White Sands National Monument | New Mexico
Photographing White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument is nestled between the desert towns of Las Cruces and Alamagodo in the southwest US state of New Mexico. With it’s vast gypsum dunes, this surreal desert location has photographers from all over the world captivated. Although many of the great images of this uniquely beautiful environment have been captured by local photographers. I hope my photography shows that White Sands should be included on any itinerary when exploring and photographing the United States. With it’s rolling white sand dunes, unique wildlife and surrounding mountain ranges, it really is a photographers wonderland.
I do not regret visiting White Sands in the middle of the day. Because I managed to get a couple of great shots with the blue sky and stark white sand. Although when I go back, I will visit during the lower light hours to capture and entirely different mood. Apparently the sunrises and sunset out there are stunning. I have compiled some helpful photography tips below so you can prepare you and your gear for a visit. You can benefit from this information even if you are not a photographer. Although I am sure most of you would travel out to this stunning location camera in hand.
What You Need To know Before You Go!
The Difference Between White Sands National Monument and White Sands Missile Range
Most visitors to White Sands National Monument don’t realise it is located right next to White Sands Missile Range. Why is this important? Because many travelers and photographers confuse the two. Famous photographer Trey Ratcliff visited the area last year and entered White Sands Missile Range instead of White Sands National Monument.
The Missile Range does not take kindly to a bunch of people with cameras trying to enter their military facility. To add to the situation Trey arrived without his passport and turned up with a traveling party full of foreign photographers. I can tell you from experience you want to have your passport on you at all times when traveling through New Mexico, foreigner or not. Boarder patrol check points everywhere and they are looking for illegal immigrants and suspicious foreigners. So can image when a car load of foreign photographers and 1 American without a passport turn up at a guarded checkpoint people get very nervous.
Lucky for Trey and his crew some ‘fast-talkin’ got them through to a car park where they were allowed to take a few snaps. It is a funny little story that did end in a cool picture, but for the average Joe things might not turn out so well.
You Can Camp At White Sands National Monument
The local photographers say the best time to photograph White Sands is during sunrise and sunset. Unfortunately I am yet to do this, but it is on my bucket list. When I get the opportunity to go back and do this I plan on staying overnight there. The only way to do this is by camping in one of their ten pristine backcountry campsites.
You cannot reserve these campsites as they are only available on a first-come, first-serve basis for around $3. The reason they are so pristine is there are no facilities available. This is no running water, powered sites, or toilets. As a camper you are required to take all of your rubbish and biological waste with you. If this puts you off you might want to consider staying checking into accommodation in Alamagorgo or Las Cruces instead.
Also the backcountry campsites are located approximately 1 mile from the scenic drive area. If you do not like physical activity this might not be your ‘cup of tea’.
You can purchase camping permits from the visitors centre between 8am and 4pm. It is important to note that during testing at the Missile Range the backcountry area is closed and no permits will be issued.
Nearby Hotels & Accommodation
(note: I plan on adding a photograph here of me camping in White Sands in the future…..so watch this space)
You Need To Prepare Yourself For The Elements
When photographing White Sands you need to make sure you and your gear will be protected from the at all times. Temperatures in summer can get above 95°F (35°C) and below 29°F (-1.6°C) during the winter months. Therefore you need to make sure you are well prepared before you get there.
I was an Outback Safari Guide in Australia for just under 10 years. I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of people travel to remote and unforgiving locations terribly unprepared. People are very quick to point the finger at a national park, or a tour leader for not providing enough safety information. Therefore I have provided a list for you all to follow.
Your Safety Checklist:
- Make sure you have the appropriate clothing required for the environment you are in.
- Carry enough water and make sure you drink it (dehydration is one of the biggest killers of travelers)
- Pack the right food – You will loose a lot of salt and sugar through sweat and you need to replace it. Also if you eat too much salt and do not drink enough water you can end up with fluid retention.
- Take a First Aid Kit and make sure you know how to use it. If you get bitten by snake, make sure you know what to do.
- Tell people where you are going and what your plans are.
- Wear the right shoes and make sure you have broken them in before you go spending hours in them.
- Protect yourself from the sun and wind. Pack sunscreen, a large hat and some balm for your lips. It is common for people to forget lip balm and they often end up with split dry lips.
- Make sure your car is fueled up, believe it or not travelers forget to do this all the time.
- The final thing I will add here is some camping advice. Most sleeping bag temperature tags are incorrect and end up leaving people freezing cold. Often people on my tours would have sleeping bags that were labeled for use in -5°C. They wouldn’t even keep them warm on nights when the temperature was about 10°C. In my experience the thicker the sleeping bag the warmer it is. If your back says it is for freezing temperatures and it’s really thin don’t use it.
Preparing Your Gear For The Elements
There is a lot of wind blowing across the dunes picking up the gypsum and it can get stuck in your camera and lenses. I highly recommend making sure your gear has been cleaned thoroughly before you get there and you take cleaning gear with you. Next time I go back I will be taking a towel to through over me and me gear when I need to change my lenses. I found myself having to walk all the way back to the car every time I decided to use a new lens. It was a cold windy day when I was there last and I was definitely unprepared.
Make sure you have backup micro SD chips and charged camera batteries. You don’t want to get all the way out there and realise your batteries are not charged and have one of your chips fail.
Also take your tripod, it will come in handy not just for the low light photos, but when wanting to take a great selfie.
How To Get There
You pretty much have to drive yourself out there as there aren’t any photography tours or public transport options available. If you are traveling to White Sands from outside of New Mexico there really is good travel option. Fly to El Paso in Texas, hire a car and drive up to the national monument through Las Cruces.
You Can Experience A Sonic Boom
The first time I visited White Sands I experienced my first sonic boom. I had no idea what it was and it scared the @#$# out of me. Holloman Air Force Base Jets over at the military base often brake the sound barrier and it causes a sonic boom. You can will hear it before you see it. This is great because it will give to time to protect your gear.
It is a pretty cool experience to have, especially if you haven’t had it before. I was disappointed on my last visit that I didn’t get to experience it again. It is something you definitely should be aware of though, as they have been known to smash the windows of houses as far away as Alamagordo.
White Sands National Monument
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I encourage any of you that have been to White Sands National Monument to leave a comment and add any helpful hints and tips you may have for anyone heading out there.