Black Lava, White Sands
By Elizabeth W. Hughes
I should not be writing this column. I should be speeding away from Albuquerque with the windows down and the music loud. I’ve got the travel part of this gig down. Now for the writing.
I’m a new New Mexican exploring the land of mañana for the first time. These columns will capture the scenes, sounds and smells of this crazy, weird and wonderful state. This summer I'll experience first-hand all the touristy stuff you never got around to, and I’ll tell you what’s what before you go.
First up: White Sands. It’s is an iconic New Mexico landmark, and when I think of it, I see a ’50s postcard with smiling faces and families in motorcars driving to the desert to learn about the nuclear age.
As I set out on my mission, I knew a few things: White Sands is a national monument and a modern missile range. From what I’ve gathered, it’s really big, and it’s really sandy.
Not only was I going to this magical, mystical place, I was going on the full moon, and I was going to ride my bike.
As is the case with many adventures in New Mexico, the trip was a study in contradictions. Before reaching the town of Carrizozo (which has really yummy cherry cider), I came across a large area of volcanic rock.
I turned off U.S. Highway 380 and pulled in to the visitor’s center at Valley of Fires Recreation Area to learn more about this black lava place. This type of volcanic rock is called a malpais, and the Valley of Fires malpais is relatively young (5,000 years old). Both the Valley of Fires recreation area and the White Sands National Monument are part of the Tularosa Basin.
I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated by this inhospitable land of craggy volcanic rock and Sotol cactus, which looks like a dwarf yucca. As with many mysteries of the desert, I wanted to stay (although not completely sure why), but I had to go. There were bikes to be ridden and gypsum dunes to be toured.
The rest of my journey took me along the outskirts of the missile range through empty country with not much of note except for the World’s Largest Pistachio Nut on U.S. Highway 54 between Tularosa and Alamogordo.
White Sands National Monument does not offer car camping. There’s a limited number of permitted backcountry primitive camping, which makes things a bit more logistically challenging for those who partake of the bike ride. For those who like a bed, motels of all flavors can be found as you drive down 54 through Alamogordo. I chose to camp at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, which is a nice distance between the town and the monument itself.
The park is nestled against the backdrop of the Sacramento Mountains and has about 40 basic campsites. There are not a lot of trees or shade, but a few of the campsites do have shelters. I picked a nice secluded spot where I could overlook the desert valley once night fell. When the blazing heat of the day subsided, I was off to the monument about 25 miles away.
There are many rules for the bike ride, but probably the most important to note is that it’s by reservation only. It takes place in the fall and the spring (the next one will be Friday, Oct. 14). More information and RSVP forms are available one month in advance at nps.gov/whsa/planyourvisit/bicycling.htm.
Riders with reservations check in and get a ticket. Organizers also attach a glow stick to your bicycle and make sure you have a helmet and lights. Then at 9 p.m., it’s off to the races.
The path is closed to traffic, and there’s a beautiful, mystical calm as the glowing bike frames disappear into the dunes. The pack spreads out on the 16-mile loop with the only stipulation of being back by midnight. On my trip, some riders stopped to sled, others to make sand angels. I hung back to get some solitude.
As I pedaled past the glowing gypsum sand dunes in the cool night air, I no longer felt the burden of my feet on my pedals. The surroundings were so ethereal, it was as if I was riding on a flying saucer through outer space. I could have cycled that loop around and around all night. But sadly, after a lap or two, it was time to head back to the car, to the camp and to a bed bathed in moonlight.
To get to White Sands National Monument from Albuquerque, take I-25 south to east 380 to Carrizozo, and then head south on 54 to Alamogordo. Both the state park and the national monument are clearly marked.
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