To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield…when photographers think of White Sands National Monument, “it just don’t get no respect.” If you review the “A-Lists” of must-see locations for landscape photographers in the southwest USA…White Sands doesn’t often make the cut.
Frankly, I think the root of the issue is simply that White Sands is isolated and doesn’t easily work into the routing for a typical “Southwest Icon Tour List.”
A second issue is that White Sands doesn’t comfortably fit into the preconception of what we think of when we dream of the American Southwest. Visions of red rock, hoodoos and carved canyons dance in our heads. White Sands is none of those things. It is difficult to categorize…difficult to comprehend.
For whatever reason, it took years of exploring the Southwest before I made the long, lonely drive to these secluded sands.
First of all, let’s talk about exactly what White Sands is. Covering 300 square miles, it is the world’s largest white gypsum (not sand) dune field. Gypsum dissolves in water, so unless there is a basin where rain is trapped it is impossible for gypsum to be converted into sand. Well, White Sands is located in the huge Tularosa Basin which is enclosed by the surrounding San Andres and Sacramento Mountains near the small town of Alamogordo . After the last Ice Age, a lake that covered the basin evaporated and left the fields of gypsum that became White Sands. The Park is actually part of the White Sands Missile Range (home of the worlds first A-Bomb explosion…the Trinity Site).
Second of all, those facts don’t matter a bit when you visit. What matters is that this place is truly strange…and oddly magical. Put yourself in this mindset: you’ve driven hours across desert in the middle of nowhere to get there. Hour after hour of flat, boring, mundane, reddish brown desert. Small, nondescript towns connected by a seemingly endless line of two-lane blacktop. Finally, you see a sign welcoming you to Alamogordo…and before you know it, you’re passing a sign thanking you for visiting Alamogordo.:) A few minutes later you pull up to a small National Park Service building, pay the guard, get a brochure and continue driving into the desert. But…then…things… start …to… change. As the road twists and curves, the sparse vegetation becomes even more scarce and the sand starts to loose its color. Then the flat landscape begins to shift as the sand forms dune…which become larger and larger as you drive on. By the end of the eight mile road you might think you were on another planet. There is an absence of plants and animals. The sky is blue…the sand is white and other than that, very little color. There is no sound unless the wind stirs.
You stand there, looking around and then you start to notice weird things…like the the sun might be scorching hot but the sand is cool enough to walk on with bare feet (gypsum doesn’t readily convert sunlight into heat). And to make it a scene right out of your favorite sci-fi movie, you might even see rockets arch overhead (from the Missile Range).
This place is just not right…like a slightly warped alternate version of reality. But…it is beautiful. As a photographer, I was mesmerized. The landscape is so stark, so extreme that images can deliver a real punch. I experimented a bit with black and white since it complimented the views well. My son and I parked at the end of Dunes Drive and hiked north to get away from the few other people around and to find dunes that were free of footsteps.
It didn’t take long to get the feeling that we were the only persons alive on this strange alien world. However, there were a few tracks in the sand, so some critters had obviously adapted to life in this extreme climate.
We hiked even further, just enjoying the solitude and incredible vistas. All too soon the sun began to set behind the distant San Andres mountains. The orange hues of the sunset created a wonderful palette against the blues and white. The next few minutes proved to be my most productive as I scrambled to find different compositions.
My favorite shot of the day proved to be my last one. As my son and I were putting on our backpacks for the hike out, I caught this image of Ryan taking a last, longful look at the rising moon.
With this photo, White Sands entered the “Big Leagues” in my book. I will be visiting again!
Photography at White Sands National Monument: Tips and Guide
1) Bring your polarizer…it can really help blue sky ‘pop.’
2) If the wind is blowing, sand will get everywhere. Bring a blower for your equipment and avoid changing lenses
3) There are a few hiking paths, but those areas tend to be covered with footprints. If you want photos of ‘virgin’ sand, you will have to avoid the trails. I’d suggest parking at the furthest parking lot and hiking north click here to see a detailed map of the park. Also, if you want shots with only a solitary yucca plant, you best bet is also a the north end of the park.
4) Bring a GPS if you go off trail. It can take only a few minutes to loose sight of the road and there are few landmarks. I’m dead serious about this. It is not a place to get lost.
5) Morning shots are challenging because the park doesn’t open until 7pm which is after sunrise for much of the year. If you don’t mind camping, there are a limited number of camping sites that you can reserve. Keep in mind that sidewinders live at White Sands, so don’t be out in the dark unawares. They do leave interesting patterns in the sand…if you can find them!
6) Sunsets are not a problem since the park is open for an hour after sunset. Just don’t hike so far out into the dunes that you can’t get back to the park entrance in time.
7) Although shots taken early or late in the day provide wonderful shadows behind the ripples in the sand, photos taken during the middle of the day can also work due to the sheer sharpness of the setting.
8) Obviously this is the desert so if you are there during the summer, dress accordingly and bring lots of water.
9) The further you go into the park, the fewer plants you will see. If you want shots of nothing but desert, you need to go to the end of the road.
10) Get down low. It will emphasize the shadows behind the ripples in the sand.
11) A tripod will be a must if you are going to shoot in low light. Bring a lightweight one if you are going to hike a distance into the desert.
12) Temperatures during the summer can be brutal. It was over 110 on the day I visited (hot even for a Florida boy). It is certainly more comfortable during the winter. On the other hand, the summer monsoons often create wonderful cloud patterns.
13) The park is actually closed regularly because of military rocket tests so before visiting you should check this site for info on Missile Closures.
PS: I love some of the roadside art I see on my travels. This 15 foot tall road runner was in a junkyard along the road heading out of Alamogordo…
Enjoy your travels!
White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide
White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide