After our disappointment in Artesia and a trip down the Big Scary Mountain we were finally on our way to White Sands National Monument. Come along with us as we continue our journey though this mysterious landscape.
When I looked out across the vast expanse of desert, dunes, and sand in New Mexico it was hard to imagine that this was once a green fertile place filled with lush vegetation and grasslands and that it was once home to many species of ice-age mammals such as the Columbian mammoth, Harlan’s ground sloth and even the American lion. So when trying to decide what I should share with you about this segment of our journey it was difficult to narrow it down to just one of the many ancient wonders and hidden secrets of the Tularosa basin and White Sands National Monument.
Many of you are already aware of the existence of these beautiful and ever changing white gypsum dunes, how they were created by the extinction of a vast body of water called Lake Otero, and how this 275 square miles surrounded by mountains is the worlds largest gypsum desert and actually an island. Anyone who has visited the park has heard how the gypsum we see now once laid at the bottom of an ocean over 250 million years ago in the form of calcium and sulfur. And many of you also know that the cycle of climate change that brought an end to the last ice-age eventually left us with these brilliant white sands that remain cool to the touch during the hottest of summers. But how many of you know about the people and animals that once called this place their home?
Maybe it is only me, but when I think of White Sands NM my imagination congers pictures like those above. I imagine that since it sits at the northern end of the Chihuahuan desert it should be a relatively lifeless and desolate place where the vegetation is sparse and the animal kingdom under represented. However, my imaginings are far from reality. The Tularosa Basin is filled with a diverse ecosystem and over 800 species of animals have adapted to call this place their home.
From the desert scrub
through tall grasses
and the border between those and the dunes
mammals large and small have etched out their place and found a way to call this place home.
In my defense it’s not hard to understand why I’d so easily overlook all this desert activity, because most desert animals are primarily nocturnal preferring to wait out the sun in a burrow or under vegetation until the cooler hours from dusk to dawn. This leaves your chances of spotting that badger, or coyote, or porcupine better than winning the lottery, but less likely than getting sand in your shoes. So what we have to look for are the things they leave behind… their footprints.
It’s the footprints that tell the tale of their behavior in the dark. And it’s also footprints that tale the tale of ages past.
Found among the now dry lakebeds from a wetter era of time (over 10,000 years ago) are the fossilized footprints of mammoth and camels, but also those of the Paleo-Indians. It’s from these footprints that paleontologist are beginning to piece together the story of this ever-changing environment. New insights are being gained about how humans interacted with and hunted the animals of the ice age and with careful study we are also learning how both adapted or became extinct during the process of climate change. Given that our planet is in a constant state of flux, this research has become more important that ever and the preservation of these trackways imperative. Learning this information and understanding it’s importance has given me new insight and appreciation for the roll the National Park Systems plays in the overall betterment of our society beyond the pure adventure of discovering the beautiful sights to behold at all of our National Parks.
There is much more that we’d like to take in at White Sands. There is the Trinity test site open only 2 days a year, the tour out to Lake Lucero, and curiosity about what they will discover next – all giving us the excuse to return again.
So after spending some time driving the dunes, stopping at a few trails, and taking a short walk out into the white sands, we called it a day and headed for Del Taco. Why Del Taco you ask? Because it was one of Mr. McGee’s childhood favorites.
While at Del Taco we saw a most peculiar sight we thought we might pass along to our readers: It seems we weren’t the only out of state visitors craving the flavor of corn tortillas, spicy ground beef and rich, creamy sour cream.
While we sat in the parking lot eating our meal and people watching (as we often do) we saw license plates from all over the country including fellow Floridians and the great state of Alaska. Who knew Del Tacos were so popular that people would come from the furthest state south and the furthest state north to converge in New Mexico in search of Tacos! Well we did of course! Don’t you just love it when life hands you one of these quirky little stories!
It had been a long day since we left our blm campsite outside of Carlsbad, stopped at Sitting Bull Falls, tried to find a fallout shelter, possibly got filmed in the bathroom at a local convenience store and traversed the shifting sand dunes at White Sands National Monument. It was time to find a place to rest for the night and what better place to cap off a day so full of adventure as was a place where we could hear the coyotes and sleep beneath the stars among some 21,000 plus drawing etched in stone. More on that next week. Until then….
****A quick note for those who don’t know White Sands has since been re-designated as the 62nd national park as of December 2019.
White Sands National Park 19955 Highway 70 West Alamogordo, NM 88310 (575) 479-6124 Website
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