The Alkali Flats Trail is a five mile tour through other-worldly terrain. There is no net altitude gain, but the sight of smoothly arcing white dunes against a deep blue sky comes close to capturing the feel of traveling in glaciated terrain. On New Year’s Day the weather was mild, but in August this place must be really toasty.
- From Lohman Avenue in Las Cruces, enter I25 North.
- After 2.4 miles, take Exit 6 for US 70 East.
- After 48.9 miles, pull over into the left-hand-turn lane in the center divider of US 70. (There are two very closely spaced turn lanes, use the second one). Turn left onto Dunes Drive in White Sands National Monument.
- After 7.3 miles, turn left into the trailhead for Alkali Flats Trail.
On the Dunes Drive road there are several things to note. First, there is potable water available at the Visitor Center on the corner between US 70 and Dunes Drive but there is no water at the trailhead. Also, there are running-water bathrooms at the Visitor Center whereas the trailhead is served by open pit toilets. Second, there is a manned fee-collection station at 0.3 miles. Third, the pavement ends at 4.8 miles and you drive on gypsum sands thereafter (see recommendations). Finally, the road forms a loop at its end and the mileage described here works if you make a left-hand turn at 6.3 miles to drive clockwise on the loop.
The trailhead parking area is a very large expanse of compacted gypsum sand. It is well signed. There is an open pit toilet, trash receptacles, and a logbook station at the entry to the trail. Part of the reason for the enormous parking area lies with the huge number of families who like to bring their children here to slide down the large dune on the west edge of the lot. It looks like great fun.
I don’t have precise figures for the elevation gain or the trip distance. The map above shows the location of GPS readings and some “creative cartography” connecting those dots. Usually my maps are based on tracing the trail using satellite images. The Alkali Flats Trail, however, is not evident on the images for White Sands. The sign at the start of the trail indicates that the loop is about 5 miles in length. It is easy, if not irresistible, to add considerably to this distance by making side excursions to look at odd features. There is no altitude gain in the usual mountaineering sense, but you climb and descend the dunes repeatedly.
The trail is lollipop shaped, and the stem of the lollipop leaves the trailhead in a north-westerly direction (aimed at the northern San Andreas Mountains) for about a quarter mile. The loop is marked out by trail stakes and you will have to look carefully for the start of the loop, signaled only by a divergent set of stakes. This trip describes the route taken in a clockwise direction.
The dunes are made up of gypsum (the material used to make plaster of paris and dry-wall). Walking on sand has advantages and disadvantages. Judging from the prints in the sand, quite a few people chose to walk bare foot. This is practical unless the sand is freezing (which it was at 10:00 in the morning on January 1st) or if it is searing (probably the normal state of the sand in August). The alternative is to wear boots or shoes. The drawback is that sand in your boots can demonstrate blister-raising superpowers. It is very helpful to have gaiters to cover the boot tops and keep out sand grains, particularly if glissading. Hiking involves a cycle of hiking up the gently sloped windward side of a dune and then glissading down the steep leeward side. The sand on the leeward side is piled at such a steep angle that any perturbance (like hikers) sets off a micro-avalanche. If you catch this miniature avalanche right you can slide down the steep slope while standing. Typically glissaders will switch from leg-to-leg to keep in balance, and often they wind up glissading on the seat of their pants.
In some places the trail takes you up a steep leeward face. The lower stretch of the face typically has a shallow incline, but the upper stretch of the face typically has a steeper incline. Some folks like to go straight at it. In the picture to the left someone climbed the dune in a style mountaineers call pied en canard (duck footed). If you look closely you can see that the style tends to fail near the top, where each step up is rewarded with an equal slide down. It is usually easier to “side hill” the steepest parts, as shown below.
The outward bound portion of the loop initially heads west towards the San Andreas Mountains, swings briefly north and then tracks back west. On the final portion of the outward trip you leave the environment of the dunes and walk a few hundred feet on the flat salt-bed playa that is the source of the sand. Big temperature swings coupled with a freeze/thaw cycle serve to break the salt bed down into sand particles small enough for wind to move. There is noticeably more plant life out in the playa, perhaps because the dunes move so rapidly that plants only rarely get established.
