Backcountry camping in White Sands

November 23-24, 2019.

camping white sands

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The only way to camp in the sand dunes is to grab one of ten “backcountry” sites in the park. And, the only way to get a permit is to show up at the Vistor’s Center the day of your anticipated trip. We arrived a few minutes before the Visitor’s Center opened and there were already three groups ahead of us. Since we had to get moving to go on the Lake Lucero tour, I was antsy to just turn in the paperwork and get out of there.

After our tour we re-entered the main park and found the overnight parking area. We made sure our packs had all necessary supplies for the night and began the one-mile walk to our assigned site. It was mid-afternoon and already getting cold. I set up the tent, picked up the trash the previous campers had left behind, and prepared for a short walk. We didn’t have too much sunlight left and the rules clearly stated you were not to leave camp after dark. Because of the proximity to the missile testing range, GPS didn’t work out there and the minimally-featured landscape made it difficult to navigate.

I took my shoes off, because sand, and we began walking towards the western horizon. I took a bearing with my compass and we tried to follow that pretty strictly as we headed away from our campsite. We zigzagged a little bit to avoid shadows and the occasional smattering of plants. I looked for critters, animal tracks, any sign of life. Nothing. We kept walking into the endless, rolling, white landscape. As the time ticked away, daylight waned and temperatures dropped. We wanted to get back before dark to watch the sunset and to get bundled up in our warmest clothes in camp. My feet felt as if they were marching over ice.

When we reached the tent, Aaron slipped in to his sleeping bag and I quickly set up a cooking area. I’d packed in a bag of beef and squash that I’d dehydrated and home and just needed a quick boil in water. By 5 pm, it was dark. We had 13 hours to go until sunrise, so I pulled out a crossword puzzle book and turned on a podcast to help pass the time. Occasionally we peeked outside the tent to look up at the sky full of stars. It was a long night.

In the morning, we arose to the tent and the dunes coated in a layer of ice. I boiled water, then walked to the top of the nearest dune to sip hot coffee with Aaron. As we stood there, watching the sky turn orange and pink, I noticed a lovely stillness in the air. One of the best ways to experience national parks is to get up earlier than anyone else to see it like no one else sees it.

We still had one more hike to do before moving on, so we returned to camp, ate breakfast and packed up to go. I threw the trash I found—a plastic fork, some tent stakes and a fuel canister—in my pack. I couldn’t believe that someone could leave a fuel canister behind. Leave No Trace has a lot of work to do.

The sun was bright, but the air was frigid. A quick walk brought us back to the car, where we grabbed small day packs for one more hike in White Sands.

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