Behind the Shot:  White Sands, New Mexico

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By:  Talor Stone                                                                                                            February 15th, 2018

       “I am only a mile away from my car, but I’m a world away from anything resembling my previous life.  If these sands could make song, this place would be a symphony.  The sun is relentless on my shoulders, reminding me that there is never enough sunscreen for my complexion.  Despite this, I wouldn’t trade this moment for anything.”

~ Journal Entry

Camping at the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is, and will surely remain, one of the highlights of my entire life.  A photographer’s paradise, it is both completely surreal and totally magical.  Meandering through the towering white dunes leaves you wondering how exactly you ended up on another planet, but I can assure that you will be glad you did!

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The sun sets, lighting the dunes in a warm glow

Despite the high praise I give it, camping at White Sands is certainly not for the faint of heart.  This is unadulterated backcountry camping with no water, facilities, or shelter of any kind within at least 1 mile over deep, soft sand.  The dunes are disorienting and constantly shifting.  Your footprints disappear within minutes making it crucial for you to maintain your bearings at all times.  And if that wasn’t stressful enough. . . an electronic GPS will rarely work properly here, so you had better get familiar with your land navigation skills and compass.  Furthermore, the heat is incredibly intense during the day with no available shade and the nights are very cool, so go prepared!

Landing a Permit

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Getting permission to camp in this unique place takes a bit of planning and effort.  Only 10 permits are issued per day.  These permits are on a first come first served basis at the visitor’s center.  However, you had better plan to arrive early.  I arrived and hour and a half before the visitor’s center opened on a weekday and there were still 3 people ahead of me.  These permits are for one day only.  So, if you intend to stay longer than one day you will need to trudge out of the dunes early in the morning and make it all the way back to the visitor’s center to repeat the cycle again.  As if that isn’t enough, the dunes are adjacent to a military missile test range.  This means there are planned and unplanned closings of the monument.  It can help to call the visitor’s center before visiting to see if they anticipate the park being open; however, closings still happen without warning.

But, in the return for the hard work and hassle of getting a permit you get one heck of a reward.  You get to sleep under the clear desert sky, enjoy the solitude, and watch the pure white sand glitter and reflect all the shifting colors of the sky.  Scroll down to check out the images I was able to capture and you will see why I’m just crazy about this place!

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Photographing White Sands

I was lucky enough to camp at White Sands during a full moon under a cloudless sky.  I highly recommend planning your trip around the lunar schedule either planning for a full moon or a new moon to see a clearly visible Milky Way.  What is so special about photographing this location is the   unique properties of the sand.  White Sands is named so due to its very rare, pure gypsum sand dunes.  In fact, it is the largest desert of its kind on Earth!  The gypsum sand is pure white and is formed as crystals rather than irregularly shaped grains of sand.  This uniquely enables the sand to glitter in the sun and moonlight.  And by glitter I mean it is completely surreal!  As if every sand dune were just a giant pile of crystals shimmering in the light.

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The moon rising over the dunes. Yes…this is the MOON!

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Rippled sand glitters in the moonlight

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Feeling like a goddess!

Once I established camp, the heat from the sun was relentless.  But this place made me wish to be a goddess.  So I slipped off my top, slipped on a long skirt, and kicked off my shoes which were rendered useless by the bottomless soft sand.  I didn’t care if I looked silly because there was no one around to notice.  Like this I wandered over the dunes for hours feeling the sand move between my toes and listening to the soft sound of the wind stirring the tiny grains.  Without the gentle rustle of leaves or the flow of water, there was an uncommon silence.  So silent that at first it was quite unnerving.  It didn’t take long, however, for the weight of the soundless air to provide soothing comfort.

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Home sweet home

The rare gypsum sand which forms the dunes is so white and reflective that it mirrors whatever color the sky is.  What was white at midday became molten orange at sunset, a purplish blue by moonlight, and cotton candy pink at dawn.  It was as if the land were a chameleon; constantly shifting colors while the dunes marched along timelessly.  I hardly slept during the night because I found myself constantly checking outside the tent to see what the light was doing.  And when I rose in the early hours of dawn, I watched the moon set over the distant mountains as the sun turned the dunes to rose.

Camping at White Sands National Monument is truly an exceptional experience and I highly recommend doing it.  It is impossible to experience the full and immersive magic of White Sands by just visiting the park during daylight hours.  Go prepared for a challenging endeavor, but whatever you do make sure you go.

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The light of dawn turns the white dunes cotton candy pink

Behind the Shot is a series documenting the stories behind some of my favorite images and adventures.