White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands, NM

White Sands National Monument

The world’s largest field of gypsum sand dunes fills 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico (elevation 4235 ft). A large portion of the area makes up White Sands National Monument. Herbert Hoover designated the are as National monument in 1933. Long before that, the Mescalero Apache lived in the area, and several farming communities were established in the 1860s. These days, White Sands is surrounded by military installations. The approach is a bit disconcerting, as you have to pass a number of signs about shooting/missile practice. At times, the road is closed for this reason, so check the schedule before planning a trip. (US Route 70 runs between Las Cruces, NM and Alamogordo.) Once you arrive, Dunes Drive leads 8 miles (13k) into the park. There are also four walking trails, including the 4.6 mile Alkali Flat Trail loop.

Hands in White Sand

What is gypsum?

The word “gypsum” comes from a Greek word, γύψος, (gypsos), which means “chalk” or “plaster.”  It’s a very soft mineral, and the most common sulphate mineral. One of its forms, alabaster, has long been used in sculpting. Gypsum is hardly ever found as sand because it dissolves in water, but since the basin has no rivers to drain it, the gypsum basically stays put. Rain may partially dissolve dunes, or cement parts together Not many plants or animal species have been able to adapt to this harsh and ever-changing environment, but a few, including a pocket mouse, two lizards and several insects, have evolved a white coloration to blend in with the sand. There are a few species of grass, saltbush and yucca that are able to survive at the edges of the dunes. The pictures of them in the museum looked like they had all been dunked in bleach!

T at White Sand

White Sands: The Dunes

The dunes themselves are impressive. Surrounded by the San Andres and Sacramento mountains, the dunes are truly like a desert. They go on as far as they eye can see. Like all dunes, they are constantly moving and changing. The dunes here are said to move up to 20 foot a year! As we walked, we felt like just over each dune we should see the beach, but it was another blindingly white landscape that met our view. It’s easy to imagine the deserts where people become disoriented and end up hopelessly lost. The white sand looks just like snow, and kids and grown-ups a like hike up and slide back down on sleds. Playing in sand that looks and acts more like snow is a one-of-a-kind experience.  We had fun just making handprints in the powdery sand.

White Sand, New Mexico

The Trinity Site

The nearby Trinity Site marks the location of the world’s first atomic detonation on July 16, 1945. Following the test, two bombs were prepared for use against Japan in World War II. The morbid site (and the McDonald Ranch, where the device was assembled) is open for one day, twice a year (the first Saturdays of April and October). Trinitite, which look like blue-green pebbles can be seen here and there. These were created when the heat from the explosion fused the desert sand into glass. (Radiation at the spot is said to be mild.)

More photos from our visit HERE.

About the author

Free-spirited traveler at peace on the slow road. Packs light and treads lightly. Tamara writes about the nomadic lifestyle and slow travel along with budget-friendly tips and destination guides.