After an incredible morning at Carlsbad Caverns, we set out on a 3.5-hour drive across New Mexico to our second National Park of the day; White Sands. Home of the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, White Sands is also adjacent to the Holloman Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range. In 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated about 60 miles north of the park. Admittedly, we didn’t do a ton of research about this park in advance (so we knew none of that) but we were excited to visit the Visitor Center to learn about the dunes. After waiting in a very long and slow line (only one group was allowed in at a time due to Covid) we learned that the exhibits weren’t even open and everyone was just waiting in line for the gift shop. Darn. After a quick browse of the souvenirs, we made our way into the park.
In a last ditch effort to learn something about the beautiful place we were visiting, Allie and I picked the Dune Life Nature Trail, which sounded like it would give us some good information about the dunes’ ecology. The Dune Life Nature Trail is a one-mile interpretive loop that climbs up into the dunes.
Surprisingly, the area on top of the dunes was almost flat and had quite a bit of vegetation. The only other dunes I’ve visited are the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, which are tall, tannish-brown, and nearly devoid of vegetation. These dunes were drastically different and while perhaps less dramatic than their taller cousins in Colorado, they were beautiful and fun to explore.
The loop was more a marked route than a trail as the loose sand is constantly moving. There were often trail markers but some had blown down or were difficult to spot. Many people went off-trail and it was sometimes difficult to discern the correct route. There were a handful of interpretive signs scattered along the loop, which we were very excited to read, but they turned out to be geared more towards children and not terribly informative for adults. We continued our visit knowing almost nothing about the park or its ecosystem.
Sunset was approaching so we continued along the eight-mile Dunes Drive. There were rangers patrolling all along the road and pulling cars over for violating the very low speed limit. We were careful to keep our speed in check as we completed the scenic drive through the dunes. We were looking for a spot away from the crowds to climb into the dunes to watch the sunset. This part of the park allows off-trail travel and sand-sledding so there were people everywhere; watching the sunset, sledding, and partying. We hiked into the dunes at least half a mile to find solitude, and this time we went barefoot.
Once we hiked far enough that we could no longer hear anyone, we sat down in the sand to watch the beautiful sunset over the San Andres Mountains and relax after a long day.
After the sun had set (but before it got dark) we retraced our steps through the dunes. The day’s final light cast a beautiful pastel glow over the sand.
It was just about dark on our way back out to the highway. We noticed a few cars stopped along the side of the road (which can often mean there’s something to see) and so I scanned the field and saw…well, something. It was a large animal that I had never seen before but certainly didn’t belong in the New Mexican desert. I couldn’t identify the animal but all I could think was that it looked like something from Africa. Did it escape from a zoo?
We pulled over and strained our eyes to see what it could be. A ranger pulled up behind our small group of cars and, on a loudspeaker, declared that we couldn’t stop here and needed to get moving. But what is that!? Why was there no information about anything, and why were the rangers focused only on roadway rules and not any form of education? I’ve never experienced anything quite like this before or since, and we left with more questions than answers.
As soon as we got back to service, we started researching. Our most pressing question was obviously the identification of the strange animal, but we also read about the geology of the dunes and the history of the first atomic bomb.
The animal was easy to figure out. It was an African Oryx (or Gemsbok), thousands of which live in the New Mexican desert. They, as well as two other big game species, were purposely introduced to New Mexico in the 1960s-70s to provide hunting opportunities in a state without much big game. White Sands attempts to keep the Oryx out of the park with fencing, but the one we saw evidently got through somehow. We also looked up the other two introduced species; the Ibex and the African Barbary Sheep, both of which are doing just as well as the Oryx in their new homes. Strangely, the Barbary Sheep looked familiar and we went back through the day’s photos. The animal we saw at Carlsbad Caverns wasn’t a Desert Bighorn like we assumed, but the African Barbary Sheep. We saw two out of three of the introduced big game species and didn’t even know that either existed. What an odd day.
We grabbed a late dinner in Las Cruces before making our way to our hotel for a much deserved sleep before our final day.