White Sands: Sun, Sand &…Sledding?

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Just another day at the beach…without the ocean

Sunscreen, check. Umbrella, check. Pail and shovel, double-check. Snow sled?

No, this is no day at the beach. A beach requires water, something that is glaringly lacking inside the borders White Sands National Monument. Other than that minor detail though, your preparations for a visit are basically the same.

Located deep in southern New Mexico, USA, White Sands is a landscape that would seem more at home in the Sahara. Or maybe even Tatooine or Jakku. With undulating ridges of powdery gypsum (yeah, the stuff they make drywall out of) this desert landscape is a bonanza for families and photographers alike.

Getting There

The entrance to White Sands National Monument is a 15-20 minute drive west of the town of Alamogordo, NM, just past Holloman Air Force Base. The visitor center has some informative displays explaining the geology and wildlife of the area. It also contains the obligatory souvenir shop and restrooms – all in a classic southwestern adobe style that compliments the desert environment. From there you make your way down the only road in and out (after paying your entrance fees) then drive for several miles into the dunes which will soon fill your field of vision.

Inside the park, there are a few established trails, but what is most surprising – and appealing – is that you won’t have to walk far off the road to have your own little sandy kingdom to yourself. This is a good thing according to me and everyone else who has ever climbed a dune. At this point you have one of three options open to you: Explore, relax or go for a ride.

 Exploring

As an explorer who was born too late, my first inclination was toward the former. Mesmerized by the dazzling white sand and the ever-changing formation of the dunes, my camera was constantly clicking at the play of light and shadow, depth of field, and the evocative defiance of the scarce vegetation that manages to hang on in this rather unforgiving environment. Who would of thought I’d be inspired by a yucca plant? Like I said, this is no ordinary beach.

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An inspirational yucca plant

 Relaxing

After an hour of traipsing over those loose sands you’re going to want to relax for a bit, whether you intended to or not. Fortunately, finding a vista unspoiled by fellow guests and their inevitable footprints does not require much searching. Listening to the winds gently interrupt the pervasive silence is just as soothing as distant sea gulls, which is good, because there aren’t any gulls around for many hundreds of miles. This is also where that umbrella and sunscreen will really come in handy.

Sledding

The most popular activity in White Sands National Monument (just as an aside, it’s considered a national monument because it was designated so by a president; to be a national park it must be designated as such by Congress) is of all things, sledding. Granted, this is not your usual beachside activity, but since this isn’t really a beach I suppose exceptions can be made.

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Sledding on the sand – White Sands, NM

At the gift shop there are circular plastic sleds for sale – both new and used. If at the end of the day you wish to sell them back, they’ll give you a few dollars for it. Some might call it a rip-off. I just called it “renting”. Regardless, this is an enormous playground where you can range freely and pick whichever dunes are to your liking to slide down. If you come with others (like I did) you can also challenge them to a race (which I did as well). As a native of the Northeast I can say that while it’s not exactly the same as snow-sledding – mainly because there’s no snow – it can be every bit as fun. The main difference is that instead of feeling the chill of the snow when you wipe out at the end of the run, you just wind up with fine grains of gypsum sand finding their way to the most unmentionable of places on your person.

 Sunsets

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Come for the sand. Stay for the sunsets.

While most leave the beach at the setting of the sun, I heartily recommend sticking around for the sunset. Not only do they have free guided sunset walks led by park volunteers (meet at the marked sign alongside the road a half hour before the sun goes down – you can check at the visitors center) but the sands, which were blindingly white just a few hours ago, change in color and hue as the sun’s angle decreases – a literal golden hour for photographers and a great time to perch yourself atop a dune to enjoy the alpenglow of the surrounding mountains and reflect on the beauty that extends in all directions. At that moment you won’t even miss the water.

 Practicalities

If you’re planning a visit here, there are a few things you should know. The first is that you are absolutely going to need sunscreen. Depending on your complexion, you might need lots of sunscreen. Those magnificent white dunes reflect all sorts of sunlight, which means you’ll have to lather up even on areas you don’t normally think to lather – the tops of your hands, the back of your knees, and even other areas if you’re feeling really bold.

Remember what I said about there not being any water inside the park? I’m not kidding. There’s a refill station at the visitors center, but beyond that you are responsible for your own hydration. Don’t underestimate how much you will sweat off while playing in the sand. Evaporation happens quickly in this kind of environment, so bring a sufficient supply of bottled water for your party.

Lastly, I recommend that you bring a spirit of reflection and amazement – along with a good camera. This is a landscape unmatched this side of Arabia, and a great stop in an area filled with regions of natural beauty. The right mindset will have you gushing about the experience – even after you’ve washed the sand from places you never knew you had.


Yeah, there’s nothing quite like a day at the beach for a little sun, sand and sledding. White Sands National Monument has all the dunes a beach bum could ever want. Sure, it lacks is an ocean, but until Arizona and California decide to step aside, a visit here is the next best thing. Now who’s up for a race?

