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Photographing the Southwest--White Sands

White Sands National Monument has been on my bucket list for some time for two reasons. One, it is a unique photo op for landscape photographers with its barren landscapes and unique fauna and flora. Second, I grew up during the fifties when U.S. rocketry was being developed at White Sands Missile Testing Range by such legends as Wernher von Braun and was constantly in the news. Naturally, when I planned our winter road trip to the Southwest, White Sands was on the list. After a few days exploring Tucson, AZ we headed east on Interstate 10 to Las Cruces, NM and then northeast on U.S. Highway 70 toward Alamogordo, NM. Driving through the Chihuahuan Desert we eventually passed by the U.S. Army Base that operates the White Sands Missile Test Range and further on passed the entrances to White Sands National Monument and Holloman Air Force Base before entering Alamogordo itself. Alamogordo, is about 15 miles north of the entrance to the monument. The monument itself is adjacent to the missile range is a portion of the largest gypsum desert in the world at 275 square miles. A desert within a desert, White Sands is surrounded by the much larger Chihuahuan Desert that extends north from Mexico. The Chihuahuan Desert differs from its neighbor the Arizona Sonoran Desert by receiving rainfall only once a year. It does not receive the summer monsoons of the Arizona Sonoran Desert and therefore it’s vegetation is much more limited. Even more limited is the ecosystem of White Sands as there are a limited number of plants and animals that can survive in the nutrient poor gypsum soil, the dry conditions and the summer heat. Yet, nature always finds a way whether it be the cyanobacteria that survive in the crust of this desert or the gypsophilic plants that prefer the gypsum sand. Animal life also has adapted to this environment like the Malpais pocket mouse whose kidney function allows it to go without water for months at a time or the Bleached earless lizard whose white color provides camouflage in the white sands.

Photographing in the national monument is challenging. The light becomes quite harsh within an hour or two of sunrise and the monument does not open until 7:00 a.m. which is after sunrise even in winter. However, the monument staff has provided a permit system that allows photographers to enter prior to sunrise or stay after sunset.

Unfortunately, the National Park Service does not make this process easy.  The permit must be applied for 14 business days in advance and there is a fee involved.  The fee must be paid by a money order or cashier’s check, no credit cards allowed. See the above link for further details.

The other challenge is the monochromatic nature of the desert—the white sands—interrupted only by a few plants that may or may not be visually appealing. However, the careful observer begins to notice patterns in the sand and patterns formed by the sand and plant life that do have visual appeal.

White Sands Yucca
White Sands DunesAlamogordo, New Mexico
White Sands PatternsWhite Sands National Monument, Alamogordo, New Mexico
Frustrating the photographer’s goals are the many footprints around all of the areas that are readily accessible by vehicle.
The solution involves hiking one of the four marked trails. If hiking, be prepared with an adequate supply of water, sunscreen and hiking boots.  Stick to the marked trails unless you’re experienced or knowledgeable in backcountry navigation. There are few landmarks to guide you amidst the dunes. Be aware that the sand is very fine and the size and consistency of powdered sugar, so protect your gear and clean it meticulously after shooting in White Sands as it has the potential of getting in your lenses as well as your tripod and creating havoc.
Despite these challenges, White Sands is an intriguing area to explore with beautiful patterns in the sands and unique landscapes, plants and wildlife to explore.    During the flat light part of the day take the time to explore the museum at the White Sands Missile Range, both the indoor and outdoor exhibits.
Great fun for those interested in space exploration is a visit to the New Mexico Museum of Space History high on the hills above Alamogordo.  Aside from the hall of fame, there are many pieces of space history plus some interactive ones and a Gene Rodenberry exhibit for Star Trek fans.
If You Go: White Sands National Monument is located 52 miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico and 16 miles south of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Alamogordo is a smallish town with a population of 31,368, but with quite a few amenities probably because of nearby Holloman Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range south of town plus the University of New Mexico campus there. In addition to the local motels, there is a very nice state park, Oliver Lee State Park, located about 15 miles east of town with accommodations for tents, travel trailers and motorhomes.