White Sands Dawn
White Sands National Park Alamogordo, NM
White Sands National Park is a one-of-a-kind field of wind-blown, white as snow, gypsum sand dunes that stretch for miles and miles. While one can face some headaches due to the colocation of a missile test range and Air Force base (closures due to crashed drones, closures for missile testing, and tighter park access controls with regard to time of entry); these nuisances pale in comparison to the unique photographic opportunities that exist in the park.
From an overall photography perspective, taking in to account the ease of access, variety of scenery and unique nature of the scenery; I would rate White Sands as an 8 out of 10.
My experiences at White Sands have been quite varied. I have been to White Sands National Monument a number of times, including multiple sunsets and sunrises and a trip out to Lake Lucero (the source of the Gypsum for the dunes). I have explored what felt like at the time, nearly every dune in the park (while lit only by the moon) in an effort to find the perfect curve. I have also run in to a Desert Massasauga Rattlesnake soaking up the last bit of sun on top of a warm dune.
On the less fortunate side I have also made the trip down to the park, only to find out upon arrival that it was closed due to a drone crash. Needless to say it pays to check the park alerts the morning you plan to depart and not the day before.
My favorite time to shoot at the park is sunrise. The weather tends to be a bit more calm as the evening seems to have more frequent wind gusts and there are far fewer people around as well. This is perhaps due to the requirement that sunrise access generally requires special coordination with the ranger station and the payment of special access fees (50 dollars per hour before the park opens). That being said I found those extra bits of coordination well worth the effort. The morning sun lights up the San Andres mountain range, vice casting them in an evening shadow.
There are also two mornings per year where there is a ranger guided sunrise walk which allows you to have a less expensive morning experience. Those dates can be found on the NPS website.
I have seen a lot of photographs of yucca plants and other foliage in the dunes. While I found myself taking some photographs like this, for me the beauty was in the symmetry and lines that the wind creates in the dunes themselves. The trick with this from a photography perspective is that you have to “sneak” up on your subject from the back. This takes a bit of practice, and more deliberate walking, but it is true that once you place footprints on a dune they will take longer to be blown away than you have at the park.
So for me I particularly enjoy the longer exposure photographs taken either before the sun came up or after it set on the dunes, especially when there is moonlight available. Keeping my photographic druthers in mind I would recommend parking near the “Heart of the Dunes”, basically at the end of the road, and hiking out either north or south from there.
There are a couple of paths that are marked with stakes, but if you have a GPS (which I would highly recommend) it is fairly easy to make it back to the parking lot when / if you stray from the staked path. This allows you the ability to find truly pristine dunes that haven’t been trod upon for as far as the eye can see.
One note on the Lake Lucero tour. While this tour is interested from historical and geological perspectives, it isn’t all that exciting from a photography perspective. It was really neat to see the gypsum crystals before they become the sands of the the dunes, but I’m not sure I would recommend eating up a whole afternoon for this.
As I stated earlier, I prefer shooting in the park in the pre-dawn hours. This requires coordination with the Park Ranger office. A ranger will meet you at the gate, for a small fee of course.
I was able to meet a ranger at the gate about 2 hours prior to sunrise, and this seemed to work well. It gave me time to drive to the end of the road at the heart of the dunes and make it a couple of miles in to the dunes well before the optimum shooting timeframe. I have been there on relatively clear nights with a moon that was lit to at least 40% of full. In these conditions I found it easier to walk without a headlamp as my eyes didn’t need to be adjusting between the bright light of my headlamp and the light of the moon bouncing off the dunes.
If you prefer to shoot at sunset, or perhaps are limited to nly shooting at sunset; do not fret about the 1 hour after sunset closing time. This affords you plenty of time to shoot during the 30 minutes following sunset (which to be honest I never fully used up), and then gives you plenty of time to make the 15-20 min drive out of the park (from the heart of the dunes).
Of course one can always stay overnight in the backcountry campground and forego paying the early entry fee, it all depends on your time and ability constraints.
For general photography there is no permit required. As stated earlier there is a special use permit required for use of the park outside of normal business hours (which in this case includes sunrise). Beyond this time constraint the park is very user friendly for photography.
This comes with one caveat. For the extra adventurous photographer, be careful to stay within the boundaries of the park and not stray into the missile range and/or airbase. While it would take some effort, it is possible and not recommended.
Recommended Camera Equipment
Filters: Hard and soft GND filters are very handy to have, particularly if you are shooting at sunset, or just after as the white sands can be quite a bit brighter than the dusk sky (which is an unusual sight as normally the sky is brighter than the land subject matter).
Usual Suspects: Backpack with Camera, tripod, cable release, extra memory / battery, lense hoods. Lenses I used a 24-70mm and 14-24mm wide angle. I found them to be wide enough, and most of the time I was shooting between 14-24mm. I particularly liked shooting at 14mm from the tops of the dunes. There are some great lines and geometry to be found.
Recommended Other Equipment
Nothing crazy. Keep an eye on the weather. It can be hot in the day and cool at night, as with any desert environment. If you have some gators that could be helpful in keeping the sand out of your shoes. I have found handfuls of sand in my shoes months after coming back, it is some super-fine stuff. A headlamp is helpful to assist with focus in the wee hours.
Heart of the Sands GPS Point: (32°49'23.01"N, 106°16'20.57"W)
Recommended Photo Opportunities
-- Undisturbed Dune Crests
-- San Andres Mountains
-- Lonely Yucca and other foliage
As stated earlier, be sure to check the website just before you depart for the park to ensure that it isn’t closing due to activity at the missile range and/or airbase.