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Visiting the White Sands National Park in New Mexico

Visiting national, state, and local parks rates high on my wish list when it comes to vacations. Every park is distinct and memorable!

Picnic area in White Sands National Park after a brief rain shower.

Picnic area in White Sands National Park after a brief rain shower.

Amazing Site!

If you drive to the White Sands National Park in New Mexico as my friend and I did (approaching it from Cloudcroft and heading down the mountain), the vista of glistening white sands that lies below is startlingly beautiful. The sands are bright and dazzling!

This gypsum dune field is the world's largest, and the park has effectively protected about 275 square miles of them.

The location is off US Highway 70, about 14 miles west of Alamogordo, New Mexico, or 52 miles east of Las Cruces.

No public transportation operates within the park, so people are in their cars, vans, or campers.

I had always heard of White Sands but did not expect to see the pristine beauty and snowy whiteness that unfolded before our eyes.

Visitor Center

Visitor Center

Roads Through the Park

As you can see from these photos, large earthmovers work to keep the eight miles of roadways cleared for easy access when traveling through the park.

They regularly plow the parking areas so that one can get out and walk or take pictures.

Four marked trails are maintained.

The public can participate in Park Ranger activities at no cost other than the park admission price. Park Rangers lead hikes into the dunes during the day and even take people there for sunset viewing plus monthly moon hikes. Check the park website for other programs and the timing of the different programs.

If planning to do some hiking, people should take precautions such as the following:

  • Be sure to carry enough water.
  • Dress appropriately for the weather.
  • Wear protective sunscreens to avoid being sunburned.
  • Use sunglasses and hats to protect one's eyes.

This area is a high desert country. The elevation is at 4,000 feet or around 1200 meters. The rays of the sun can damage skin and eyes more quickly at this altitude.

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These dunes are continually moving and shifting formations. The dunes can move about 30 feet in a year, generally from west to east.

Spring is a typically windy time. Footprints can disappear rapidly. Walking through the dunes, a person can become disoriented rather quickly and get lost. Carrying a good compass is recommended.

Shadows in the white sand

Shadows in the white sand

People have died in this white sand desert, so while beautiful to explore, reasonable precautions should be utilized.

The park is typically open from 7 AM until sunset.

Interdune Boardwalk at White Sands National Monument

Interdune Boardwalk at White Sands National Monument

The Interdune Boardwalk

The Interdune Boardwalk allows people in wheelchairs and others to get out into the middle of the dunes. It is there that one can see the hardy plants that survive in this harsh environment a little closer.

Exhibits along the paved roads interpret the history and geology of the dunes, so people can better understand how this all originated and better appreciate what they are viewing.

Skunkbush sumac

Skunkbush sumac

With the constantly shifting sands, it is incredible that any plants or animals can survive. But amazingly, some plants have adapted as some of these photos portray.

The large photo above shows the shunkbush sumac. These hardy shrubs bind the sand with their roots into a compact mass. When the sands once again shift, as they continually do, a hardened pedestal remains, which the plant holds in place. Even if the plant eventually dies, often the formation remains.

Soaptree yucca

Soaptree yucca

The photo above shows an almost buried yucca plant that also has a way of adapting to the ever-changing environment. The yucca survives by growing a longer stem so that its leaves remain above the surface of the sand. This one is almost buried, as you can see, but is still reaching for the sky and sun to keep it alive.

Wildlife

Most of the wildlife in a desert area like this survive by remaining in burrows during the hot daylight hours. They emerge at night to do their hunting for sustenance.

Some of these nocturnal animals include species such as the following:

  • Porcupines
  • Rabbits
  • Coyotes
  • Rodents
  • and Foxes.

What one is likely to see during the day are some birds, beetles, and lizards which can withstand the sun and heat.

The State of New Mexico introduced an African antelope called the Oryx onto the White Sands Missile Range. They have multiplied and spread into the park and sadly have become a threat to the native plants and animals.

Oryxes

Oryxes

Geology of White Sands National Park

The geology of this place is fascinating as to what caused this massive buildup of white sand.

  • 250 million years ago, in this area, a shallow sea covered the land. It was compressed and eventually turned into stone, and when the Rocky Mountains uplifted, this area also raised.
  • About 10 million years ago, a domed location collapsed and formed what is known as the Tularosa Basin.
  • Water began flowing into the Tularosa Basin, and Lake Lucero was formed at the lowest point. The formation of the larger Lake Otero took place during the last Ice Age.
  • There was no outlet to the sea, so as evaporation naturally took effect, the deposited gypsum became quite thick in areas.
  • During wet periods gypsum was slowly turned into a crystalline form called selenite.
  • Selenite crystals broke down by alternate freezing and thawing temperatures and ultimately crumbled into sand-sized particles.
  • Selenite is clear. But once blown about by the wind, the tiny particles began scratching the surface of each piece.
  • The light reflecting off of these small scratched pieces of selenite appears white.

Thus the creation of what we now see as white sand was created over eons of time.

We enjoyed using one of their unique and shaded picnic spots in which to enjoy lunch one day. One appreciates a bit of shade in this environment! It was late April, and few people traveled through the park when we were there. It is probably quite different in the summertime when more family vacations are taking place.

Many people come to White Sands to sled down the hills. It looks like fun! Boards are for rent at the visitor center with wax to apply to the boards to facilitate sliding down the sandy hills.

The White Sands Missile Range surrounds this park. Road closures going into the park are common when missile testing is being conducted. On average, one can expect delays of one to two hours. It can happen several times a week.

The Missile Range consists of 4,000 square miles, and the Department of Defense still actively tests experimental weapons. There is no public access to these areas.

Update

When my friend and I visited White Sands, it was still a national monument. Since December 20, 2019, this unique area is now a national park! Experiencing the dazzling White Sands National Park in New Mexico is something one will long remember.

Sources:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Peggy Woods

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