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The White Sands National Monument sits at the heart of New Mexico's Tularosa Basin. Gypsum-infused waters from the San Andres Mountains drain into Lake Lucero where spring's strong winds propel selenite crystals in a northeasterly direction, breaking them down into talcum-fine particles that create the world's largest gypsum sand dune field comprising 275 square miles. In the past, an ancient river flowed from a larger lake, and its underground remains form the water source for the amazingly adapted cottonwoods that thrive in portions of White Sands. Root systems that grow 60 to 100 feet allow many different species of plants to survive harsh Chihuahuan Desert climes, and cottonwoods are among the most prominent examples. The highly dynamic dunes, moving at rates ranging from two to 30 feet per year, can subsume entire stands of cottonwoods; ground-level cottonwood "bushes" are actually entire trees whose trunks have become part of their subterranean root structure. Understanding the geography of the dune fields will produce big dividends. Follow the Alkali Flat Trail past unwanted footprints and into some of the deepest dunes that face a wider variety of directions to offer more options and light angles. The largest groupings of cottonwoods are found in three principal areas: around the Dune Life Nature Trail, to the west of Dunes Drive where the pavement ends and along Pedestal Road, which requires a special-access permit that can be obtained by contacting the White Sands National Monument in advance or accessing their website. Early access for shooting sunrise can be arranged in similar fashion.
White Sands sits at roughly 4,000 feet of elevation. Winters are relatively mild, with a half-dozen snows annually. Spring brings warmer temps and the strongest winds of the year, while summers are hot with dramatic monsoon periods. Fall is temperate with mostly clear skies and calmer winds. Each season's conditions— cold, windy, hot, wet, arid !—can range to extremes and highways can be closed, so it's best to do some forecasting in advance to come prepared. For example, I recently shot fall color-changing cottonwoods in early November, and the sunrise temperatures were unusually cold in the low 20s.
This incredible snow-white desert takes on an amazing palette of sky colors, bathing the wide variety of dune shapes and textures to create unsurpassed juxtapositions of earth and sky. Simplicity is key; focus on dune lines and shapes, ripples in the sand, cloud shapes in the sky, and the subtleties of light direction, color and intensity. The shadows of brilliantly colored cottonwoods can be striking and shapely on the white sands. I carry my usual complement of zoom lenses ranging from 16mm to 200mm. My 45mm and 90mm tilt-shift lenses are especially useful for extending depth of field from extremely close foregrounds out to the surrounding mountain ranges. LEE graduated neutral-density filters really help in balancing the disparities in luminosity found at sunrise and sunset. Polarizers have a pronounced and quite beautiful effect, but they must be used judiciously with cloudless skies and wide angles.
The color-changing season for cottonwoods ranges from around October 25 through November 15. Park personnel can be helpful in tracking the progression of fall color. Try following online reports of fall color in other Southwest areas, paying close attention to cottonwoods, to get an indication of the characteristics of each particular fall season.
The most photogenic times of the day are the soft light before dawn and after sunset, the filtered low sidelight with first and last light, and extended periods of midmorning and midafternoon high backlight and sidelight.
Contact: The White Sands National Monument, www.nps.gov/whsa.