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Elevator Appreciation at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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What goes down, must come up – Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance

They say that you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it. That always seemed a bit of an understatement to me, especially with certain select nouns such as: life, an oxygen supply, or an extra ten pounds. While on a recent trip to New Mexico, U.S.A. I quickly recognized another one – elevator access.

The inspiration behind my epiphany stemmed from a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular destination for visitors to the US Southwest. This subterranean wonderland is an amazing natural gem. The thing is, it’s underground. WAY underground. And those elevators that we all take for granted in our everyday life were undergoing renovation. In practical terms, that meant a hike of over a mile to descend 750 feet below the surface. And what goes down, must come up, so it also meant a 750 foot ascent back to the visitors center. That’s like taking the stairs down a 75 story building and remembering that you left your car keys back at the penthouse. Forget about using a Stairmaster machine – at that point you become the Stair Master.

So while my party was eager to see the sights beneath our feet, our calves and glutes were a bit reluctant. But we didn’t drive all that way just to stare at the big entrance hole (though it was pretty cool), so we resigned ourselves to guaranteed soreness and made our way past the impressive bat-watching amphitheater (they didn’t yet arrive for the season so there were no bats to see) to the large yawning maw dissolving into blackness. Sounds appealing, right?

Going Down

The Natural Entrance trail is a series of switchbacks that were easy enough to navigate while going downhill. The trick is not letting your mind dwell on what it’s going to be like coming back up. And even though you’re going with gravity at this point, you will still get a tremendous lower-body workout, as your trembling knees and heavy breathing will remind you. The good part, is that if the walk doesn’t take your breath away, the scenery most certainly will.

Discreet lighting illuminates surreal formations of all types of stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, draperies and other cave-related formations – all on a huge scale, with chambers taller than your average cathedral. After about an hour of walking (more if you’re stopping like I did to take pictures) you will make it to what is appropriately called “The Big Room”. Even more importantly, you will reach a rest area where you can use the bathrooms, buy some snacks and drinks or even a souvenir t-shirt. You can also look longingly at the silent elevators with the “Closed for Renovation” sign stationed out front.

The Big Room

This series of interconnecting chambers some 4000 feet long and 625 feet wide is thankfully rather flat, winding you on a route past imaginatively-named formations such as ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Hall of the Giants’. I had my fun coming up with names of my own like ‘The Gates of Hell’ and ‘The Uvula’ (Tell me that’s not a great name for a cave formation!). There are small pools of water dotting the area and some great panoramas. The only thing that won’t have you gushing with praise is the prospect of climbing your way back out.

The Ascent

Before you start the long climb up, I recommend three things: 1) Use the bathroom, as both guests and park staff alike frown on unauthorized ‘erosion’ activities 2) Take a rest on the provided chairs and buy a reasonably priced bottle of water and a granola bar. You’re going to need the energy. 3) Resist the temptation to pry the elevator doors open with your bare hands, and take your time going up; preferably slow enough to catch your breath and take in a different angle of the formations you saw before. Eventually, you’ll see daylight again, and as you double over from exhaustion, you will still feel that it was well worth the effort.

Things to Know

All kidding aside, if you have health or mobility problems I strongly recommend that you wait until the elevators are working again. For real-time information, you can and should check the park website before planning your trip.

There aren’t a ton of lodging, eating or shopping options in the immediate area of the park, which has some scenic wilderness surrounding it and is good for some mountain goat watching and lovely turn-offs. The city of Carlsbad is many miles away and while tiny Whites City is literally at the gates, there isn’t much there.

The visitor center is large and modern, with excellent educational displays detailing the park’s history along with theories on how the caves were formed. There’s also an extensive and very reasonably priced gift shop and cafeteria, so feel free to treat yourself to a hoodie and a hot dog upon completing your trek. I’m pretty certain you will have burned off enough calories to indulge.

You should also keep in mind that temperatures in the caves are a steady 56 degrees, so a light jacket or sweatshirt will come in handy until you sweat so much from the hikes up and down you’ll want to take it off. Also, you’re going to be asked if you have worn your same shoes to any other cave systems in the past ten years. Apparently, certain cave systems are home to microbes that are harmful to the bats and whatnot in Carlsbad Caverns, so if you’ve been off spelunking somewhere in the recent past, bring some fresh footwear.

One last note about cell phones and photography. You’ll want to put your cell phone on ‘Airplane’ setting, as you will definitely not be getting any service while in the caverns. Also, it is possible to get some decent photos using your cell phone camera. Whether it’s your phone or a real camera the same basic rule applies – in low light you need to keep the camera very steady, preferably on a tripod so that you don’t wind up with a memory card full of blurry shots. And whenever possible, include people in your photos, as depicting the enormous scale of the formations is difficult without a point of reference.

Summary

Carlsbad Caverns is a world-class site, worthy of its accolades and international recognition. It is worth the trip wherever you’re coming from, with or without elevators. It will take your breath away and help you appreciate the wonders of creation. And if you go before the elevators get fixed, it will also give you the leg workout of a lifetime.

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The persistence of stalactites – Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, USA

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