New Mexico offers some truly otherworldly experiences; it’s no wonder UFO and alien theories abound in the area (we thought about visiting Roswell to learn about UFOs, but ultimately decided not to take the time). I previously told you about touring Carlsbad Caverns, which makes me feel like I am in a sci-fi castle, now we go to Mars Whitesands National Monument. I do not make the comparison of the monument to Mars lightly; researchers actually use this unusual landscape to understand how sand dunes at Mars’ north pole, Olympia Undae, migrate because they are so similar.

The top of a white sand dune.

The top of a white sand dune.

Imagine a picnic area on Mars; does it look something like this?

Imagine a picnic area on Mars; does it look something like this?

Our van as spaceship.

Our van as spaceship.

That’s me, running around whitesand dunes.

That’s me, running around whitesand dunes.

Tularosa Basin, a geographical feature in New Mexico, is a valley surrounded by mountains at the northern end of the Chihuahuan desert. Pure white hills rise from the heart of this basin, 275 square miles of white sand dunes. You must be wondering what material could possible form white sand dunes. This phenomenon can only exist in a desert; the sand is made of gypsum, a water soluble mineral. You may be familiar with it as the main component of plaster. But in the dry and windy desert, this material can form sand dunes!

Sacramento mountains in the distance behind the dune field.

Sacramento mountains in the distance behind the dune field.

That’s me in the distance along this dune. Every time we stopped I couldn’t help but play with the sand.

That’s me in the distance along this dune. Every time we stopped I couldn’t help but play with the sand. 

Close-up of me running the sand through my hands.

Close-up of me running the sand through my hands. 

Whitesands National Monument sits in the middle of a missile range, and hours of the park and access highway are subject to missile tests. The first atomic bomb test was detonated just north of the monument.

Rains falling on the surrounding mountains, the Sacramento range to the east and San Andres to the west, dissolve gypsum out of the stone and carry it into the Tularosa Basin. Once in the basin, the waters collect in lake and cease flowing – there is no drainage out of the basin towards the ocean. This lack of drainage is what makes this place so special. Everywhere else that rain dissolves gypsum out of stone, it is eventually carried away out to the ocean, but here it has no where to go. The waters collect in Lake Lucero during the monsoon season, then evaporate leaving behind giant gypsum crystals. The crystals are soft and easily flake off with a little weathering. Strong winds push them along, rolling and breaking into smaller and smaller fragments, from large crystals along the lake shore, to crystalline flakes that cover the alkali flats adjacent to the lake, to sand that forms the dunes of Whitesands National Monument, and finally to dust that blows up and out of the basin.

White sand dunes. Note the few plants and brown crust in the interdunal area.

White sand dunes. Note the few plants and brown crust in the interdunal area. 

A trail leads to the edge of Alkali Flat, where it all begins. (By all, I mean dunes).

A trail leads to the edge of Alkali Flat, where it all begins. (By all, I mean the dunes).

John fighting gravity to run up the steep leeward side of the hill.

John fighting gravity to run up the steep leeward side of the dune.

The few animals that inhabit the white sands have adapted to the white environment by turning white themselves. These include a couple species of lizard; a pocket mouse, several insects, and the top of the local food chain, the kit fox. Plants also have interesting adaptations to live in the ever shifting dune-field. The soaptree yucca elongates its stem to keep the leaves above a growing dune; this yucca meets its demise when the dune advances past it because the stem cannot support the plant without the surrounding sand; it falls over and breaks. The sumac bush forms a dense network of roots through the dune to tap into the ground water below. The roots are moist with the water they carry, which moistens the gypsum to form a plaster pedestal. Surprisingly, one species of tree even lives within these dunes; the cottonwood tree can survive being buried by gypsum as long as it keeps some branches and leaves above the surface to reach the sunlight and air. All these plants depend on the cyanobacteria to supply nitrogen. This bacteria forms the brown crust in the interdunal areas; when people break it by walking over it, it takes five years to reform.

