White Sands, 23 Years Later

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 32.82053°N / 106.27312°W
Additional Information GPX File: Download GPX » View Route on Map
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Feb 15, 2016
Activities Activities: Hiking
Seasons Season: Winter


Back in May of 1993, I had spent 90 minutes in White Sands National Monument. At the time, I had driven the park’s main road and walked on some of the sand dunes near the road. This time, I wanted to spend more time exploring the area. The park advertises five hiking trails. Four of these are short hikes, between a few hundred yards to 1.5 miles long. Only Alkali Flat Trail is of moderate length creating a 4.6 mile long loop hike. Actual “trails” obviously cannot be created over the sand. Park service has posted markers that can be followed along the length of the hikes.

Satellite pictures reveal that sand dunes aggregate on the eastern parts of the White Sands Basin, a plain that sits at an elevation of 4000 ft. and is the floor of a prehistoric lake that dried up long ago. The western parts of the basin are also covered by white sand but are flat. San Andres Mountains sit to the west of the basin creating a continuous line of north-south running peaks that rise to heights of 7 to 8000 ft. Much of White Sands Basin and all of the San Andres Mountains fall in a military base and are off limits to the public. In the southwestern part of the basin there is an area known as Lake Lucero where water aggregates after heavy rainfall. Visits to Lake Lucero are only possible through park ranger guided pre-arranged monthly tours.

I wanted to hike Alkali Flat Trail, a loop that went into the heart of the sand dunes. Because of the nearby military base, I did not know if I would be able to leave trail and go where I wanted. Fortunately it turned out that I was able to do so.

Hike Statistics

Distance Hiked: 8.0 miles (4.6 miles on Alkali Flat Trail plus extras)
Total Ascent : 910 ft. (up and down the dunes)

Some of the mountains seen in this trip repot:
Peaks of the San Andres Range:
San Andres Peak: 8235 ft
Onate Mountain: 7257 ft
Gardner Peak: 7534 ft
Kaylor Mountain: 7242 ft
Salinas Peak: 8965 ft
Black Brushy Mountain: 7521 ft

Other distant mountains:
Sierra Blanca Peak: 11973 ft
Organ Mountains: 9012 ft

Alkali Flat Trail

Monday February 15, 2016
Left Las Cruces at 6:15 a.m. and headed north on Route 70. After San Augustin Pass, the road came down to a beautiful desert plain where San Andres Mountains could be seen to the west and Organ Mountains to the southwest. Organ Mountains had much snow but the San Andres where dry. I could barely see Sierra Blanca Peak to the distant northeast. The sun had just begun to rise making the views even more dramatic. I was happy to be there.

As I continued north, white colored sand dunes that had many bushes on them appeared to the west. I then reached a “Highway Inspection Point”. The guard asked Are you a US citizen? I said Yes, he said Go. I figured as long as I did not answer “Si”, I would be ok to go.

Shortly after the inspection point, I got off of Route 70 and turned west onto White Sands National Monument. White colored sand dunes covered with bushes were now all around me. As I kept going west toward the San Andres Mountains, bushes slowly went away until the sand dunes became totally bare. After 8 miles, at the far end of the loop road, I reached Alkali Flat Trailhead. There were already a number of cars at the trailhead and people were playing on the sand dunes. Fortunately, except for 2 park rangers, I later did not see a single hiker on the trail.

I had wondered what the appropriate foot-ware for the hike would be. I had considered wearing sandals or even going bare foot but it was only around 40 degrees F at that time and the surface of the sand remained cold/cool all day long. I decided to wear my hiking boots with snow gaiters. That worked very well. No sand went into my boots.

Started my hike at 7:30 a.m. The sign at the trailhead said that the trail was a 5 mile long loop (park brochure had said 4.6 miles). Began following the plastic signs posted in the sand. The scenery was just unbelievable. I began to laugh in joy. There were a few growths of grass near the trailhead but these soon disappeared.

