Monday, January 28, 2008

White Sands National Monument (New Mexico)

We awoke to stormy skies and wind this morning. Our plan had been to leave for White Sands by 11:00 and try to get some of the afternoon light while we visited the monument. By then, it had begun to clear, but the wind dogged us the entire day. However, that is the nature of the beast whenever dunes are near, and so we just went with it. It was difficult to take pictures, however, because the sand was extremely fine, and we worried about it seeping into the workings of our cameras. We limited the cameras' exposure and didn't take many shots. Still, I do have a web album for you, and the link is at the bottom of this entry.

This was a very interesting landscape. The sand was white as snow, as promised in the name. To get there, we drove north across the White Sands Missile Range. The park was established in 1933 in order to protect the dunes themselves. Otherwise, this is a place where the military fires off missiles and it sometimes means that the park is closed for a few hours at a time. It is possible to check this schedule, however, and apparently no firings were planned for today. Mike kept whining about wanting to see a missile, and I told him it probably was best if we didn't see one.

Most of the world's sand is made from quartz, which is a hard silicon mineral. The dunes of the White Sands are unique because they form the world's largest gypsum dune field. Brief, but heavy, summer rains dissolve calcium and sulfur from the surrounding mountains. The area receives moisture from rains and also from snowmelt. Ordinarily, rivers would carry this material to the sea, but there are no rivers in this area. Moisture collects in shallow depressions (playas) and then either soaks into the ground or evaporates. As the water evaporates, the mineral concentration is higher and eventually dries up to form gypsum (calcium sulfate).

There is a lake in the area (Lake Lucero) which can only be seen on a once-monthly ranger-led tour (because it takes you out onto the missile range). Along the shores of this lake and also on the alkali flats (four-mile hike) west of the dunes, beds of large crystals up to four-feet long cover the ground. These crystals are eventually eroded into a fine gypsum powder. Strong winds (like the ones we witnessed today) blow sugar-fine grains of gypsum northeasterly across the basin. These grains rub against one another turning them white. Winds of over 50 miles per hour are common in the spring. Mike estimated the winds today to be 10-15 miles per hour with gusts up to 30 miles per hour.

Despite the wind, we still took a short hike (one mile) on the Dune Life Nature Trail. It was very windy but still warm, making it easily tolerable. The trail was marked with huge creosote-type logs, but we imagine a ranger must check the trail fairly frequently to make sure the trail markers are still visible. Although we made big footprints, they were covered over by blowing sand in less than 30 seconds.

We were able to see the many species of plants that grow in this area and that have been able to evolve to tolerate the highly alkaline soil. Two species are the Rio Grande Cottonwood trees and also the Soap Tree Yucca (the New Mexico state flower). We were told that these plants survive the ever advancing dunes by keeping at least some of their foliage above the sand. I have included pictures of these yucca, and even though these appear to be 2-foot plants, they are actually potentially 32-foot plants that have managed to grow fast enough to stay above the sand. Same goes for the Cottonwood trees. Of course, the trees have lost their leaves for the winter, but in the fall, they provide some color as their leaves turn orange.

Also, we came to some areas of the sand that appeared to be littered with pebbles of varying sizes. These were actually fragments of fossilized roots--the remains of roots and stems that were once encased in gypsum sand pedestals. (Some of the grass-type plants are able to maintain their hold on the ever-drifing sand, and so pedestals form in the sand.) Some of these fossils were merely filled gaps in the wood structure while in others, the wood fibers were still intact and encased in the gypsum. Very cool. I did pick up one of the larger ones we saw. It had some darker areas on the bottom. We were touching them and trying to figure out what they were, when we dislodged a spider that was apparently using it for his home. We put it back where we found it and let the spider get on with this life. We also came across some Hoary Rosemarymint that had a sweet mint-type scent and some Rubber Rabbitbrush that derives its name from its sap, which contains latex. It was very rubbery and flexible, but the latex sap lacks sufficient quantity to make the plant commercially viable. (Smart plant.)

We enjoyed our trip to the dunes today, and it was a unique experience from other parks/monuments we've seen. Oh yes, I didn't get any pictures of the Rio Grande Cottonwoods, but they are the largest plants found within the dune field. They attract a variety of wildlife because of their size and they are very gnarly in appearance. The pictures aren't anything special, but hopefully, you can get an idea what we saw. Here is the link. Enjoy:

We will be moving on to Guadalupe Mountains National Park tomorrow, weather permitting. This park is at a rather high elevation, and so we can only visit if there is no snow. It is a rather remote park on the way to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where we plan to visit Carlsbad Caverns NP. Guadalupe Mountains NP is actually in Texas, and the road to Carlsbad takes us through El Paso and the tippy-top of state of Texas. We plan to stay in the park, and so it is probable that we will be out of internet and cell range. If you don't hear from us for a couple of days, that will be why.