Anyone who has ever been to White Sands National Monument knows that it’s a special place. The sight of these dunes, set against a backdrop of mountains, is one that you’re unlikely to forget. It’s no wonder that White Sands is New Mexico’s top outdoor attraction.
At 275 square miles, this is the planet’s biggest gypsum dunefield and it continues to grow. So where does all the sand come from?
Thousands of years ago, Lake Otero dried up, leaving behind gypsum crystals. Over time, these were broke into smaller and smaller pieces until sand was all that remained.
In 1933, White Sands became a national monument.
The best way to get an overview of the monument is to drive or bike along Dunes Drive (eight miles each way), taking in the rippling waves of sand all around you.
After that, you can explore in greater depth.
White Sands offers several trails and hikes (leashed pets are welcome). By far the easiest is the Interdune Boardwalk. It’s fully accessible and 0.4 miles in length.
For a mid-length hike, try the 2.2-mile long Backcountry Loop Trail. This is also the way to reach the handful of primitive camping sites here. Camping permits are issued at the visitor’s center.
If you’re feeling adventurous and aren’t daunted by the prospect of trekking across soft sand, the Alkali Flat Trail gives you an unparalleled view of the dunes. This route leads to Alkali Flat, the name given to the dry lakebed; it’s by no means a description of the terrain. Expect a workout across rolling dunes. Bring at least one gallon of water per person.
If you're not in the mood to hike, you could try a little sand sledding. According to the NPS, snow saucers give you the best ride (bring your own).
When you’re ready for a break, stop for lunch at one of the 62 unique-looking picnic tables in the park.
In summer months, temperatures can approach three digits during the middle of the day. If you’re planning to visit soon, go in the late afternoon or early evening.
Free, ranger-led Sunset Strolls take place about an hour before sunset. This experience is both informative and a great way to score some atmospheric photos.
Numerous special events take place at White Sands. Ranger-guided, full moon hikes run between May and October. In April and October, full moon bike rides take place and, twice a year (in March and October), amateur photographers can sign up for sunrise photography. Reservations are required.
You might think that wildlife couldn’t survive in these conditions, but more than 800 species of animals manage to do just that. The color of some of these animals has changed over time – they’ve evolved to become paler to better blend in with their surroundings. So you may or may not spy apache pocket mice or bleached earless lizards! You’ll probably just see their tracks.
Be aware that the road leading into this national monument closes now and then, when missile testing is being conducted.
People have been visiting this top outdoor attraction for decades. This image shows visitors enjoying this incredible place in the 1940s.