they take the form first from who fills the form first which is ridiculous because sometimes someone else may be standing in the queue for longer time. May be they can manage it a little better - on whoever is in the queue first, they get to choose first. It matters because the ahead you are in the queue, the better chances you have to get sites which are closer to the parking lot.
  4. Fill the campsite you feel most comfortable in. It starts from number 1 to number 10 and we chose the one which was available and we felt would be near to our parking lot. Although when we arrived at the campsite, we saw that all the campsites are in a row separated by a dune or a few dunes. The furthest could be a little extra hike and in sand dunes, a dune or two really does matter. These campsites are not really with the parking lot. You really have to hike on the dunes for a little on the back-country loop trail before you get onto your site.

  5. As soon as you get the confirmation on the campsite, drive towards the back-country loop parking area. 
  6. The camping fee is $3 + monument fees to be submitted at fee station that comes next after Visitor center. 
  7. First will come fee station, then playa trail, then dune life nature trail, inter-dune boardwalk, sunset stroll , backcountry camping in that order. It is indeed quite a drive. So its not like, you walk out of Backcountry loop parking area and walk to visitor center. You can refer to the map below:
  8. Water is available at the visitor center and no where else. So please carry bottles, and as many bottles as you can filling them. I generally don’t drink a lot of water, but just hiking one way on the back-country trail in the mid afternoon I finished some 3 bottles of water. Dunes can be very dehydrating. 

  9. Prefer hiking to your campsite during the mornings or the evenings. We were foolish to hike in the afternoon under the brazing sun. Even though the sand was cold, the sun and climbing the dunes was dehydrating. It took us 1.5 hours in the afternoon from the backcountry parking lot to our campsite and 40 minutes in the evening. Always keep landmarks in sight, don’t get lost. I think we followed orange landmarks to our campsites. Also in a lot of places it is mentioned to not hike about 35 degrees. So please don’t hike above 35 degrees.
  10. There are no toilets inside the campsite or the dunes. There are no water supplies or no electric outlets either. It is an open space to set your camp. The vault toilets are at the parking lot from the where the Backcountry camping trail starts. The backcountry camping parking lot also has trash bins. Proper toilets with running water are at the visitor center. In case the nature calls in between your camping experience , either you can do it right away near to the campsite you had set in or walk all the way to the parking lot which can be a lot for multiple times.

  11. Please do not get the sled at the visitor center gift shop. It is ridiculously expensive. They give you for like $15 and give back to you $6 on returning it. Get it from the Walmart at Alamogordo. They have it for $1-$2. Also buy waxes to rub onto the back of the sled for smooth sledding on the sand.

  12. Stock up food (if you don’t intend to cook) and sled from Alamogordo.
    Alamogordo is the nearest town. 
  13. There will be no cooking grill at the site nor logs. In fact there is not one tree or shade in the dunes at the backcountry trail. We got our food from Si SeƱor , a restaurant locals recommended us at Alamogordo.
    Alamogordo, New Mexico

    It was cloudy, but the sunset was still very beautiful

    Looks like a moonscape from far!

    Yucca Picnic Area

    Dune Drive

    How reptiles change color and adapt.

    How plants adapt at Dune Nature Trail

    The road from Albuquerque to White Sands

    That's our campsite, number 2

    Somewhere, In the middle of the dunes.

    Cactus Jelly anyone?

    Vault Toilet & Trash can are next to Backcountry Loop Parking

    Amphitheater, White Sands

    Interdunal Broadwalk, White Sands

    Creative Navajo Etched Pottery at Albuquerque Airport

  14. Ask the visitor center if its full moon night and what walks do they have. They usually don’t recommend people staying in the campsite to visit sunset ranger program for the very reason that it gets pitched dark at night and finding your way back to your campsite could be next to impossible. Full moon night could be an exception because there is enough light however I wouldn’t take that risk. One can even get lost in the vast desert during the daylight (we almost got lost) even after following trail marker, I wanted to go for the sunset stroll but none of my neighboring camp folks ventured that way in the night. Where the sunset stroll starts is different from where the backcountry camping trail starts. So you really have to drive to Sunset Stroll parking lot, do the ranger program, drive back and then hike back in the dark all the way to your campsite. Unless you are sure and good with directions, I wouldn’t recommend personally. Even though the ranger program may be tad awesome. If you are coming as a visitor and are not doing a backcountry camping, for sure enjoy the program :) or if the daylight exceeds after the ranger program, I guess you can still do it somehow.
  15. When there is full moon night or cloudy the stars are less visible. I guess a no moon night would be an ideal night with twinkling stars around you. This place is also one of the best places to view stars.
  16. When we reached the campsite, we found that there was a marker that said, set your camp within 5 feet of the marker. We also saw there was a little enclosed area that we felt was meant for setting the tent next to the marker because within that enclosed area, the soil was moist so the stakes would go in. Everywhere else, the soil was hard. The stakes wouldn’t go in. The enclosed area was not a large area. Even our 4 person tent was going a little out of it. I felt it was meant for either a 2-person or a 3-person tent.
  17. There are no stones in the campsite. So if you need to push your stakes with the stone onto inside the ground, you either have to push it really hard into the moist soil or get the stones from outside the visitor center. We carried the stones from the visitor center because it was very windy and there was no way we could have relied on half grounded stakes. There are many trails in the area. I think you need full 2-3 days to fully enjoy the dunes. We arrived on Sat morning and left on Sunday morning, so we just had a night for us. A lot of people visit it as a pitstop. This place is definitely more than a visit or a pitstop. You really need to stay here to enjoy the essence of it.
  18. Also please cross check with the visitor center, that if you need to extend your stay for more days, would you need to come to visitor center early everyday to reapply for the extension.
  19. The visitor center is an excellent example of Spanish pueblo-adobe ("Pueblo-Revival") architecture constructed on site from 1936 to 1938 using readily available local materials.
  20. Visit the bookstore, the gift shop, view the exhibits and watch the movie!
  21. Apply Sunscreen. Wear Hats & Sunglasses.
  22. Take the dune drive and if you have time enjoy the many picnic areas, the amphitheater and some more trails like the flat alkali trail and lake Lucero guided tour.
  23. Dunes can be disorienting. The dunes move everyday. Follow the trail markers. Sometimes, the next marker may be at distant sight. If you feel you are really lost, call 911. 
  24. I would recommend a 4-season sturdy tent for the experience. We had a 3-season Coleman camp and it was almost blowing in the winds. Not again.
These dunes are relatively young and dynamic

