White Sands National Monument is spectacular. It lies at the
bottom of a valley with no outlet. All drainage ends up in a
small lake, and when the lake dries, gypsum crystals blow off it and
form enormous white dunes. The gypsum sand is fine and soft; it
can pack fairly firmly, so it's easier to walk in than beach sand,
except near the leading edges of dunes where the sand is still loose.
There aren't many formal trails in the national monument The two
nature trails through the dunes (one a boardwalk, for wheelchair
access) are well worth exploring, and the handouts and signs are
interesting. At the north end of the road, there's a longer
trail, the Alkalai Flat Trail. We only did about 1/3 of the
trail, out to the first view of the alkalai flat, but it was well worth
it. For one thing, the dunes, ripples, playas, and plant pillars
are spectactular. But even aside from the scenery, it's an eerie
experience walking in such an expanse of white. I experienced
partial snow-blindness, and wished I'd brought much darker
sunglasses. Once we turned around and headed back, it got more
difficult: a cloud covered the sun, all the shadows went away, and
suddenly we were in a featureless white room, like something out of a
1970's science fiction movie. It was difficult to see
topographical features at all, like whether we were about to step off
the edge of a dune. (This isn't as dangerous as it sounds; the
dune edges look steep from a distance but aren't really, and sliding
down the face of a dune is fun and harmless.) A few of the
pictures might begin to convey the feeling, but it's much more
impressive being there. If you get a chance, go!
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