A Short Two-Wheel Ride Through New Mexico

The ultimate powder quest

Five-foot-high ultra-white drifts looming on either side of a crude winding path, a blanket of glistening, rolling silence stretching to the horizon, sucking in every ray of the noon-high sun—it wasn't exactly a prototypical Norman Rockwell scene. Lost in Space was more like it. On this bleached landscape, all reference points were washed out except for a signpost reading, "Pavement Ends." The big Honda bucked off the asphalt, tires crunching onto a powdery trail. I peeled off insulated gloves and bent over to scoop up the flakes.

But they weren’t snow; they were grains of sand.

Actually, it was gypsum. The Tularosa Basin in southwestern New Mexico is a big casserole plate of the stuff, though you may know the area by its more literal name, White Sands. As for the gloves, I'd just been in the Sacramento range 25 miles away overlooking this monster sandbox, where the white stuff off the road was snow—and winter gear was essential. In the blink of an eye I'd descended to 3500 feet, and the temperature shot up to 89 degrees. I was now sweating like Michael Jackson in a courtroom while my ears popped from the elevation drop. Welcome to the Land of Enchantment.

Short loop through New Mexico with snow and sand
Don't be deceived, that's not snow...that's the white sands in New Mexico.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Starting out from Los Angeles, my plan was simple—on the surface, anyway. A buddy of mine, Mitch Ikemoto, had recently loaded the wife, the dogs and the cats and moved out of the Big City. They’d put down stakes in New Mexico, and he’d implored me to “come on out, dude, the view’s amazing.” So off I went, on a whim, a prayer and a 650-pound Honda.

The first hurdle was deciding what to wear. Few states can boast six of the earth’s seven climatic zones, and that made gearing up a crapshoot; you never knew what you’d get from Mother Nature in New Mexico. That point was driven home as I pulled into Mitch’s driveway, where the thermometer read 35 degrees Fahrenheit. While watching a late winter snowstorm unfurl, we planned out a “white to white” route; I’d ride from snow to sand in an hour.

Seeing Spots
Yes, I was going to "bag a peak"—but not before I ate. Hungry riders in New Mexico should note that although the indigenous cuisine is dubbed "Spanish," it's anything but—New Mexican tortillas are often blue corn, and tomatoes are merely garnish material. You also choose between red or green sauce when ordering. Most importantly, tender tongues should avoid the green chile and stick to sopaipillas, a deep-fried sweet bread. Better safe than sorry.

But trust the locals to know the good joints. Mitch recommended the sublimely homey Lincoln County Grill, where we tucked into dense plates of carb-saturated huevos rancheros (red sauce, thanks). Located in downtown Ruidoso (home of a few motorcycle rallies, in case you hadn’t heard), the wooden shack serves up lumberjack-size portions of rib-sticking grub in the finest roadhouse tradition. Leave the diet at home.

Belly bulging, I steered the bike onto Highway 70 south. Mitch had suggested veering off on New Mexico state Road 244, a lonely wooded path cutting through the Mescalero Apache Reservation. At the road’s terminus in tiny Cloudcroft, a quick dash across Highway 82 ran me smack into state Road 6563—the very rural Sunspot Scenic Byway. The temperatures dropped as this path climbed into the Sacramento Mountains. Luckily, the sun was with me.

Short loop through New Mexico with snow and sand
A little pop of color on the white canvas of the desert.Photography by Andrew Cherney

The National Scenic Byway threads across the front rim of the soaring Sacramentos, but don’t take your eyes off the road—it’s a meandering series of twisties, with a 1500-foot elevation gain thrown in for good measure. Still, those spectacular views of Tularosa Basin off to the right screamed for attention, and I found myself dismounting to check out the dunes of the White Sands National Monument and Missile Range far below.

As I flashed through the ponderosa pine-packed Lincoln National Forest toward 9200-foot Sacra-mento Peak, the snow drifts along the side of the road got higher. When the Sunspot Astronomy and Visitor Center and National Solar Observatory appeared a dozen miles later, I was glad for my warm mitts. After poking around the massive Dunn Solar Telescope, taking in the view and thawing out, it was time for phase two—a run down to the desert.

