Photographing White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is one of those places I feel people either love or hate. You really have to enjoy sand between your toes (in or out of boots). For me, this is a place of challenging beauty surrounded by a puzzle of composition, perspective, and lighting. A minimalist's playground IF visited at the right time. This past month I was lucky enough to be able to visit White Sands over several days with my friend and fellow photographer Brie Stockwell.
Some brief background for those who have not visited one of the newest additions to the National Park System. Located in southeast New Mexico, about an hour drive from Las Cruses, White Sands encompasses the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Stretching over 275 square miles, the sand is comprised of gypsum, a mineral known for its glistening white properties which is where White Sands derives its name. The unique climate of the Tularosa Basin is what allows this dunefield to exist. Gypsum is a water soluble and will dissolve when it comes in contact with water so it is very rare for any such accumulation of gypsum sand to form, never mind a field with an average depth of 30 feet and dunes that stand over 60 feet tall.
Designated in 1933 as a national monument, this area became a full fledged national park in 2019. However, as special as the geological wonder this park protects, it also has some special rules and regulations, mostly based off its neighbor - the U.S. Air Force. Built up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range was established next door to the monument. During this time, the military would often cross into the monument and use the dunefield to practice tank maneuvers. In 1945 there was additional military expansion in the area in the form of the White Sands Proving Grounds (now known as the White Sands Missile Range). That was when the military started to ask the park to close to visitors during certain times so they could test missile weaponry. These closures and tests still continue today and is a key reason why White Sands National Park is one of only about 15 parks not open to the public 24 hours a day. I can attest to this as there have been several times prior to 2019 that I tried to visit the monument only to be denied due to testing closures. For those that want to be in the park for sunrise and stay for sunset (most of the year), there is a special permit that can be applied for, as currently due to Covid, the backcountry camping option is not available. Be advised the application for early entry/late stay is at the time of this writing $50. The permittee then also has to pay an additional cost per hour to cover the cost of an NPS employee coming in early or staying late. It can add up quickly so usually only die-hard photographers or photography workshop leaders do this but the option is open to everyone.
This may seem restrictive and there is an added burden to visitors who want to enter early or stay late, but there is an upside to having such a neighbor. With the military base and the testing range abutting the national park, this helps keep development of the surrounding areas at bay giving the park a bit of breathing room. Meaning images taken here have mountain backdrops rather than condos popping up on the horizon.
As White Sands is located in the southwest where summer temperatures soar into the high 90s (°F), the best time to visit the park is going to be in late fall through early spring. While 95°F+ might sound bearable to some readers ("It's a dry heat..."), the dry air wicks moisture out of your body faster than you think. Combine that with the strenuous exercise it takes to climb up and down the dunes - soft sand is a heck of a workout - and the fact that the gypsum is reflective meaning you are being baked from both above and below and summer is just not ideal. Because of this, winter is a particularly busy time of year. The more visitors, the more footprints and sand slides you have to contend with when composing images.
Spring is by far my preferred time to visit, as long as it is not during spring break week(s). Spring brings mild temperatures both at night and during the day. Sunrise is not too early allowing visitors who arrive as the gates open at 0700 to capture some morning light, especially if they have already scouted and know which areas they want to shoot or if there are clouds predicted. During this time of year, the park usually closes after sunset allowing for sunset pictures without a late stay entry permit which is a huge plus.
Logistics Tip: Please note you can be fined if you are not out of the park on time. Out of the park means out the front gate so you do need to calculate your hike back to your car as well as the drive time back to the front of the park when planning your sunset location.
Spring is also the time of year when windstorms are most frequent. These turbulent air systems can bring winds over 50mph howling across the dunes and scouring them of any signs of recent visitation. The ultimate time to visit is when one of these windstorms is dying down or just after its passing. When winds are high, the sand becomes airborne and photographers can create some amazing images with tons of atmosphere. Check out Brie's image that took grand prize in the 21st New Mexico Magazine Photo Contest to see what can be created during a windstorm in White Sands.
Safety tip: If photographing in a windstorm, be sure to wear eye protection such as goggles that are fully enclosed around your eyes. A mask or bandana can be used to cover your nose and mouth. No one wants a scratched cornea or sand in the throat.
