The sheer expansiveness of the shimmering white landscapes makes it difficult to find a place to rest your eyes. This is White Sands…
This post comes to you from Lauren Engel.
The park road fades from black to white as we make our way through the billowy bright dunes of White Sands National Monument. This dune field is one of the largest in the United States, covering nearly three hundred square miles. It is also one of the most unique because it comprises the world’s largest expanse of gypsum sand dunes. The sheer expansiveness of the shimmering white landscapes makes it difficult to find a place to rest your eyes. Distances easily deceive and play tricks on your imagination, with only the blue San Andres Mountains on the horizon, like silhouetted cutouts to help you keep your bearings. The barrenness is disorienting and completely breathtaking. If you’re looking for an out-of-this-world adventure White Sands is definitely a must-see. Check out my park guide below:
Where to Stay:
Situated in New Mexico’s remote Tularosa Basin, resorts are scarce near White Sands. However, camping is allowed (and highly recommended) in the park. If you decide to brave the great outdoors and backcountry camp under the star-studded night sky, be prepared for rapid dips in temperature at night. During the winter season nighttime temps frequently drop below freezing, so pack mindfully. Backcountry camping in the monument is a truly amazing and otherworldly experience. Away from roads, lying on your back, seeing the silvery glow of the mood reflecting on the sand and millions of twinkling stars in the sky, it is easy to feel as if you are in outer space.
The entrance to White Sands is located roughly 200 miles south of Albuquerque. Though this may sound like a long journey for a day trip, there is plenty to see along the way. If you decide to make a day trip to White Sands, pack a lunch and head out early! If possible, plan to stay until sunset. Dusk is a magical time amidst the dunes. The sky is transformed by colors absent during the midday glare. The sands unveil the soft curves and delicate surface textures that are obscured by the hot white heat of noon.
What to See:
To wander and play in White Sands is nothing short of wonderful — there is so much to see and do.
An eight-mile scenic drive leads from the visitors’ center into the very heart of the dunes. Pullouts along the drive, such as ‘Playa Trail’ and ‘Interdune Boardwalk’ offer easy to moderate hikes that boast stunning views and provide unique glimpses into the variety of wildlife in White Sands. There are numerous parking areas along Dune Drive, allowing visitors to stop and explore for themselves as they please on foot. But beware of wandering too far — extremely strong winds commonly move more than just sand, but entire dunes and with them all points of reference.
Imagine yourself surrounded by the spectacular views of endless dunes with few footprints. If you yearn for these views, then Alkali Flat is a must. The Alkali Flat is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last Ice Age and covered 1,600 square miles. Sandwiched between the dunes and the San Andres Mountains, the Alkali Flat is located at the very end of Dunes Drive. Getting to Alkali Flat requires an easy to moderate hike; the trail takes you through the heart of the sands, up and over steep dunes, to the edges of the Alkali Flat.
The lowest points of Tularosa Basin are now covered by Lake Lucero, at the southwest tip of the White Sands dune field. As ancient Lake Otero evaporated, its shores shrank to the approximate dimensions of today’s Lake Lucero; along the way concentrations of selenite, the beautiful, long, crystalline forms of gypsum were left behind. Today, a remarkable quantity of translucent golden-yellow selenite is found shimmering around the margins of Lake Lucero. These crystals can grow to lengths of four feet and littler the surface of the lake. The trail to Lake Lucero passes steep gullies where selenite crystals have been exposed by erosion of what was once the floor of Lake Otero.White Sands National Monument offers a ranger-led tour of Lake Lucero for visitors interested in learning more about the formation of the dunes and the origin of the sands. Reservations are required and accepted one month in advance of the tour date.
The overall stillness of the dunes is frequently interrupted by howls of delight from visitors sledding at White Sands. Yes, sledding. Sledding on the beautiful soft sand is a popular activity and a total blast. Unlike snow, the sand is not slippery and a good run down the face of a dune can take a few tries. Waxed plastic snow saucers work best and can be purchased at the monument gift shop, or you can bring your own!
Lead image: Lille Maxi Dress.