There is some life in the dunes. As the trail swings north you may see something like tree-tops between the dunes to your left. If you choose to investigate you don’t find trees. Instead there is a sparse population of bushes here where the roots have stabilized a pillar of sand. As the dune moves downwind, the bush is left suspended above the surrounding terrain. These bushes seemed tremendously stressed – after three years of drought the limbs on the south and southwest sides appeared to be dead.
At about 2.9 miles you reach the outermost position on the loop, out in the aforementioned playa. Watch for a tall trail stake with a second stake next to it. The second stake has a small arrow pointing northeast towards the Sierra Blanca mountain range, just a little south of Sierra Blanca Peak itself. The trail heads northeast for about three quarters of a mile before beginning a wide curve to the south. Considerably beyond these stakes you can see some buildings, presumably out in the Monument’s “Zone of Co-operative Use”. This zone is closed for reasons of military security (White Sands Missle Base is adjacent), so the trail does not extend to those buildings.
Most of the plant life is found in the inter-dune flats. It is comprised mostly of fast-growing and tremendously hardy grasses. The only sign of animal life I saw were small paw tracks (perhaps the pocket mouse) and bird tracks. These tracks were most common at the base of leeward dune faces, particularly faces that open towards the north. These spots get as much shade as you can reasonably expect in sand dunes, and may retain water better than the more sun-exposed spots. As shown in the photo on the left, the grasses in these inter-dune flats get blown in all directions, with the result that the sand adjacent to each grass clump gets flattened and smoothed by the blades.
The trail begins a slow arc to the southeast at 3.6 miles. Views open up to the Sacramento Mountains to the west (south of the Sierra Blanca range). In places there are fragile extrusions of gypsum in the sand, looking like white leaves.
Return to the trailhead after 5 miles. On this date the total was more nearly 6 miles due to excursions to see bush-crowned sand pillars and to glissade promising dune faces. The parking area was packed on return. Many families had arrived and were dune-sledding using saucer-shaped plastic sleds. It looks like great fun.
Under bright skies and cool conditions the Alkali Flats Trail is a terrific sojourn through spectacularly alien terrain. Although the trail was crowded near the trailhead, there were very few people out beyond the first mile. This is a terrific winter outing.
The New Mexican sun and the snow-like surface of the dunes creates enormous glare. Sun glasses are a very good idea. Although it was below freezing at 10:00 in the morning (on New Year’s Day), by noon it had warmed up considerably. I had about three liters and drank roughly half that.
Strong winds are reported to come up quickly and to create visibility problems (e.g. see “Overview” comments in the Ortega Canyon report). Footprints rapidly disappear, so the task of finding the next trail-stake could be challenging.
Today’s warm mid-day sun had a surprising effect on the road. On the drive to the trailhead the road was frozen and very smooth, closely resembling packed snow conditions (although tire traction was perfect). On the drive away from the trailhead the road had warmed and there were ruts running through slush-like mixtures of sand and dissolving gypsum. It could be awkward if this “slush” became too deep for your vehicle. Call to check on the condition of Dune Drive if there has been recent rain in Alamogordo.
The Park Service has a website for White Sands National Monument. It includes current information on park hours and also notices of park closures due to missile testing. Worth checking out!
Trimble Outdoors provides a GPS track for the entire Alkali Trail. Great to have if you get caught in a dust storm. TrailPeak offers the same, but their website offers photos from positions well off the marked trail. Good for feeding that urge to explore.
ChasingWhatsNext (2013) says that the Visitors Center at the start of Dune Drive rents the blue saucer-shaped sleds. But Mary Lu Laffey at QCOnline (2012) suggests that rentals were not available and that the sleds have to be purchased. I didn’t check, but perhaps the Visitors Center has only a limited supply of sleds. If you’re counting on a day of sledding you might want to bring your own.
GPS readings posted on Wikiloc suggest the the elevation rises and falls between 3900 feet and 4100 feet.