Once in the park, there are several areas that can be photographed. The most popular is the large dunes furthest into the park. Here it is just layers and layers of dunes separated by a patchwork of playas with a sparse sprinkling of desert vegetation. There is a distinct lack of navigational aids by way of visual signposts or distant markings specifically in this area of the park where the size of the dunes blocks anything beyond the next line of gypsum mountains. Be sure to take some sort of tracker and a headlamp with you when venturing any distance from the road.
This area is best for those looking for layered dune images or abstracts created by layered dunes and the various light each one captures. It is where the majority of my images of the park come from.
However, there is also what I call the fringe area. This is an area where the dunes are a bit shorter, flatter, and where there are more plants growing along the dunes, not just on the playas. Here the yucca are scattered about with a mix of creosote, rubber rabbitbush, and a limited variety of other flora species that have found a way to eek out a life in this ever shifting landscape. Since the dunes aren't as large and the plant life isn't dense, many people overlook this area which leads to fewer tracks even when the big dunes have been pulverized. As it is not quite as far into the park, it makes for a good sunrise location too.
At the front of the park there is a lot of vegetation and shallower dunes with wide grasslands and playas. I personally have not spent almost any time in this part of the park, but it seems popular with families with young children or those unable to climb through the traditional dune complexes as there is a boardwalk trail the park service built to help with accessibility.
After choosing an area of the dunefield to explore it's time to get hiking. My typical outfit included hiking boots and long pants that cuff over the boots' top to help keep sand out. Its not full-proof but it certainly helps, specifically when having to posthole slide down the steep grades of the dunes in the dark on the way back to the car.
Beyond the dunes themselves, it is the light that makes this place so magical. Because the gypsum is white and reflective, it picks up any colors cast by the sky. This means it can take on incredible hues of blue, yellow, orange, purple, and pink as the sunsets or the more subtle shades of early morning twilight. In-between, the light casts shadows that change as the sun travels the sky. This provides an every changing, ever evolving series of compositions to discover. I find myself leaving the dues due to time constraints and physical limitations (restocking water being the most common) rather than a lack of compelling subjects.
Details such as the way the sand collapses at certain points from ridgelines can create wonderful images that have a viewer stopping to think.
Minimalist abstracts are by far my favorite though and it is an ultimate game to see how many I can capture each time I am out. During the first several days I visited this month, I was highly challenged as there had not been a windstorm in a very long time and the dunes looked rough. Seriously, tracks for miles and miles, as if people had wondered all day long looking for virgin sand to leave their prints upon. It was really frustrating, yet I did manage to find some compositions without footprints, while creating others by shifting the perspective of the dune by adjusting my position relative to it, and by incorporating the prints into the frame.
Just as a windstorm was predicted to arrive, Brie and I had to move on to make the Outsider's Conference in Kanab, UT, an annual nature photography conference I attend each year. Thankfully, we planned to stop back at White Sands to meet with renown New Mexico photographer Wayne Suggs and a final evening of shooting before heading home to Texas. The windstorm had lasted through the weekend and kept much of the foot traffic down after clearing the dunes of the previously offending clutter. It was that evening that we managed to capture a wonderful sunset and added a handful of new images to my dune collection.
The kicker on this evening was we had unknowingly hiked quite a ways into the dunes. Once the sun set, we had only about 40 minutes to get out of the park. Once I realized our predicament, I turned and made my way back to Brie and let her know. She had composed her sunset shot on a ridge about a quarter mile behind me so it was in the direction of the car. However we were still a ways out. As the sun set behind the mountains and the sky turned mauve and inky blue, we recorded our last few frames, packed away all our gear so as to not be tempted to take a few shots along the route to the car and hightailed it. We made the gate two minutes after closing and were relieved to see it still open. The rangers were still further in the park coaxing stragglers out of the now soft blue-grey hills of sand.
Already I want to go back...
Want to join me for a photography workshop in White Sands National Park?
As of the writing of this article my next scheduled photo adventure to White Sands is in December 2022.