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<< Organ Mountains

Dec 26 – 27, 2011 – camping at White Sands

White Sands Visitor Center

White Sands Visitor Center

We arrived at White Sands Visitor Center at 3 PM, as we planned. It looks like a local abode, which is very nice. And one can tell how this particular architecture is well suited for local weather conditions with its hot summer and harsh winds.

Getting a camping permit

In order to camp this night on dunes we needed to obtain a permit from Visitor Center. Here you can learn how to get it (there are some matters related to obtaining this permit).

After getting so cold in Organ Mountains, we were not sure if we really want to spend that night outdoors. The ranger told us that they expect about -6 C on dunes that night, but no wind. Still, we were not sure, it did not sound very promising. But then she mentioned that today they already issued one back country camping permit for some crazy guy. That made a deal.

White Sands - white dunes under white snow

White Sands - white dunes under white snow

We filled out the camping form and the ranger provided us with a set of brochures. Everybody probably knows these park safety (your safety+ nature safety from you) brochures, but there was one which was White Sands specific. It tells about (and shows in color) all kinds of unexploded explosives that can be found there due to White Sands park location next to the missile range. That means that there is a possibility that one can accidentally bump on this stuff, and better to know it. That is a souvenir one doesn’t want to bring home. So the rule of thumb is in any case not to touch it, and if possible, tell a ranger where you found it.

Desert Nature Trail

White Sands - Desert Nature Trail

White Sands - Desert Nature Trail

Local people enjoying sledging from dunes

White Sands - local people enjoying sledging from dunes

I love dunes, I simply can’t help it. They perfect, and look perfectly mathematical for me. As if they were designed by a God-mathematician at the very beginning of the world, when everything was mathematical and perfect. And they managed to stay that way. And when I am visiting dunes, I feel myself so calm, serene and perfect, as if I were not a busy urban dweller, but some perfect creature from ancient myths or a function from my calculus book.

The quiet hours around sunset and sunrise is my favorite time on dunes. We went for a short excursion to the Nature trail.

Local people were enjoying sledging and skiing. Sledding is actually a popular activity there, no matter if they have snow or not.

White Sands, Dec 26, 2011, Sacramento Mountains

White Sands, Dec 26, 2011, Sacramento Mountains. Picture credit: Artem Vovk

That evening we had warm winter sun, clear sky, white snow and crystal clear views of the Sacramento Mountains. The mountains were especially beautiful just after the sun sat below the horizon. They were bathed in a long pink afterglow, which made a nice contrast with cold blue sky and light yellow dune surface.


Desert minimalistic. Credit: Artem Vovk

Making good pictures on dunes is not easy. The dunes’ surface is highly reflective and this gives a false reading to the camera sensor. So I would suggest to not using the auto mode and play with different settings and different exposure times instead. I also suggest that you set your ISO high enough to keep the shutter speed at 1/125th of a second (or even higher). Taking a deep breath before pushing the button also helps.

A night on dunes

White Sands, Dec 26, 2011, our tent

Our tent. Image credit: Artem Vovk

The way to our campsite took us about 20 minutes. It was an easy walk because the dunes’ surface was strong enough to keep out weight + back pack. On site we realized that we forgot knifes and a can opener in the car. But we managed; we used a fork as a perforator and manage to open a can with sweet condensed milk.

It was cold

It was getting cold

As the sun went down after a beautiful sunset, it was gradually getting darker and colder. And stars began to populate the sky. That was my main reason to spend a night on dunes – to see the night sky not saturated by light pollution. It is so amazing; it is simply unbelievable how many stars are really there. It was actually hard to tell constellations, because there are so many starts there. The Milky Way was gradually getting more and more visible. And it did look milky.

Artem looking at the sky

White Sands - Artem admiring the sunset. The fox should come soon

And I always feel myself so small under these multiple stars. I don’t feel myself as the Great King of Nature at all, rather a tiny creature under the greatness of the Universe.

While looking at the beautiful night sly, I always remember the poetry written by the Russian greatest scientist M. Lomonosov (1711 — 1765):

The day conceals its brilliant face,
And dark night covers up the fields,
Black shadows creep upon the hills,
Light’s rays recede from us.
Before us gapes a well of stars –
Stars infinite, well fathomless.

A grain of sand in ocean swells,
A tiny glint in endless ice,
Fine ash caught in a mighty gale,
A feather in a raging fire,
So I am lost in this abyss,
Oppressed by thoughts profound.

From the “An Evening Reflection Upon God’s Grandeur Prompted by the Glorious Aurora Borealis”, 1743, translated in 1973, the full poetry can be found here.

White Sands night sky, December 26, 2011

The sky was so clear that we cold see the dark part of the moon. Image credit: Artem Vovk

White Sands, night at dunes

White Sands, night at dunes, Picture credit of Artem Vovk

We spent several hours admiring the night sky and taking pictures from the Moon, Venus (it was really bright that night), Jupiter, and stars. But as it gets colder we had to retire to our tent. The good idea was to make a bottle of hot water and put it into a sleeping bag. That really helps.

That night was so cold, it was the coldest night I ever experienced in my life. My sleeping bag that suppose to go on temperatures up (or down?) to below zero C did not work at all. I could feel how my body is losing its warm and how it dissipates away. Andrey’s sleeping bag, which was up to -15 C, worked a half of the night, and then Andrey also get cold. And only Artem’s sleeping bag that was up to -30 C (a really nice thing that could be used to explore Antarctic) worked, so Artem managed to stay warm all night.

White Sands, Dec 27, 2011, the mountain lion footprints nearby our tent

Morning Dec 27, 2011, the mountain lion footprints nearby our tent. Picture credit: Artem Vovk

The sunrise found us in the tent, tightly jam-packed to each other to keep ourselves warm. As one who slept in the warmest sleeping bag, Artem volunteered to go outside first to explore the morning dunes. We were expecting a lot of foot tracks from a local wildlife. And we did see a lot. For example the mountain lion was visiting our site that night. That was thrilling.

White Sands, Dec 27, 2011, testing the super cat stove

Testing the super cat stove

That morning we tested our super cat alcohol stove. It work very well – it took it 4 min to almost boil a can of water (a really chilly water from the canister that was outside for the whole night), so we had a hot tea with sweet condensed milk for our breakfast.

More pictures are available on Artem’s web site. He was our primary photographer.