Visiting the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico
If you are driving to the White Sands National Monument 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 is the world's largest gypsum dune field and the monument has effectively protected about 275 square miles of them.
The location can be found off US Highway 70 about 14 miles west of Alamagordo, New Mexico or 52 miles east of Las Cruses.
No public transportation operates within the park, so people are in their own cars, vans, or campers.
I had always heard of White Sands but really did not expect to see the pristine beauty and snowy whiteness that unfolded before our eyes.
Roads Through the Park
As you can see from these photos, large earth movers work to keep the eight miles of roadways cleared for easy access when traveling through the park.
There are regularly plowed parking areas provided so that one can get out and walk or take pictures.
Four marked trails are maintained.
Park Ranger activities are offered to the public at no cost other than the cost of admission to this national monument.
Park Rangers lead hikes into the dunes during the day and even take people there for sunset viewing as well as monthly moon hikes. Check the monument website for other programs and 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 is high desert country. 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.
These sand 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.
People have died in this white sand desert so while beautiful to explore, reasonable precautions should be utilized.
The park is typically opened from 7 AM until sunset.
The Interdune Boardwalk
The Interdune Boardwalk was created so that people in wheel chairs as well as others could get out into the middle of the dunes and see the hardy plants that survive in this harsh environment a little closer.
Other exhibits along the paved roads interpret the history and geology of the dunes so that people better understand how this all originated and be able to better appreciate what they are viewing.
With the constantly shifting sands it is amazing 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 which they continually do, a hardened pedestal remains which the plant holds in place. Even if the plant eventually dies often this formation remains.
The photo above shows an almost buried yucca plant that also has a way of adapting to the ever changing environment.
The way the yucca survives is by growing an ever 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.
Most of the wildlife in a desert area such as 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:
- and Foxes.
What one is likely to see during the day are some birds, beetles and lizards which can withstand the sun and heat.
An African antelope called the Oryx was introduced by the State of New Mexico onto the White Sands Missile Range.
These oryx have multiplied and spread into the park. Sadly they have actually become a threat to the native plants and animals.
Geology of White Sands National Monument
The geology of this place is interesting 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 were uplifted this area was also raised.
- About 10 million years ago a domed area collapsed and formed what is known as the Tularoso Basin.
- Water began flowing into the Tularosa Basin and formed Lake Lucero at the lowest point. Lake Otero which is a larger lake was created 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 were broken down by alternate freezing and thawing temperatures and were ultimately crumbled into sand sized particles.
- Selenite is clear but once it was able to be blown about by the wind the small 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 definitely appreciates a bit of shade in this environment!
It was late April and few people were traveling through the monument on the particular day that 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 can be rented at the visitor center along with wax to apply to the underside of the boards to facilitate sliding down the sandy hills.
One interesting side bit of information.
Since this National Monument is surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range, closures of the roads going into the park are quite common when missile testing is being conducted. On average one can expect delays of one to two hours and this 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. No public access is granted into these areas.
Experiencing the dazzling White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is definitely something one will long remember. Below is a beautiful video showcasing its beauty from sunrise to sunset.
Have you visited the dazzling White Sands National Monument in New Mexico?
© 2009 Peggy Woods