Sunday, June 01, 2014

US Hwy 70: White Sands National Monument

A few miles southwest of Alamogordo, NM, lies a unique geological formation called White Sands National Monument.

Sand is a naturally occurring granular material composed of finely divided rock and mineral particles. The most common sand is silica, the yellowish stuff found everywhere. The second most common type of sand is calcium carbonate, the whiter/finer stuff you enjoy on tropical beaches courtesy of coral and shellfish which have been ground up by waves.

A much rarer kind of sand is the gypsum type found in White Sands. It is formed by the process of rain leaching gypsum out of the surrounding mountains and being deposited in the basin. When the water drains off or evaporates, soft gypsum crystals are exposed to wind which breaks them off in granules and successively grinds them into finer and finer pure white particles.

Although gypsum sand exists in various places, White Sands is unique due to the sheer size of the formation. Covering 275 square miles of desert, it is by far the largest gypsum sand formation in the world. It's a strange place to drive into, simultaneously beautiful, impressive, puzzling and daunting.

Another unique aspect of White Sands is just how quickly it formed. Geologists have calculated that it formed in as little as 1,000 years -- the blink of an eye in geological time -- some 7,000 years ago, during an extreme wet (leach) then drought (crystalize) period.

Behind an informative visitor's center at the entrance, a paved approach road leads to the dunes.

The dunes are a highly dynamic, constantly being pushed about by the winds. Because they move as much as 30 feet in a year, maintaining a permanent road is impossible. So, the pavement soon ends and the roadway becomes an ever shifting "hard pack" courtesy of the Park Service road crew.

The loop road immerses you in a world of white, with just a little hardy greenery. There's a surprising amount of life in this desert wasteland. It's a biologists dream, as many species have evolved -- again, extremely rapidly in normal terms -- to adapt to the environment.

Various lizards have become almost entirely white to compensate for the sun and heat. Plants put down very deep roots to reach water, then grow ever higher as they are submerged in the shifting sands. Birds and insects have adapted to fierce predator/prey dynamics.

For the hardy hiker there are various trails, and primitive camping is permitted in restricted areas. Guided walks are offered at various times, with sunset being a very popular attraction. I was here 30+ years ago and did all that as a much younger man. So, I limited my visit this time to a leisurely drive in my air conditioned truck, with occasional forays into the 100+ degree heat for photo ops.

Happy slept in her backseat lair almost the whole time, but got pretty excited once when she looked out the window and saw what I'm guessing she thought was snow. I'll post a little treat about her White Sands expedition soon... Stay tuned!

Click here to see exactly where I am posting this from on Google Maps.

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