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Camping Beneath the Moon at White Sands Monument

By Jeff Everist - August 3rd, 2000

Every culture on Earth has some myth, legend or folklore about the moon.

Throughout time, the moon has been equally cursed and celebrated, vilified and even deified. It is a symbol of cyclical patterns, of fertility, mysteries and madness. Each phase of the Moon has its own significance. The crescent shape of the waxing and waning periods is universally recognized, appearing time and again in literature and art. But nothing captures our imagination quite like the full moon, the climax of the moon cycle.

The glimmering sea of gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument is always impressive, but never more so than on a night when the moon is full. Gone is the harsh glare of sunlight, replaced by a surprisingly bright yet soft, luminous glow that washes across the miles of silent white waves.

The National Monument covers 230 square miles of the Tularosa Basin, a landlocked valley larger than Delaware and a couple of Rhode Islands. The entire basin is within the White Sands Missile Range, home of Trinity Site and some of the harshest environments in the state. Recently, local wild horse herds have been in the news when some horses starved and others were shot to end their suffering, as drought conditions continue to grip the area.

To the north, near Carrizozo, lie ancient lava beds in a place called The Valley of Fire. On the east are the broad, heavily forested slopes of the Sacramento Mountains, site of the Lincoln National Forest and the Mescalero Apache Reservation. The stark 12,000 foot plus peak of Sierra Blanca, a bustling ski resort in winter, tops the eastern skyline.

To the west is the rugged spine of the San Andres Mountains, and to the south are the Organ Mountains and beyond them the higher plains of the Chihuahuan Desert, which reach for hundreds of miles into Mexico. The Tularosa Basin contains the largest gypsum deposit on Earth. It literally is a place where the sands of time march on and on.

In a very capsulized view, the gypsum leaches out of the mountains and settles in the basin where it forms crystals as evaporation takes place. The crystals are soft and are easily weathered into fine grains which form dunes as a result of wind action. As the wind continuously moves individual grains of gypsum sand from the back of a dune to the front of a dune, the dune itself moves slowly and steadily across the valley floor.

That's really not enough sentences to do justice to the complex geologic processes involved, but it gives a rough idea of where the dunes come from and how they travel. The result of those processes is a somewhat weird and surrealistic landscape, but it is a place full of natural beauty, too. There is an outer-worldly feel to this Earthly realm.

That's why White Sands is at its best on full moon nights. Then magic and mystery, science and sorcery, the heavens and the Earth all mingle in the moonlight. Plants and animals, every living thing, and there are more than you might imagine, all react to the light. Some flowers are tricked into blooming, and a few extremely nocturnal creatures stay holed up until the moon goes down.

Full moon at White Sands is a special time in a special place, and a trip there should involve some special planning. Given the remoteness of the site, the nature of the environment and the fact that it is a national monument, it's not something to be undertaken lightly, or should I say moonlightly.

Trip Planner
Bruce Dyleski, owner and operator of Outback New Mexico guide service and veteran of many moonlight adventures among the dunes, offers the following suggestions:

Arrive early: Get to the Monument Visitor's Center early on the day you want to visit if you intend to camp. Each camper must have a permit, and they issue only 25 permits a day. You can enjoy the sunset, which are some of the finest in New Mexico, and the moonrise without camping, if you prefer to stay elsewhere, but they close the gate in and out at 11 on full moon nights and at 10 all other nights. The gates open at 7 each morning.

The road: Once you have your camping permit or other accommodations, you are free to check out the dunes, hike, ski, surf, whatever. People bring all sorts of toys out here. But pay attention on the road out into the dune area. Don't stop except in marked areas, and keep an eye out for pedestrians. The road goes several miles out into the dunes and then loops around and comes back. In the loop area there is a picnic site, and I usually fix an early dinner there, then pack all my kitchen gear away for the night. It's a little less than a half-mile walk from the parking area out to the camping area, so I don't try to carry everything out there.

Gear: Minimal gear includes a tent, sleeping pad and bag, plenty of water and a sweater or light jacket. Sometimes I bring a backpacking stove and coffee fixings, and I have carried in a small cooler with ice and drinks. Be aware that absolutely no glass containers are allowed anywhere in the monument. The tent is needed in case the wind kicks up, which it likes to do around sunset, so it's a good idea to set it up as soon as possible. A sleeping pad is necessary because the dunes are hard as concrete, although you can get a tent stake in them easy enough. And while day temperatures may reach triple digits, the night air cools rapidly, making a jacket or sweater feel mighty good.

The sand: Gypsum sand is fine as flour, and it gets into everything sooner or later. Take care with cameras and other equipment. I always carry a small tarp or space blanket to set my gear on while I'm setting up camp. Then I use the tarp as a door mat just outside my tent. It really helps reduce the amount of sand that comes inside.

Insects: Insects are seldom a problem, but I have seen both mosquitos and no-seeums there. Other critters are rarely seen, but if you bring any food in, take care to mouse proof it.

Activities/events: There are sunset walks and evening programs at the Visitor's Center throughout the summer, and they usually have guest speakers on full moon nights. Plus, there are lots of other attractions in the area. It's only a few miles into Alamogordo, where the International Space Hall of Fame and Tombaugh Planetarium are, and Oliver Lee State Park is just down the road from there. It's an easy day trip up to Ruidoso for shopping and sightseeing, and from there on over to Lincoln to see Smokey Bear and Billy the Kid.

More information: Call the monument at 505-479-6124. Bruce Dyleski's number at Outback New Mexico is 505-344-7114.


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