You'll probably feel like you're on another planet
if you visit White Sands National Monument, with its lifeless landscape of rippling dunes, during the day. At night, though, you'll know you're firmly planted on Earth because the rest of the galaxy hovers above.
The lunarlike landscape and dark skies of this remote preserve make White Sands one of the best places in the Lower 48 for star watching, and fall is prime time. Backcountry camping at the
monument is limited to
designated sites, which are clustered in a spectacular section of the dune field about 2 miles from the park's only road.
The views of the heavens are stunning and have long inspired the native peoples of New Mexico and Arizona. Look for constellations known as Earth Doctor and Spider, figures in a Maricopa/Pima Indian creation story. Earth Doctor (the forepart of Scorpius) created the animals and people, and taught them
how to live on Earth. His brother, Spider (Cassiopeia), imitated him, but the animals he made, including Scorpion (the tail of Scorpius), came out misshapen. The two quarreled, and they now live at opposite ends of the Spider's Web (the Milky Way). Or come up with your own stories-you have all night.
From Las Cruces, drive 52 miles northeast on US 70/82 to the monument.
The last 2 weeks of October and November, when the moon is absent from the evening sky.
The Stars: A New Way to See Them, by H. A. Rey (Houghton Mifflin, 800-225-3362; $11.95).
White Sands National Monument, (505) 479-6124; www.nps.