Pristine mounds of sparkling white sand rise like waves in the harsh desert landscape of southern New Mexico. But it’s not ordinary sand. It’s actually gypsum, or more specifically, crystallized gypsum called selenite. Gypsum is a mineral that’s commonly used in the making of drywall and plaster for casts, also known as “Plaster of Paris.” While many dune fields exist around the world, most are made up of brown quartz and other minerals. Only a handful of gypsum dune fields are known. So, in order to protect and preserve the world’s largest gypsum dune field, White Sands National Monument was established in 1933 and has been drawing visitors ever since.
The entrance to White Sands National Monument is located off U.S. Highway 70, 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Alamogordo and 52 miles (84 km) east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. For a nominal fee, visitors can then drive along an 8-mile (13 km) roadway leading into the dunes. The surrounding views are bleak and otherworldly. Along the road are several places to pull over and snap photos or just play in the sand. It’s even permitted to sled down the dunes on plastic saucers, the same kind used for snow play, or park near the end of Dunes Drive to have a picnic. With their curving, cocoon-like aluminum roofs, the picnic tables look like they belong in a science fiction film. There are four marked trails for exploring and, in the summer months, there are also Ranger-guided orientation and nature walks as well.
Gypsum is rarely found in the form of sand because it’s water-soluble. Under normal circumstances, the rain would dissolve the gypsum and wash it out to sea. However, since the Tularosa Basin where White Sands National Monument is located is enclosed, when it rains the gypsum has no place to go. The area’s prevailing winds continuously erode the crystals, creating very fine white sand. When you leave the park, you’ll find sand everywhere—in you hair, in your clothes, in your car. Everywhere.
The park is located adjacent to the United States military’s White Sands Missile Range so periodically both the park and the highway are subject to closure for safety reasons when tests are conducted. Here’s a bit of history: located on the northern boundary of White Sands Missile Range is the Trinity Site, where the world’s first atom bomb was detonated.
Below are some additional photos from my visit:
Where: The visitor center is located off U.S. Highway 70, 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Alamogordo and 52 miles (84 km) east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Travelers coming from Carlsbad Caverns can take U.S. 82 through the scenic Sacramento Mountains to reach White Sands National Monument. The nearest major airport is in El Paso, Texas, about 85 miles (183 km) south.f
When: Park hours vary throughout the year. During the summer (Memorial Day through Labor Day), the Dunes Drive may be entered between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. All visitors must exit the park by 10 p.m. During the rest of the year, the Dunes Drive may be entered from 7 a.m. to sunset, and visitors must exit the park by one hour after sunset. The park Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer. Fall hours are from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the rest of the year.
How Much: Entrance fees are $3 per adult (16 and over). Children are free. National Park passes allow free entrance.
Don’t forget: Bring plenty of water, as there aren’t any fountains inside the park, and don’t forget sunscreen or your sunglasses—the white dunes reflect the sunlight, which is blinding.
For more information: Visit the official website at http://www.nps.gov/whsa/index.htm
Have you ever been to White Sands National Monument before? What were your thoughts? Feel free to comment in the section below!