Day #6 of the West Trip: White Sands National Monument is a stark, eerie wonderland.

We got up at 6:00 a.m. for White Sands and were on the road just as the sky was turning a slate gray. We absolutely loved staying in Paisano Village, so leaving that wonderful place behind was hard for both of us, especially after the wind storm cost us our last day in Big Bend. We discussed staying an extra day, but we both agreed that this is not our last road trip, and if we start staying extra days in places here and there, that means taking away some of our stops, which neither of us want to do.

The drive north into New Mexico was breathtaking. Texas said goodbye with one of the most amazing sunrises I have ever witnessed. The roads leading out of Texas were extremely curvy, which is a bit nerve-wracking in an RV, but seeing the mountains bloom around us made all of the twisting and turning worth all of it. Amusingly, we did have to go through border patrol about half an hour into our drive, and we approached the checkpoint with some apprehension. Were they going to want to look through the RV? How long would this take? We approached, and the guy in the dark green suit and dark sunglasses smiled at us, asked two quick questions, and sent us on our way. I guess we weren’t acting squirrely enough to warrant more investigation.

Big Bend Sunrise
A beautiful goodbye from Big Bend National Park!

The thing that sent my blood pressure through the roof came a bit later: the tiny towns we had to drive through. Oh, goodness. Narrow roads and curves I can handle, but the low-hanging powerlines and low bridges left me muttering “Getmeouttaheregetmeouttaheregetmeouttahere” under my breath like a religious chant. We have an amazing RV-specific GPS that accounts for the height, weight, length, and width of our RV when selecting our route, but I don’t trust it to know everything. When we went under the lowest bridge, I held my breath until we came out the other side. So far, our GPS has been amazing, and I hope it stays that way!

We crossed into New Mexico at noon. Up until this point in our trip, we had stopped at visitor centers and taken pictures at the “Welcome to …” signs. New Mexico was a little different …

After five minutes of not seeing the visitor center, we gave each other confused glances. The visitor center is usually no more than five minutes beyond the state line. The sign that did eventually greet us, though, read “Do not pick up hitchhikers. Prison in area.” The one after that read something along the lines of “Military area next 20 miles. Explosions may occur.” We immediately gave up looking for a visitor center, made sure the doors were locked, and drove just a smidge faster.

Amusingly, we had taken a route that hugged the U.S.-Mexico border and went through El Paso. When we reached Alamogordo, we were shocked and amused to discover that we had to go through Border Patrol again! We approached the guard, who was also in dark green with dark sunglasses, grinning, and he definitely didn’t find us squirrely, since we spent less time at the second Border Patrol than the first!

We got to White Sands just before 2:00 p.m. One of the first things that stood out to us was the “White Sands Missile Range” just before it, and when we stopped to give the park ranger our “America the Beautiful” Pass, which is another thing that is worth its weight in gold, he gave us a map of the park. Come to find out, it’s shared with the military, with some areas off limits to visitors. It also did not escape me that the park is sometimes closed due to “missile range tests,” which left me glancing at the sky nervously. The guard never said anything, so we went into the park and decided not to worry about it.

There’s something that immediately happens when you encounter the white sand dunes just beyond the entrance.

Your retinas begin screaming.

Holy moly, this place is appropriately named! This place isn’t off-white by any means; it is a pristine, pure, stark, and white. With the afternoon sun beating down, it essentially glows. I would not be shocked if the astronauts in the space station have to put on sunglasses to look down on this place.

We stopped at the first place we could. I’m not a hat person, but after getting fried in Big Bend yesterday, I took one look at the sand dunes and went straight for the sunscreen and a hat. We stopped right by a sign that recommended a gallon of water, too. Not a water bottle, not a couple of water bottles, but a whole gallon of water. I glanced at the fluffy white mounds of sand, which look a lot like some of the beaches in Florida, minus the ocean, and raised an eyebrow. It was in the low 50s, too, so I wasn’t too concerned. I heard other tourists laugh at the sign, too.

