Not Exactly a Day at the Beach
Begin this 16-mile-round-trip tour at the visitor center (4,000-foot elevation), where you can obtain an interpretive guide keyed to numbered posts along the road. Notice the San Andres Mountains to the west, the Sierra Blanca to the north, and the Sacramento Mountains to the east as you drive past dunes stabilized by vegetation. At Post #5, you reach the main dunefield. The road here is hard-packed gypsum. Pull over only in established areas to explore on foot; do not stop on the road. Look for successful plant species both on the dunes and between them, where the water is closer to the surface and some of the gypsum has dissolved.
Big Dune Trail
Stop along the loop drive to hike the one-mile Big Dune Trail, a self-guiding nature hike complete with interpretive brochure. Two moderately steep dune climbs occur along the trail. These are good places to stop and ponder the formation of the dunes. Listen for birds and the powerful wind. As you walk, look for the tracks of lizards, pocket mice, and roadrunners, as well as the cryptic prints of the darkling beetle. You will see firsthand how soaptree yucca and cottonwood trees have adapted to the moving sand. As the largest plant in the dunefield, the cottonwood tree attracts birds (some nest in its branches) like the great horned owl and porcupines that nibble away at the tree itself. In certain places you can find fragments of fossilized roots and stems, remains of gypsum sand pedestals (some encased in gypsum), and other mineral fragments. And did you smell the sweet scent of hoary rosemary mint along your hike?
Removal of archaeological or natural objects, sand, selenite crystals, plants, or animals is prohibited. Driving or parking on the dunes or outside established parking areas is prohibited. Do not tunnel into sand, since it may collapse. Never sand surf near roadways. Do not get lost on foot excursions. Do bring good sunglasses along for exploring. Ground fires are prohibited.
© Article copyright Fulcrum Books. All rights reserved.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication