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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.

the-bright-dazzlingly-and-snowy-white-sands-national-monument

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

Comments are welcomed!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 19, 2016:

Hi Susie,

Yes...White Sands is definitely a different type of place! It is unlike anything I have ever visited because of that vast amount of dazzling white sand. Glad you enjoyed the virtual tour.

Susie Lehto from Minnesota on August 19, 2016:

White Sands National Monument is certainly a much different place than I have ever visited. Its beautiful in its own unique way. I love those kind of buildings in the photos, Peg. Thank you for another very interesting tour.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 24, 2016:

Hi techygran (Cynthia),

So glad you liked this article about White Sands NM. I am sorry you are having such a problem getting rid of the yucca in your garden. I did not realize that it was so invasive. Vancouver Island is so lush and beautiful. I got so spend 3 days there many years ago. You are fortunate to be living there!

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on July 23, 2016:

Very interesting and alluring article Peggy W! The crystalline desert sands have their own kind of attraction for adventuresome travelers-- I think there is a mind-link back to that old mythic movie, "King Solomon's Mines".

Besides the onyx, you mention another invasive species that has taken over my non-desert front flowerbed in my almost-rainforest yard: the yucca. When I mentioned our frustrations in trying to get rid of it on Facebook, one friend commented, "Sorry, Yucca is forever."

I enjoyed reading your finely-crafted article. -Cynthia

Robert Sacchi on July 16, 2016:

Thank you it seems an example of a dumb idea stupidly executed.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 16, 2016:

Hi Robert,

The views are truly amazing in White Sands National Monument. As to how and why the oryx were released into White Sands I think you will find this link helpful. http://www.hcn.org/issues/213/10797

Robert Sacchi on July 13, 2016:

An interesting article. The view must be spectacular. How were the oryx introduced to White Sands?

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on October 19, 2015:

White Sands, New Mexico is indeed a wonderful and dazzling place to visit. As to cooler temperatures...we are also enjoying them in Houston. Hooray!

C E Clark from North Texas on October 19, 2015:

An interesting place that everyone should make a point to see. Lots of information and great photos! Sharing with followers of course.

Cooler temps are here at last and I actually used my quilt twice in the last few days! Hope you are enjoying cooler temps down in Houston, too!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 28, 2014:

Hi Au fait,

The blindingly white sands are truly amazing and there is nowhere on earth quite like this. I agree...it is a site worth visiting! Thanks for the pin and share.

C E Clark from North Texas on May 16, 2014:

This time I've pinned this article to my "White" board. Also going to share it again. Everyone should visit this unusual place, especially people from the North on a nice hot day. :)

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on September 07, 2013:

Hi Au fait,

Thanks for sharing this information about the dazzling White Sands National Monument once again. I think that I will start a New Mexico board on Pinterest. Great sites in that state!

C E Clark from North Texas on August 31, 2013:

I want to bring attention to this great article again by sharing it with my followers. The photos are amazing and being there is (IMO) a weird experience, as I wrote when I first read this hub. Also pinning this hub on my 'Travel' board.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 04, 2013:

Hi Indian Chef,

What makes the White Sands National Monument so special is that it is the LARGEST gypsum sand dunes in the entire world. It is quite an amazing site to see in person. Thanks for your 5 star rating. The earth is ever changing...so not surprised that the Himalayas are getting higher each year. Nothing stays the same for long.

Indian Chef from New Delhi India on May 04, 2013:

Peggy I would have never thought there would be a national monument for sand. Beautiful Pictures and the sand moving that too so much every year .. It must be a wonderful site. They say Himalayas are getting higher and higher every year. Voted 5 stars.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on April 04, 2013:

Hi moonlake,

Nice to know that you have been to the White Sands National Monument on two different occasions. I had never heard the term "white elephant" meaning military police. Wonder if that same meaning is still used today? Thanks for the 5 star rating and vote up.

moonlake from America on April 03, 2013:

When I was young we went to White Sands for a visit with a church group. Later I went to White Sands military base with my soon to be husband to visit with a friend. The big white elephant stopped us to check us, that is what they called it. It was actually the military police. They didn't keep us.

Voted up on your hub and five stars.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on January 11, 2013:

Hello dragonflyfla,

So glad that I could introduce you to one of the spectacular national monuments in New Mexico. The White Sands National Monument is surely a show stopper! Thanks for your comment.

Joy Campbell from South Florida on January 11, 2013:

Wow, how interesting. I didn't know this about New Mexico - you think of Utah when it comes to salt and deserts for New Mexico.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on January 10, 2013:

Hi Au fait,

The bright white sands are amazingly similar in look to banks of glistening white snow. Nice that you have experienced the White Sands National Monument. Thanks for all the votes and especially the share.

C E Clark from North Texas on January 10, 2013:

A great hub, full of information, and fantastic photos!

I visited White Sands several years ago when I was still living in WI. I remember how it looked so much like snow that when I wasn't thinking I automatically started driving like I would on icy snow covered roads in WI! It looked so convincing that I had to keep telling myself that it wasn't snow and ice, but sand. And it was HOT, but that only confused my poor brain all the more because is looked like icy roads and snow.

I highly recommend this place for people looking for something interesting to see and do.

Voted up, BAUI, and will share! And I gave you 5 stars, too!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 24, 2012:

Hi radhikasree,

Yes, the U.S. is filled to the brim with interesting places and many of them so different from each other. Glad that you enjoyed this White Sands National Monument hub. Thanks for your comment and votes.

Radhika Sreekanth from Mumbai,India on May 24, 2012:

These white sands are really dazzling and amazing! I've heard that US has lots of natural spots each having a different outlook. Your hub could give me a complete presence of the monument nearby and thanks for sharing this.

Up, beautiful and awesome.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 24, 2012:

Hi Kathy (Lucky Cats),

You honor me with such glowing words regarding this hub about the White Sands National Monument. I'm a bit of a shutterbug and just love to take photos. Thank you!!!

Kathy from The beautiful Napa Valley, California on May 24, 2012:

Astounding! Peggy...you capture the beauty this world...effortlessly. We see through your eyes...description, capturing pictorial majesty...the mystery and subtle nature of our earth...and the breathtaking, colorful, almost unimaginable heights and depths of the sculpture that is planet earth. Through you, we travel in our imagination and using our senses to take in; vicariously, that which we may not find time in this life, to visit. thank you for this. I haven't read...but, you should work for National Geographic or another publication that highlights our beautiful world....ARE YOU CHARGING for this!!! j/k but, really...you take us away!!!

PS..I've been through so much of ths part of our country as I travel back and forth from California to the Heartland...so much magnificance!!!!! And you have pointed out special things I had not known of and, so...thank you for this!!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 24, 2012:

Hi Vinaya,

It is a great pleasure to be able to show you these pictures from our visit to the spectacular White Sands National Monument. Sunglasses are a must!!! Thanks for your comment.

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on May 24, 2012:

You always take to the places I have never been to.

I juts loved your wonderful pictures.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 23, 2011:

Hi Billy,

The difference between White Sands National Monument in New Mexico and Salt Lake is that there is no lake at the former location. Also the sand dunes are much higher. It is quite a playground! Your boys would love it!

billyaustindillon on July 22, 2011:

Was unfamiliar with the white sands monument - beautiful - reminds of the salt lakes. You certainly keep us informed with travel destinations Peggy.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 28, 2010:

Hello RachaelLefler,

Like you, I also love New Mexico. Haven't been to Roswell yet. When you go to the White Sands National Monument, be sure and wear sunglasses. That sand is so bright that these pictures do not even give you the correct idea. Enjoy!

Rachael Lefler from Illinois on March 28, 2010:

I've been to Roswell and visited Carlsbad Caverns... but now I want to see this one too! I'm in love with New Mexico!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 16, 2009:

Hello Porsche :),

These pictures do not even do it justice as the white gypsum sand is even a brighter white than the film could capture (yes I had film back when these were taken). Just knowing that these are the largest gypsum sand dunes in the world made it interesting for us. For hikers, the trails would be interesting as well.

We visited some Coral Pink Sand Dunes in a State Park in Utah that we also thought were very interesting. Dune buggies, trails, and just seeing nature in these different settings like this interested us...plus the unique colors.

That being said...not everyone has the same interests. But thank you for visiting and leaving your comment.

Personally I love all types of scenery when it comes to visiting places. Doesn't mean that I would want to live in all those places. :-)

Porsche :) on November 16, 2009:

I have been to New Mexico because of family many times, but never the White Sands. It dosent appear to be very interesting to me personally

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on February 26, 2009:

You are welcome, C.S. Alexis. Glad that I could bring you up to date. Not surprising that you remember the blinding whiteness of that sand. Would be a hard thing to forget!

C.S.Alexis from NW Indiana on February 26, 2009:

Peggy,

I visited there some 20+ years ago and I was astonished. Looks like there have been some amenities added for comfort. I think of that sand from time to time and the mental vision always amazes me. It is sure something one can never forget. Thanks for sharing.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on February 24, 2009:

Hi Lupo, I agree with you. As people traveled west and first saw things like this, they must have been absolutely amazed! Of course, many wonders like this would have also been viewed as obstacles to get around or pass through on the way to finding locales that would have been more hospitable to eak out a living from the land.

Lupo from Boston Area on February 24, 2009:

I always have to reflect upon what it must have been like for someone to come across places like this a long time ago. Many places that are now parks were once considered sacred by the Native Americans and were also and wondered about and marveled at by European explorers and settlers. While I have never been here, it does sound striking to find this big "sand box" sitting where it is.

Thanks for the nice hub.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on February 23, 2009:

Thanks jedgrey. I agree with your assessment of New Mexico being beautiful. If you are "goin' right now"..........or later, enjoy!!! I hope to be right behind you!

jedgrey on February 23, 2009:

Howdy, Neighbor,

I've always considered New Mexico to be under rated scenic wise. We've made several trips from Houston to Cloudcroft and Ruidoso, the scenery is so varied, one never gets bored while traveling through this remarkable state Your hub makes me want to git goin' right now!!

Good hub

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on February 21, 2009:

Hi Teresa,

Every time we have traveled west and visited more arid climates, it felt good. We can relate to heat and humidity living here in Houston. If it were not for air-conditioning, this city would certainly not be as large as it is. Stepping out into the furnace of a hot Houston summer is not pleasant. Today was absolutely lovely! Lower humidity and cool. We relish those days!!! Wish they could be bottled!

Sheila from The Other Bangor on February 21, 2009:

Oh Peggy I just have to get on the road and head out towards the desert -- it looks fascinating. I'm soooooo tired of the humidity in SC. Don't know if I can take another summer here. . . .

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