Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sand, Wind, and Sun

We completed our walk along White Sands National Monument's Dune Life Nature Trail, which had many types of vegetation along the path. Because of the ever-shifting gypsum, the trail was not a typical marked trail.

Instead, it consisted of orange stakes, each within eyesight of the next marker, about five feet tall spaced among the dunes.

If the wind is strong, it can be difficult to see the next pole. Fortunately, the wind was barely noticeable the day we visited, so we did not have problems staying on the trail or keeping the cameras protected from blowing gypsum.

This was the only tree we saw during our walks, and it was an attraction in and of itself because of the very difficult growing conditions presented by the dunes.

Farther into the park, we took the short walk (650 yards) along the Interdune Boardwalk. Shown in the photo are the Skunkbush Sumac (upper left in the photo) and the Hoary Rosemarymint (lower right), both of which survive burial by a moving dune by a process called "stem elongation." As the sand rises, the plants quickly grow upward to keep their leaves above the rising sand.

As we approached a section of the Dunes Drive with a sign saying "End of Pavement," we anticipated driving through fine, blowing sand.

On the contrary, the road is just compacted gypsum, and even though the sands move by up to 20 feet per year, a snowplow can remove the blowing sand that often covers the compacted surface. Thus, the "road" becomes a series of large cleared areas, which can be adapted to changes in dune position.

To take the winter reference to a snowplow one step further, sleds can be rented at the Visitor Center. At several points along the drive, we found kids enjoying slides down the dunes as though they were on snow-covered hills.

The structures in the photo (above) are picnic tables--just two of the many scattered around the dunes.

After lunch, we headed to further into the monument. We parked at the trailhead for the Alkali Flat Trail, where there is little or no vegeta-tion, just an unbroken white landscape.

The Alkali Flat Trail is a 4.6 mile loop, much of which is across soft, shifting sands, to the start of a vast flat area beyond the northwest edge of the dunes.

Our hike began with a bit of color. Given the brilliant white of the dunes, this glove was an interesting contrast to the landscape.

The day we hiked this trail, there were very few fellow hikers.

This lone hiker is dwarfed by the large dunes along this trail.

Moving further along the trail revealed the beauty produced by the sand, the wind, and the sun.

In this photo, the dazzlingly bright white dunes, the lavender mountains, and blue sky combined to create a surreal environ-ment.

With no animal or human contributions, the wind is the primary contributor to this artwork in the sand.

We were photo-graphing the dunes early in the afternoon. Even then, the effect of the sunlight and shadows was dramatic. The effect around sunset--the deeper shadows and the colors of sunset on the dunes--must be spectacular.

Returning to the RV park, we saw this cloud formation, which seemed identical to the structure and form of the dunes we had just witnessed.

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