One of the surprising things about White Sands is how young they are. Most of the dune field form between 4000-7000 years ago - geologically that’s like yesterday in comparison to most of the landscape of New Mexico that has been formed half - a millions to million years ago. During the time of high temp and accentuated droughts - its been very dynamic - with the wide variety of new dunes forming and being destroyed in the last several thousand years and its still forming today. Newly formed dunes exposed to the wind can advance 38 feet year.

At the other extreme of the dune field, dunes at the outer edges move just inches anchored in place by plants . At the heart of the field, dunes move out 12-15 feet a year. Here sand rise up the windward size until the crest often rising 60 feet from the floor. And as the dunes advance they swallow up everything in their path.

So how do plants and reptiles survive

To survive plants must adopt to the constant movement of the dunes. Grass grow quickly and before they are covered by the dunes scatter seeds to open areas. Dunes can engulf stationary yucca plants and to stay above the surface they grow longer stems. They might be only 10 feet showing on the surface but would be about 30 feet downwards into the dunes. As the dunes move up, the Yucca can support the stem and collapses. Imagine yourself living in the surrounding desert some 500 years ago. Without grocery store, where would you get your food? What about soap and medicine? The Soap-tree Yucca would have been your store with more than 100 different uses. From making baskets with them, to apron, to sandals, to shampoo , to tortilla, to art - it has many uses.

Another strategy for the plants is to build their own structure in shifting sands. Some plants create a shaggy top like pedestal out of the gypsum and its roots draw water out of the soil holding it like the base of the statue onto the Gypsum. When the temperatures cool down during the day and night, fox and other reptiles come out. We hardly see these animals - just their tracing of coming and going. All of this life depends on one thing and that is water.

So, where does the water come from?

In late summers, moisture laden lakes fill around the surrounding mountains pushing over the top and into the basin. Some roll into the dunes that creates scattered showers. This is known as monsoon in the White Sands. Still rainfall averages less than 10 inches a year. What makes white sands different is it can hold that much of water as it is surrounded by mountains. So, white sands acts as a basin of bathtub with no drain. This basin here is Tularosa basin. The rain flows in the lower area like Lake Lucero and the Alkali Flat. During the wettest time of the year, there is standing water in the middle of the desert.

Inches below the surface there is still water and the native Americans knew how to find them. It is said that you should know where to look for and you dig a hole for the water. The Spanish and the Mexicans used to reside around the area too but they would rarely venture into the dune fields. In the 1990’s they dug the dune field to construct wells and entered grasslands. Overgrazing and drought killed the grass bringing that era to an end.

Mammoth Tracks, Lake Otero and Such..

Some 10,000 years ago, the first hunter gatherers arrived in what is today called White Sands National Monument to hunt Mammoth. Although now the likelihood of stumbling across one of these massive mammals is zero, visitors can still spot traces of the area’s prehistoric past in the preserved tracks left behind by the prehistoric herbivores. Some 10,000 years ago , it is said that a big lake named Lake Otero covered this area and life was drawn to its waters. And today, reminder of the lake appears whenever there is a puddle in the desert. Some species like Tadpoles, Larvae etc still exists because they give eggs, the eggs remain dormant for years waiting for the water to reach out.

Lake Lucero and Alkali Flat formed in place of Lake Otero.

Be aware of Missile Droppings, if you spot a debris stay away

The US Army White Sands Missile Range is the largest military installation in the US. From time to time, debris from the missile tests fall into the monument and is buried in the sands. If you spot the debris, stay away and notify the ranger.

At the White Sands Missile Range museum you can trace the origin of America's missile and space activity, Outside the museum is a missile park displaying a variety of missiles and rockets tested at White Sands.

                    Rocket Displays at White Sands Missile Range Museum(Pic from Shutterstock)

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