This trip to White Sands, I decided to really get out of the car and explore the dunes via a hiking trail. I chose Alkali Flat Trail over the other options for a couple of reasons: (1) the map showed the trail covering the back part of the dunes – something I hadn’t seen before and (2) at 4.5 miles it seemed like the perfect substitute for my daily aerobics classes I’ve been taking since the New Year (*more on this point a little later*).
First, I suppose a little explanation on the name. Alkali Flat is the name of the area to the north of the White Sands dunes. Apparently it was once a lake during the last ice age, but has since dried up like the rest of the Chihuahuan desert. Alkali Flat is one of two locations (the other being Lake Lucero) where gypsum crystals are formed. They then break off and are blown by the strong winds creating the dunes that are White Sands – the gypsum is what makes them so white and unique.
The trailhead for Alkali Flat is located at the very back of the Dunes Drive and at first, the trail is a little disorienting. Unlike hiking through the woods or mountains, there really isn’t any “trail” in the traditional sense of the word – there’s no clear path and the strong, unobstructed winds completely erase any footprints that might have been there a few hours earlier to help guide you. The only way to stay on track is to follow the trail markers which are white with a small orange strip.
The trail did provide some difficulties. Firstly, about half a dozen trail markers along the way had fallen over and weren’t visible at all. I had to stop each time and see if I could see the marker beyond or climb a higher dune to get a better vantage point. Secondly, I had to stop about every mile and a half and empty what felt like a pound of sand from each shoe and sock. The sand didn’t so much weigh me down as it was incredibly uncomfortable, especially when it bunched up under my toes, causing them to cramp a little. Finally, walking (and climbing) on sand is such a workout for your leg muscles. Your feet slip in the sand and look for traction where there is non, so your legs have to make up the difference. I didn’t feel anything when I finished the hike, but after driving in my car for 15 minutes, my quads and gluts were screaming when I got out, and even more so when I climbed some stairs!
I also have a slight bone to pick with my guidebook. Fodor’s New Mexico states that Alkali Flat Trail is 4.5 miles when it is actually over 5 miles. This may not seem like a big difference to some people, but after you’ve passed the 4 mile marker and your shoes are full of sand and feet are rebelling, you start looking for the road or the parking lot or any sign that you’re less than half mile from the finish. For a slight moment, I was afraid I missed a marker, which could very easily happen if you’re not paying attention. With dunes extending as far as the eye can see and mountain ranges on all sides, getting turned around could be very dangerous, and thinking that somehow maybe I had made a mistake, not knowing the guidebook was actually off in their calculations, could have easily thrown a less experienced hiker.
Despite all those little things, I had an absolute ball! I was on the trail for a little less than two and a half hours, which was right on par with the other hikers who had signed in with the trail register. I had my hydration pack full of water, healthy fuel-food snacks (grapes, Clif bar, etc.), my iPod and my camera. The whole experience was so enjoyable – I loved the wind, smiled into the sun and laughed as I slipped up and down the dunes. I even had a little kid moment at one point, sliding down one of the biggest dunes I saw on my butt, giggling like a school girl the whole way.
The best part about Alkali Flat Trail is getting to experience a whole different side of White Sands. When I was hiking, there was literally not a soul in sight, so it was like having the place all to myself. And there is so much more to the monument than I had realized. From the Dunes Drive you only experience a fraction of the dunes, even if you climb and explore. Hiking Alkali Flats gives you even greater perspective on just how massive the area is, how much more there is to be seen by getting out of the car.