Weekend Window: White Sands, N.M.

Weekend Window

With its fair-colored sand and powder-like softness, the White Sands Dune Fields, located in southern New Mexico, offers the look of snow-capped grounds without the chill.

"There literally is no place else on the planet like the White Sands Dune Fields," said park ranger John Mangimeli. "This is the only major sand dune field in the world that's made out of snow white gypsum sand. That's what makes it unique. It covers almost 275 square miles of the Tularosa basin."

The sands' sweet silence and solitude is part of its appeal, Mangimeli said.

"It makes you kind of take a deep breath -- slow down," said park ranger Kathy Denton, "because there's nothing out here to hurry you."

Then there's the picturesque landscape that mirrors more of a ski slope than a beach. Atop the sands, the horizon view can seem endless and ever-changing.

"When you stand on top of a dune at White Sands National Monument, and you look out over the horizon -- 360 degrees around you -- you are looking at an ocean of sand," Denton said. "This is an actively forming dune field. The actual geologic process has not ever been interrupted or stopped. So there's new sand being added all the time."

And yet even in the heat of desert New Mexico, the sands retain the same temperature.

"It's very cool to the touch," Denton said, "even on the hottest day of the year. That's because gypsum doesn't hold heat, and it reflects a lot of sunlight."

The sands are overtaking the little vegetation the area has.

"There are a lot fewer plants here in the white sands dune fields than there are in the surrounding desert because this is one of the harshest environments in North America," Mangimeli said. "As these dunes move several feet a year, every plant in its way gets buried and smothered, with a few exceptions that have found remarkable ways of surviving."

"It takes a long time for these dunes to form. It takes a long time for the plants to grow," Denton said.

But, even with dwindling plants, the area is not with out its native animals, which sometimes can be difficult to locate.

"Most desert animals are nocturnal, but the great thing about the white sands is that anything that moves on the surface here leaves a track," Mangimeli said. "It's a lot of fun following these tracks and trying to figure out what these animals were up to the night before."

And the location remains a popular destination.

"It's a great place to feel connected to the rest of nature, to feel part of the much bigger picture," Mangimeli said.