After we climbed up the dunes, I could kind of understand the rule, particularly if you planned on hiking out. We stepped out into the blinding sea of white with our photography gear, and the lack of plant life allows the sun to beat down on you, making it feel at least ten degrees warmer than it is. I was suddenly grateful that we had decided to travel in the winter. I can’t imagine how hot White Sands must feel in the summer!

Ghost tree
Our favorite little “ghost tree” in White Sands!

The area we stopped in had more plant life than, say, the back of the park (which we found our later), and since it was winter, everything appeared dead. It gave that area a very eerie vibe, and we immediately went to take some pictures of the scenery. My partner takes a little longer because of her professional gear, and after I was happy with my investigation of that area, I did what is becoming my usual routine and went to find some nice views … and animal prints. I’m very aware of the fact that we are outside the city, and I like to know what may be watching us. In today’s case, it was a few birds, a mouse, a lizard, and a beetle. I think I found fox prints later, but it could have also been someone’s dog. White Sands is surprisingly alive, and the sand allows you to see the perfect footprints that the animals leave!

White Sands with plants
The beginning of White Sands has a surprising amount of life!

We didn’t come to White Sands for desert plants, though. What we really wanted to find was the iconic white dunes, devoid of anything but sand and with beautiful, white ripples that have been created by the wind. We started to head back, and I discovered my first instance where I began to understand all the signs in the park. I was walking toward the parking lot, and I heard my partner call out, “Where are you going? The RV is this way!” I turned around to see her going in the opposite direction. I felt my hair stand on end a little bit when that happened. I told her I just wanted to see what was over the ridge, and behold, twenty feet farther was the RV. So, I see White Sands’s point. It is easy to get turned around out there!

We drove to the halfway point in the park, and that’s when I noticed on the map “Pavement Ends.” We’re in a RV. We like pavement. There was a boardwalk area right before that, so we stopped and decided to look for our dunes there. It worked out, because we got to see all of the other RVs that went by and didn’t meet a horrific end. We ended up walking far enough that we found where the pavement ends, only to realize that it was a very well-maintained sand road.

We felt like we had a small victory when we found that, because we were afraid we were only going to get to enjoy half of the park. RVs are not by any means off-road vehicles, and we have no intention of this one becoming one! We jumped back into the RV and went all the way to the end of the road.

White Sands and Me

The good news is that the dunes in the back are higher, and the plant life almost disappears. You also get beautiful views of the San Andres Mountains and the Sacramento Mountains. The bad news is that it’s extremely crowded. It was late when we got to the end of the park and stopped, so we ended up cranking up the generator and eating dinner while watching kids slide down the sand dunes on vibrant colored sleds. Come to find out, they sell them in the gift shop, and after watching children play for half an hour, we decided that we are definitely doing the same tomorrow!

After dinner, it was almost sunset, so we picked up the photography gear and set out. Imagine my surprise when I noticed the couple hiking with us was walking their cat! Stewart, come to find out, was as adventurous as his humans, and his female human was hiking with a pink backpack on her back equipped with a window, just in case Stewart got tired!

White Sands close up
So pretty. So impossible to climb with dignity. 

After hiking out as far as we felt comfortable, we wished we were Stewart and had our own backpack! Hiking in sand was hard, and it gets cold when the sun starts going down! I’m talking a twenty degree drop in twenty minutes. At least, it felt like that! We snapped pictures as quickly as we could, and then we raced back to the RV. Then, it was a thirty minute drive to our RV park. I had been annoyed to find out that our RV park was so far out, but it suddenly made sense when I realized the military controls all of the land around White Sands. There are no RV parks close to White Sands!

We rolled into Boot Hill RV Park just a bit after dark, so we barely broke our “no driving at night” rule. We’re exhausted from our adventures, but that won’t stop us from taking sunrise pictures tomorrow at White Sands!

Boot Hill
Thank you for the wonderful accommodations, Boot Hill!

Published by Alyse N. Steves, Ph.D.

Alyse N. Steves received her Ph.D. in Genetics and Molecular Biology from Emory University. She is also graduate of Kennesaw State University, where she received a B.S. in Biotechnology. Alyse is a published author, with her first book making its debut in August 2016 ( Outside of science and writing, Alyse is an avid traveler who also enjoys the company of her family, friends, and pets.

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