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ADVENTURE 9: Sledding White Sands (Chamizal NMem and White Sands NP)

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

Thursday, 19 May 2022, White Sands NP

NOTE: Day 4 of the Cloudless Tour (though a smoky haze now lingers in the air, due to out-of-control New Mexico wildfires)

Several National Parks have iconic adventures associated with them: think burro rides in the Grand Canyon, or swamp boats in the Everglades. White Sands has their own iconic adventure - sledding down the sand dunes! How could I resist?

White Sands is one of the newest National Parks, receiving its promotion in Dec 2019. I noticed highway signs on the drive up for 'White Sands National Monument', and the park film at the Visitor Center also uses that former title.

However, the entrance fee ($25/vehicle) is definitely National Park level. Thank goodness I'd bought my America the Beautiful Senior Pass as soon I became eligible (age 62), so I get in every park for free.

Of course, I stopped first at the Visitor Center to get my passport stamp, and to buy a sled. The plastic disc costs a bit under $30 (and add a few bucks for the block of wax - I remember waxing from my skiing days), but if available, the shop can sell you a used disc for around $8 less. (I found out later that if I had checked in early at the KOA Kampground where I stayed overnight, they could have loaned me a sled. I'd guess other area lodging may also do that.)

The 'best sledding' (according to the ranger) happens at Alkali Flat, lying at the far end (mile 8.0) of the dead-end park road. This let me explore the terrain before sledding. At mile 2.3 of the road, the Dune Life Nature Trail offers the first chance to get out and experience the dunes. I quickly realized that they used the word 'trail' very loosely. Once I walked the short distance from the parking area and climbed the first dune, I found dunes spreading out in all directions, with little evidence of actual trail markers.

The area does sport several interpretive signs, so I tried to navigate from one to another, but often could not see a 'next sign'.

That didn't seem to bother anyone. Several families cavorted about in the whiteness (though in this area, many plants anchored the dunes). On one slope a family used their sled, not waiting for the end of the road.

As I made my way back to the car, I picked up a handful of sand, letting it slip through my fingers. The softness amazed me, much softer and less granular than beach sand. The ranger would later mention that gypsum is the second softest mineral around - the only thing softer is talc.

Next up on the road was a raised boardwalk into an interdune area.

Several interpretive signs described the native life and the history of the area. Turns out that in the late 19th century, business interests wanted to 'mine' (read 'scoop up with little effort') the gypsum dunes, seeing big profits. Others stepped up to protect the dunes, pushing for 'tourists not tractors'. Eventually the conservationists won, and President Hoover named the dunes a National Monument in January 1933, as his term rolled to a close.

Just past the boardwalk, the pavement ends. I expected a dirt road at this point - but instead got a gypsum road. Suddenly I was surrounded by white!

However, the new surface behaved a lot like dirt roads, presenting washboards on sections that made driving faster than 10 mph nearly impossible. Luckily, less than four miles remained to the far end.

The park has very few regular trails - for the most part, people use pullouts and walk out on whatever dunes they fancy. The only significant trail is the five-mile Alkali Flat loop trail - which the signs say will take three or more hours. The signs warn you to keep looking for the red trail markers so as not to get lost - and if you can't spot the next marker, TURN BACK. Oh, and don't start the hike if the temperature is 85 or above.

All those warnings kept me from trying that. Thus, when I reached the Alkali Flat parking area, I pulled out my sled and my GoPro - time for action videography! After a quick application of wax, and attaching the GoPro to my headstrap, I was off. Climbing up the dune did not come easy, with each footstep unleashing another miniature 'sand-valanche' as a thin veneer of gypsum broke off. I finally reached the top, and moved over to where another couple had established a 'sled run'. Now to the edge of the slope, sit back, grab the sides - not moving yet. Use the feet to move another foot, then another few feet, and finally gravity takes hold. Whee! Only when I checked the footage later did I realize the inherent GoPro problem: You can't hand-hold the camera since you need to grab the sled, but you need to lean back (and film the sky!) to start or stay moving.

I enjoyed several more runs, even though they barely lasted 20 seconds each. At least I got good exercise, trekking back up the dunes. Unfortunately, I couldn't see any towering dune from which to make an extended run, so the thrill soon dissipated.

My mind kept dealing with cognitive dissonance. My eyes told my brain that a snow-covered parking lot and hills of snow surrounded me - it must be winter - see, people are sledding! - but my brain couldn't understand why I was sweating from temps in the upper 80s. If I sat in the car with the A/C cranked up high, I could almost believe my senses.

Time to start the drive back. Before leaving the park, I stopped to collect a few factoids from the park film:

* The park lies within the world's largest gypsum sand dune field in the world (275 square miles), protecting 41% of it.

* The dunes move 12'-15' a year, meaning the park service must constantly keep them from overtaking the road.

* To cope with surviving the land underneath you (the dune) keeps moving, some plant quickly put down a dense root system that then forms a 'cap' on the dune.

* The yucca plant may have much of its build buried in sand, but it can put out a flower stalk several feet high to keep from being buried.

Given that so much of the park looks like it just snowed, I had to ask the ranger: "What does it look like after it actually does snow?"

She shrugged, and said, "It looks even more white."

I spent the rest of the afternoon in my KOA cabin, eating dinner and getting organized.

At 6:30 I ventured the 15 miles back to the park to try sunset photography. Many people had the same idea. I'd asked the ranger if she could recommend a good place to catch the lighting, and she replied, "Just pick any dune that looks promising and start snapping!"

I first stopped at a pullout near the boardwalk and scoped it out. The winds had picked up; you could see the ripples it made in the white sand, and if you looked closely, you could see sand blowing across the land.

I eventually found a promising dune - one that another photographer also chose, and I took a photo of her along with sunset.

As the sun sank lower, it dropped behind the pall of smoke to the west, cutting off the chance for a spectacular sunset.

Even so, the light that did get through did provide fodder for several photos and a video.

--- --- ---

I had started this day in El Paso, driving over to see Chamizal National Memorial. It honors the settlement of a long-running border dispute between the U.S. and Mexico. The story: when the governments between the two countries established the border in the mid-1800s, it ran along the Rio Grande in the El Paso area. But wait, sometimes rivers change course! Eventually a river meander moved to the south, making land owned by a Mexican farmer (called El Chamizal) first an island, then part of the river's north bank. Both countries claimed El Chamizal as part of their land.

Of course, politics and legal mumbo-jumbo played a role. The official standard for whether a river changing course will change a border depends on how fast it changes - gradually or quickly. Neither side could agree on it for nearly a hundred years, until JFK negotiated with the Mexican president. A portion went to the U.S., and the countries formed a concrete channel to keep the naughty river from making more problems in the future.

The land received by the U.S. was set aside as a public park (Chamizal NM), with a cultural center, a museum, and performance spaces to celebrate the Hispanic culture and honor the peaceful resolution of the dispute.

I arrived there at 9:00 and wandered the park grounds, but found out the visitor center and museum did not open until 10:00.

So, a couple of photos later, I took off for White Sands.

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