Local wildlife is secretive and rarely visible, but the sand does not hide their tracks. I am following a set of fox prints to see where they go.

Local wildlife is secretive and rarely visible, but the sand does not hide their tracks. I am following a set of fox prints to see where they go.

Sumac bush creates a supportive pedestal using moisture from its roots to cement the sand beneath it while the rest of the dune migrates away.

Sumac bush creates a supportive pedestal using moisture from its roots to cement the sand beneath it while the rest of the dune migrates away.

A cottonwood tree; the trunk is buried in the dune. The vine-looking pieces in front of it are roots sent up for oxygen, much like cypress knees.

A cottonwood tree; the trunk is buried in the dune. The vine-looking pieces in front of it are roots sent up for oxygen, much like cypress knees.

 Tour guide talking about the soap tree yucca he stands next to. This park volunteer led the sunset tour we attended.

Tour guide talking about the soap tree yucca he stands next to. This park volunteer led the sunset tour we attended. 

At the edges of the dune fields more desert animals can be found, such as coyotes and jackrabbits. More plants grow on the edges to provide cover, and the animals can retreat away from the white sands for water. The interpretive nature trail in the park is at the edge of the dune field, and climbing up on the last dune offered amazing sunset views.

Pink sunset light reflecting off the Sacramento Mountains to the east.

Pink sunset light reflecting off the Sacramento Mountains to the east.

Backlit San Andres Mountains. The backlighting effect of the setting sun made these mountains appear as paper cutouts, like you might make in a dioramaa.

Backlit San Andres Mountains. The backlighting effect of the setting sun made these mountains appear as paper cutouts, like you might make in a dioramaa.

Approach to the nature trail. Can you spot the van down in the parking area?

Approach to the nature trail. Can you spot the van down in the parking area?

In many ways walking through gypsum dunes feels like walking through snow-coated hills. The color of the landscape, of course, but there are other similarities. The road is plowed and gypsum piles up on either side like plowed snow. You can play in the sands just like in snow! The gift shop sells plastic disk sleds, which we took advantage of. Sledding on sand is different than sledding on snow…much slower, so the trick is to find a slope that looks way to steep to possibly attempt, and then go for it! We had a wonderful time playing on sand dunes like school children on a snow day.

The plowed area called a “road”.

The plowed area called a “road”.

Us sledding down a hill.

Us sledding down a hill.

It’s fun to slide bare feet down through the dune  on the steep leeward side. A little cold on the fee, though.

It’s fun to slide bare feet down through the dune on the steep leeward side. A little cold on the feet, though.

I made a sand angel!

I made a sand angel!

Superwoman.

Superwoman.

Goodbye, Whitesands National Monument.

Goodbye, Whitesands National Monument.

8 Thoughts on “A Walk on Mars

  1. Truly fabulous. Never seen anything like it. Not even close. And lucky us, you had clouds in the sky to make the pictures even prettier. Well worthy of a Superwoman shot, which has been lacking of late.

  2. These photos are amazing! You guys are such an inspiration!

  3. Wow! Truly spectacular photos of this alien landscape. I love how low the clouds appear to be in some of them! Sand sledding must have been really fun too!

  4. Ditto all of the above comments. What a place! I am wondering if you got to camp near the dunes and noticed how much lighter it is a night with white to reflect even small amounts of light.

    • No…sadly we did not have the opportunity to camp near the sands. The park only allows backcountry camping and we were there during a cold snap so did not take advantage of that opportunity. On the drive over the Sacramento Mountains when we were treated to those amazing sunset views, we did catch a sight that looked like their was an ocean separating us from the mountain range to the west. The way the white sands reflected the late afternoon sun made it appear as water!

  5. I had to look at all these again. Just for dreamy purposes. On the “Backlit San Andreas …” photo I caught some of that extra light reflection due to the white sands. It reminded me of sunset during the winter and how much lighter it seems near the ground than it does during the summer. My favorite photo is the last.

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