Near Trailhead
Near Trailhead

Between the sand dunes, there were small flat basins which I suppose might hold water after heavy rains. The sand on the steep slopes of the dunes was soft but it created a rather hard surface in other places. I was going west/northwest toward the San Andres Mountains.

Organ Mountains, Goat & Black Brushy MountainsOrgan, Goat, Black Brushy Mtns
San Andres, Onate & Gardner PeaksSan Andres, Onate, Gardner Peaks
From the top of a duneFrom the top of a dune
On Alkali Flat Trail
Gardner & Kaylor PeaksGardner & Kaylor Peaks
Alkali Flat Trail

From far away, I saw a bush with a big pile of sand on one side of it. My first reaction was that the pile was man-made but then quickly I realized that the wind must have piled up the sand. I left trail and went to the bush.

Zoomed view of bushZoomed view of the bush
Bush and wind blown pile of sand

I climbed a big dune there.

Near Trail
Gardner PeakGardner Peak

Another bush.

Bush roots stabalizing sand

I subsequently returned to the trail.

Salinas PeakSalinas Mountain
White Sands

I then saw a basin that had 4 “tower formations” rising above its surface. These must have been man-made. I left trail and went to the towers and they sure turned out to be natural formation. I sat there to rest and enjoy the place. There was absolute silence (which of course meant my own annoying tinnitus was loud but it was so beautiful that I did not care).

Natural formation in a flat basin
Natural formations in a flat basin

Returned to the trail and continued west/northwest.

Organ Mountains on the far left
Onate, Gardner & Kaylor MountainsOnate, Gardner & Kaylor Peaks
On Alkali Flat Trail
Salinas MountainSalinas Mountain

This view blew me away.

San Andres PeakSan Andres Peak

The sand dunes suddenly ended and I reached a flat plain covered with white sand. A sign indicated that the trail turned east there and began to go back toward trailhead. It was 9:30. I did not want to go back so soon. The flat plain seemed to go another 10 miles or so west to reach the San Andres Mountains. To the distant northwest, I could see a few buildings and a steel tower that were probably part of the military base. I did not see any signs warning me to not go beyond that point so I decided to walk on the flat plain toward the mountains for some time. The sand actually turned out to be moist making me sink just a tiny bit with each step. I was following what looked like one set of old faded tire tracks. At first there was no vegetation but soon small scattered bushes appeared. After 1.2 miles, I decided to sit next to a bush and have my lunch. I tried to dig a hole to see if water accumulated in it but the sand became very hard and I could only dig a few inches.

San Andres, Onate & Gardner Peaks
Zoomed view of Sierra Blanca PeakZoomed view of Sierra Blanca Peak

Looking back at sand dunesLooking back at sand dunes

Left at 10:25 and retraced my way over the flat back to the trail. I saw two park rangers driving a golf cart type of a vehicle. They stopped at every plastic marker on the trail to check its condition. I spoke to them a little and then waited until they were gone. I was back on the sand dunes again following the markers on the return leg of the loop. The trail kept going up the easy gentle west face of the dunes to their summits and then abruptly fell down their steep east face. Sliding down the steep sandy slopes was much fun. It had now become windy but there was no sand in the air. I was actually pleasantly surprised to find out that no sand went into my backpack, camera etc.

Salinas MountainSalinas Mountain
Onate & Gardner Peaks
Alkali Flat Trail
Alkali Flat Trail

I could see the tire tracks of the ranger’s vehicle. They obviously could not drive down the steep side of the dunes and had to detour around them. These tire tracks reminded me of Tintin comic books that I used to read in my childhood in early 1970s, specifically the book “Land of Black Gold” where Thompson Twins were lost in the desert and kept driving their Jeep up and down sand dunes.

Tire tracks of the park ranger s vehicleTire tracks

Lone bush and Sierra Blanca Peak.

Sierra Blanca Peak & lone bushSierra Blanca Peak

As I neared the trailhead, I started seeing people on the dunes at the trailhead. Reached my car at 12:00 noon. There were many people in the park. The drive back to Las Cruces was very beautiful.

Alkali Flat Trail


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