White Sands National Monument is the most-visited national park or monument in the state. It has a rare combination of science and beauty that keeps people listening to the tour guides, and staying for the sunsets.
So it was in October when MaryAnn and I went down for the last full moon concert of the season, a performance by Randy Granger of original Native American flute music. While waiting for the concert to begin, we went on an hour-long walk through some of the dune features… what is called the Sunset Stroll. The stories about the dunes had been amazing, but the beauty of the sunset was breathtaking. And then the woodsy flute melodies just carried us away as the full moon rose in the eastern sky. It was, in a word, enchanting.
The white sands are made of gypsum crystals, not the more common silica fragments. Gypsum is actually colorless, taking its color when light strikes the scratches in the surface of the gypsum. The word “sand” refers only to the size of the particles, not the composition of the material. Thus, sand can be made from rocks or even organic matter like coral. One of the properties of sand made of gypsum is that it remains cool to the touch even on a hot, sunny day.
White Sands National Monument sits in the Tularosa Basin, surrounded on the east by the Sacramento Mountains and on the west by the San Andreas Mountains. Rain dissolved the gypsum deposits in the two ranges and it washed down into the basin where, as the basin dried out, it recrystallized into tiny pieces of sand… white sand. The dune field is trapped there by the mountains and the wetness just below the surface from eons of runoff with no place to drain. Ranger Kelly Carroll told me that the dunes rest on what is called a perched aquifer, and that the water —salt water — is usually within two feet of the surface.
The moonlight programs resume in May, but winter is still an excellent time to visit White Sands with daytime highs in the 50’s and 60’s. The Sunset Strolls go on all year and a guided one-mile hike to Lucero Lake and its gypsum crystals, called selenite, is available only in the cooler months. The website www.nps.gov/wsnm gives the details.
Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.