This required retracing the route back to Cloudcroft and hanging a left onto U.S. 70. After that, hang onto your hat; the road drops 5000 feet in just 16 miles to the medium-size town of Alamogordo. This byproduct of the space-crazy 1960s has plenty of accommodations, but otherwise it’s pretty soulless. Unsurprisingly, the town plays host to the grave of Ham the space chimp, “the first free creature in space.”

Short loop through New Mexico with snow and sand White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument, prepare yourself for some glaringly white sands.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Beach, Yes; Speedos, No
Just southwest of Alamogordo on Highway 70, White Sands National Monument first appears as a bright smudge on the horizon and then a glare until the dunes materialize, glowing pure white against a brown desert. These 275 square miles of powder are the world's largest gypsum dune field, drifting smack in the middle of mountain-ringed Tularosa Basin at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert. The whiteness of it all was unnatural, and I half-expected Will Robinson to materialize in front of me.

The park is just part of a larger sea of gypsum, however. Hundreds of millions of years ago, shallow bays with dissolved gypsum covered much of southeastern New Mexico. The seawater evaporated, leaving behind a thick bed of gypsum. Every spring, fierce southwest winds break the soft gypsum and crystals into tiny particles, pushing the sand into dunes —some moving at a rate of up to 30 feet per year.

But that was history—I wanted to see the present. At the visitor center, I was told the scenic drive through the park started just outside the door, barely half a mile from busy Highway 70. Once on it, though, I might as well have been on another planet.

Short loop through New Mexico with snow and sand
The wind wipes away any footprints so be sure not to wander too far.Photography by Andrew Cherney

After a short blast across flat desert, the dune field appeared. A few miles into this area the pavement ended, but the packed sand surface was no problem for the bike (watch when you extend the kickstand, though; it’ll probably break through this crust when you park). On the left, a small parking area marks the trail to a primitive camp site. If you have time, consider camping here during a full moon—park rangers say the creepy factor is seriously heightened as moonlight plays over phosphorescent dunes.

As I crept farther into the Monument, the dunes became taller. Trying to describe the eerieness would require words that haven’t yet been invented. At the end of the road, flora was almost nonexistent, smothered under the shifting dunes. Picnic shelters were scattered around, and dozens of kids were running wild, climbing dunes or rolling down the sandy steeps. Small sleds sold at the gift shop were being put to frequent use on 50-foot slopes as if they were Northeastern snow. In the giant drifts, the only discernible colors were harsh whites and the brilliant blue above.

If you traipse far out into the field, be careful not to get lost—wind will erase your footprints. Do try to stay until sunset, however; the last light dusts the dunes in gold and pink before the sun sinks below the jagged San Andres Mountains. As the dusk deepens, rangers say, an evening breeze may gust across the silent dunes, draping sand into the air—the wisps of Pavla Blanca, the ghost of White Sands.

Short loop through New Mexico with snow and sand
It's hard to believe that just 25 miles away I rode through snow, just to end up in another type of powder at White Sands.Photography by Andrew Cherney

The tale goes that a Spanish conquistador set out to find some golden booty, leaving behind his other booty, Manuela, in Mexico. The expedition crossed the Southwest, where it was ambushed by Apaches; the conquistador kicked the bucket somewhere in the sands. Legend says the ghost of Manuela still comes to White Sands, seeking her lover in the dunes.

The flip side of this romanticism is the fact that the Monument directly abuts White Sands Missile Range—an active installation that can cause long delays in entering the park during missile tests. Those tests, occasional stealth fighters overhead and the random electronic equipment peppering the desert landscape make the whole place feel straight out of the Twilight Zone.

Which is appropriate—sci-fi probably would best describe this trip from snow to sand, even if it is just 75 miles from Ruidoso. In that small distance, the shifting panorama of high desert, mountain switchbacks and freaky dunes sure didn’t fit in with any of my nonfictional reference points.

Next time, I’m bringing the skis and dune buggy.

Related:

Need another short jaunt to go on? Take this one-day ride on Mohawk Trail.