More than 20 years since my first visit, the lure of the yucca dotted white sand dunes still keeps drawing me back. It was a while since my last visit in 2014, which like that in 2012 came in summer and included back-country camping. Many of my early visits happened in winter. I planned another at the end of 2018 but a government shutdown closed the monument, and forced me to brave an arctic spell in Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado. So another year later, I again boarded a plane to Albuquerque planning to spend the last three days of 2019 in White Sands.
Gallery of my favorite photos
After watching a sunrise from the plane over the southwestern landscape, I followed a familiar route from Albuquerque toward Alamogordo. Unlike the year before, Albuquerque was snow free this time, but I ran into quite a bit of fresh snow on the way toward Carrizozo, reminiscent of my 2011 trip with Irina. As much as white sand completely covered by the white stuff was interesting to see that one time, I was hoping for a bit less of it. My wishes were granted as the wet snow disappeared after the road turned south and began to descend into the Tularosa Basin.
It was great to see this unique landscape again, and there was a first for me too. I just entered White Sands National Park, an upgrade from a national monument signed into law just nine days before my arrival. I did not drive around much and instead headed out on foot into my favorite area north of the road. The park is a part of a missile range, and all visitors, with the exception of a few who are backcountry camping, must leave by a set time that adjusts with the seasons. Fortunately, the closing is almost an hour after the sunset around the New Year's. Even this can be quite constraining if one wants to hike a bit farther out into the dune field for the sunset. Back-country camping in White Sands is a great way to be able to capture both a sunset and a sunrise. It is a magical experience but winter nights are long and cold, so I saved if for another trip.
The park opens at 7am all year around, long after the best photographic light is gone during much of the year. However, the holiday season after the winter solstice brings the sunrises a few minutes after 7am, rewarding those who get up early. Sometimes, a line of cars forms waiting for the ranger to open the gate but it was not the case this time. Is it possible that people just do not come to take photographs anymore, saturated with the amount of imagery that can be seen online? People may not but I still did and even got lucky by being allowed in a couple of minutes early. It was still a chase to beat the rising sun. I drove a few miles along the park road into the dunes and ran out into the dune field until I got to a nice location. Low colorful light on the dunes was my reward which I savored with great gusto.
The afternoon called for a change of scenery. I drove a bit farther into the dunes and hiked southwest from the road, not far from where backcountry camping sites are. As I was looking for that perfect solitary yucca, the clouds increased, eventually obscuring the sun right before the sunset.
I repeated the mad dash of the previous morning into the dunes, eventually finding my way to a location I named Yucca Heaven where the sand dunes were sparsely dotted by solitary yuccas, and pristine ripples of sand lay undisturbed waiting to be recorded by my camera in all their glorious beauty.
It was a long time since I walked this trail to the edges of the Alkali Flat, a dry lakebed west of the dunes. It is about 5 miles round trip, and the trail is not flat as its name would indicate, but up and down the dunes as its winds its way across the dunes toward the flat. The weather was perfect - no wind, and clear skies of a cool winter day. The dunes get a bit taller as one approaches the flat, but nowhere near towering like two of my other favorite dunes - Great Sand Dunes and Eureka Valley Sand Dunes.
I went to the Yucca Heaven for the end of the day. I took it easy, and just enjoyed the sunset. It was a great two and a half days in the dunes. As I left the park and started my drive back toward Albuquerque, I thought to myself I should not let five years go by before my next visit. I flew back to the Bay Area on the first flight of the New Year the next morning, making it my second New Year's in New Mexico in as many years.