Only 200 miles separate Carlsbad Caverns from White Sands National Monument, however, if you’re traveling with pets, you’ll find there’s a world of difference! But before we get to that, let’s chat about a little ski town that sits in between called Cloudcroft.
Finding a ski town in southern New Mexico was a pleasant surprise. Perched at 8,600 feet in the Sacramento Mountains, this town of less than 700 people lies within the spectacular Lincoln National Forest. If you’ve been following our travels for a while, you know that we LOVE the national forests for being more dog friendly than many of our national parks. Getting the chance to hit the trails with the dogs was just too good to pass up – and there are a lot of trails to choose from!
In the late 1800’s steam locomotives coming from Alamogordo climbed nearly 4,000 in 26 miles to reach Cloudcroft. Now a Rails-to-Trails project is transforming the 65-mile route into a unique path that winds along ridges, clings to ledges, and passes old wooden railroad trestles that bridged the mountain canyons. The Cloud-Climbing Rail Trail is actually where we got our first glimpse of White Sands.
Though the trail isn’t very long or technical, remember that hiking at this altitude is a different experience – for you and your dogs. Be sure to take plenty of water and don’t push yourself too hard.
An exhilarating trip down the mountain from Cloudcroft to Alamogordo puts you squarely in the Tularosa Basin. You’ll notice you’re completely surrounded by three mountain ranges, which is what makes White Sands possible – there are no streams or river leaving the basin, so rain water and snow melt can’t escape.
Though it’s called White Sands, the dunes are actually made of gypsum. Gypsum is easily dissolvable in water, so it’s rarely seen in crystalized form, but here in the basin it’s washed from the mountains and, when the water evaporates, you’ve got crystals. These crystals are broken down over time into sand-like particles light enough to be blown by the wind to form the dunes.
As you pass through the park gates, you’re still surrounded by desert. However, hints of what’s coming soon start to appear …
Dunes Drive cuts though the center of the dunes area and runs for eight miles, giving you access to four different types of dunes. And because the dunes move, they have to use snow plows to keep the road clear!
You’re welcome to park your car and walk around anywhere in the dunes, though I’d suggest sticking to one of the marked trails. The wind will quickly erase your footprints and it would be easy to get disoriented. Most exciting to us was that leashed pets can join you for a romp in the dunes – the entire park is pet friendly!
The park opens at 7am and closes one hour after sunset. Visiting in the morning or evening or on a cloudy day will help save you from the blinding glare. Unfortunately, Buster and Ty don’t have doggles because they would have come in handy here! We were lucky that it wasn’t a windy day, or the sand would have been blowing in their eyes.
Before you visit, be sure to call ahead – the White Sands Missile Range is right next door and the park closes when they’re conducting tests. The rangers also offer several programs you can sign up for – full moon hikes, sunrise photography and sunset strolls, to name a few. Though the programs sound worthwhile, my boys were more interested in unstructured goofing around.
We’ve been looking forward to visiting here every since our friends, Scott and Jill, blogged about it on 12LegsTravel. Seeing it again when a photo of Buddy was submitted for our Friday Photo Challenge got our engines stoked again. This is a place I’d like to come back to – seeing it in different seasons, at different times of the day, and maybe even under a full moon would make for a completely new experience each time!
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