Tag Archives: monument

White Sands

White Sands is not just a missile range but an amazing National Monument with some of the most unique sand dunes you’ll ever see.

White sand dunes extending into the distance

The 275 square miles (712 sq.kms. or 176,000 acres) of dunes at White Sands National Monument are the largest gypsum dunes in the world.  They are are not made of sand (silicon dioxide, Si02) but gypsum (hydrous calcium sulphate CaSO4•2H20).  Gypsum is the main ingredient in drywall (gypsum or plaster board) which is used to finish walls and ceilings.  Unlike sand, which tends to be brownish in colour (even the so called ‘white sand beaches’ are actually light brown), gypsum sand is pure white.

The top of a white motorhome seen above the white dunes in the distance

Gypsum is rarely found in a solid form as sand because it is water soluble and would normally wash away to the sea, but White Sands National Monument is located in the Tularosa Basin, a large depression in the New Mexico desert that 250-million years ago was at the bottom of shallow sea, and today is ringed with mountains, so no water courses drain it.  Crystals of gypsum (called selenite) up to 3 feet long form in beds at Alkali Flats along the shore of Lake Lucero.  The natural elements break these crystals down into small particles that migrate with the wind to form amazing dunes of soft white sand that feel look and feel like talcum powder.

Diane sitting at the top of a dune

Diane at the top of a dune

Since gypsum is water soluble, the sand that composes the dunes can dissolve and cement together forming a hard layer similar to drywall.  The road through the monument is made of gypsum and it’s like driving on a giant sheet of drywall.

Our white motorhome parked on a flat gypsum bed with white dunes in the distance

Parked on the gypsum

A great thing to do at White Sands is dune sledding.  Bring your own disc or purchase one at the visitor’s center, then head to the largest dunes.

Diane walking away across the white sand

Diane walking in the sand

Patrick in red shirt and hats and beige shorts sliding on a plastic disk down a white sand dune

Patrick sliding

Hiking up the sand dunes is a great workout, like extreme hiking.  With every step up you slide down one-half step. The soft footing requires all sorts of supporting muscles.

Diane walking up a white sand dune with a green plastic disc

Diane hiking a dune

After a couple of hours of hiking up and sliding down, I was exhausted

Patrick spread eagle on the sand

Diane seemed fine.  She couldn’t stop smiling and laughing, like a kid playing in the snow.

Diance cross-legged on her disc

Diane on her disc

At the close of the day, we still had enough energy to go on a sunset walk led by a ranger.  It was an informative and relaxing ending to a terrific day.

Sun setting over siloetted hills in the distance with a yucca flower int he foreground

Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument

The drive to this national monument in the Gila Wilderness Area is scenic, steep, narrow, twisting and beautiful.  Diane was stressed and her arm rest suffered.  The mountain highway approaching the monument has steep sections of 10-12% grade for several miles, and large drop-offs with no guard rails. A lower gear is necessary in sections to avoid burning out one’s brakes.  Larger vehicles, including bigger RVs, need to take an alternate route, which is still challenging.

At an elevation of 6,700 feet (2,040 meters), it was cool but sunny when we arrived in the late morning.  Snow was visible nearby, but had finally relinquished the trails a few days prior.  The cliff dwellings are accessible by a short but steep hike up Cliff Dweller Canyon, which was apparently a challenge for some prairie dwellers who were departing and complaining when we parked in the almost empty lot.  The south-facing cliffs, sun kissed even in winter, quickly became visible as we climbed among the ponderosa pines.

Large alcoves like caves in a brown cliff from a distance

Cliff Alcoves

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were built and occupied by the Mogollon people during a short 25 year period about 700 years ago (1275 – 1300 CE).  The Mogollon normally built pit houses or surface pueblos but, breaking with tradition, the Tularosa Mogollon built inside the 5 cave alcoves of this canyon.  It is not known why the dwellings were abandoned after such a short period.

Cave mouth closed mostly by white bricks whie tourists looking up

The Second of Five caves

Of the 46 total rooms, most of the walls are still standing.  There were believed to have been occupied by 10 to 15 families.

A large cave half filled with a hite brick wall

Cave Three

The dwellings were a practical place to live.  They were protected from the weather, and their exposure allowed the low sun of winter to enter while keeping out the higher, hotter sun of summer.

The interior of a large cave with brick walls and structure visible

Inside Cave 4 and 5

Cliff Dweller Creek, at the bottom of the canyon, provided a convenient source of water, and the nearby Gila River valley was a good place for hunting, gathering, and growing food.  Of the 32 species of plant remains found in the caves, 24 were native (e.g. grapes, berries, acorns, nuts) while the other 8 including corn, beans, and squash were cultivated.

Very small corn cobs in a basket

700 Year Old Corn Cobs!

Visitors are welcome to enter and explore the caves.

Diane's upper body wearning puple fleece visible over wall in a cave

Diane exploring

Patrick in red shirt and jeans standing on a walkway in Cave 4 & 5

Patrick in Cave 4 & 5

Ladders and walkways are provided to move about the caves.  Scrambling around the cliffs reminded me of our visit to Petra, though this was on a much smaller and more primitive scale.

Patrick seated on a large wooden ladder made of poles that is exiting from a cave

Patrick descending

The first European contact with the Gila Cliff Dwellings was by Henry B. Ailman who was living in Silver City at the time, about 45 miles away.  Legend has it that in the summer of 1878, Ailman and some friends were on a jury list. To avoid serving, they organized a prospecting trip to the Gila River where this site was discovered.

Diane in purple tshirt and beige pants with Gila Cave 4 & 5 in the background

Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument is an interesting place to visit.  The beautiful drive, the remote location, the natural splendour, and the hands-on exploring of a historical site made for an really enjoyable day.