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A Bucket-List Trip to White Sands, New Mexico

Revealing the vast emptiness of the white sands.


Visitors pose at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Says photographer Anastasiia Sapon of the park, “It’s a place where you can photograph from sunrise to sunset, the light changes so much.”

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The Rio Grande River cuts through the landscape, as seen from inside a hot-air balloon above Albuquerque.

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The entrance to a cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Once inside, visitors descend 750 feet underground.

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A house at the Greater World Earthship Community in Taos, where residents’ homes are entirely selfsustaining.

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A guide with World Balloon in Albuquerque prepares to launch. Sapon and her roommate, Stef, took off at 6 a.m. to collect some aerial shots and flew over the city, taking in views of the Rio Grande snaking through town.

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The balloon ride ended in slightly less than perfect fashion, however: The pair came down in a resident’s yard. “I guess that happens a lot,” Sapon says. “You never know exactly where the wind is going to take you.”

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A monster on display inside Meow Wolf, a surreal interactive art installation staged inside a Santa Fe residence. “You go through the fridge and come out into another room,” Sapon says of the mazelike space.

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Tourists drink in the cheesy alien displays at the International UFO Museum in Roswell.

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The route.

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Since coming to the United States 10 years ago from Ukraine, photographer Anastasiia Sapon has kept a list of must-see American attractions. Last year, she drove to Coyote Buttes North in Arizona to hike to the famed Wave rock formation. Before that, she’d driven the length of the Florida Keys. This year’s adventure was to see White Sands National Monument in the Chihuahuan Desert, northeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“It’s a very American—a very America—thing to do,” Sapon says of her explorations. Almost on a whim, she and her roommate, Stef, flew to Albuquerque, then drove to Santa Fe and Taos before trekking five hours south into the desert. The two showed up at White Sands at 8:30 a.m. while a layer of fog clouded the park. When they returned again, after 11 a.m., it had cleared, revealing a vast emptiness. “The sand was popping white,” Sapon says. The two women rented plastic sleds to slide down the dunes.

The trip was only beginning, however. From there, it was on to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, near the Texas border, where they saw the nightly exodus of bats from the caves. The following morning, they hiked into one of the caves—a 1.25-mile descent, then a mile-plus circuit inside and another 1.25-mile trek back out. “It’s like you’re in a Hobbit land or something,” Sapon says. The state’s curiosities turned out not to be all naturally occurring, either: Sapon and Stef passed through the city of Roswell, home to the überkitschy International UFO Museum; visited the Greater World Earthship Community in Taos, a self-sustaining village of off-the-grid homes; and stopped by Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf, an interactive labyrinth–slash–art installation. “It’s mind-blowing,” she says. “If you’re in Santa Fe, you must go there.”

Finally, just hours before their return flight, they signed up for one of the famous hot-air balloon rides over Albuquerque— and crash-landed, safely if unceremoniously, in someone’s backyard. A fittingly odd end to a bucket-list trip full of oddities.

Do The Trip
Route: Fly from SFO to Albuquerque, then drive north on I-25 to Santa Fe; north on U.S. Route 84/285 and N.M. Route 68 to Taos; south on N.M. Route 68, U.S. Route 285, and U.S. Route 54 to White Sands National Monument; east on U.S. Route 82 and south on U.S. Route 285 to Carlsbad Caverns National Park; north on U.S. Route 285 and west on I-40 back to Albuquerque.
Distance traveled: 933 miles
Accommodations: Silver Saddle Motel in Santa Fe; Super 8 motel in Alamogordo; Fiddler’s Inn Bed and Breakfast in Carlsbad; Courtyard by Marriott in Albuquerque.


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco 

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