As we came down from the mountains on our way to White Sands, we found ourselves in a large, flat valley that turned out to have its own place in history -- it's the alternate landing site for Space Shuttle, and, more somberly, the place where the Atomic Age began on July 16, 1945. Now called White Sands Missile Range, 63 years ago it was Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated.
As we crossed the valley, the sand dunes began abruptly. Little dunes did not change into big dunes, and sand did not gradually build as we travelled -- the dunes weren't there, and then suddenly they were (you can see their edge in the photo above). They cover an amazing 275 acres, but easy public access is limited to an 8 mile drive, part paved and part packed sand. The rest is open to those willing to hike or backpack in beautiful, but brutal conditions. A compass, water, sunscreen, good shoes, and a fair amount of outdoor skills are needed -- getting lost and disoriented is amazingly easy. We stopped at the trailhead of a 1-mile hike, and I walked far enough to be out of sight of the car. The "trail" disappeared, replaced by rolling dunes that all looked alike. There was nothing but sand, heat, cacti, and silence. The sun was high in the sky, and directions became meaningless. Other than a few other human visitors, the only living thing I saw was an ant. Other things -- insects, lizards, small mammals -- do live there, but they don't come out during the heat of the day.
The sand is very, very white and soft. It is actually gypsum, carried into the Tularosa Basin by rain and snow that starts high up in the mountains. The Tularosa Basin has no outlet, but evaporation removes the water and leaves the gypsum. Eventually it weathers into sand particles that are light enough to be moved by the wind. The dunes are constantly in motion, ever changing and moving approximately 6 inches a year.
The sand reminded me of the snow I saw so much of in Michigan. Just like snow, the road is plowed, and the sand pushed up on the shoulders where it forms long vertical walls. Sand drifts accumulate on fences and start encroaching plowed areas. Roads that are not paved are solid white, and it becomes difficult to tell where the road ends and the dunes begin. The sand is so white and bright that your eyes will begin to hurt if you are not wearing sunglasses. The dunes also bring entertainment -- kids ride large, brightly colored plastic saucers down the dunes, then haul them back to the top to ride down again just like they do after a deep snowfall.
It is a lovely, place to visit but I wouldn't want to live here.