On December 20, 2019, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 was signed and the White Sands National Monument’s name was “supercharged” and became our 62nd “national park”. The park, located in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico, is one of the world’s great natural wonders.
The 275 square miles of sand dunes are comprised of gypsum crystals, a geological reminder of a distant past when this area was a shallow sea. Over the course of millennia, the crystals have been carried by water and wind to the Tularosa Basin, forming the world’s largest gypsum dune field to the east of Lake Lucero. A stop at the park visitor center provides more information on how the dunes were created.
From the visitor center, visitors can set off on the eight-mile Dunes Drive to view the dunes and the Chihuahuan Desert as well as access to a variety of trails. The Dunes Drive is 16 miles round trip and takes approaching 45 minutes to complete. The first five miles of Dunes Drive are paved and the last three miles are a hard-packed gypsum sand road – which is suitable for all vehicles.
The Playa Trail and Dune Life Nature Trail are the first trails a visitor will encounter. Both trails are short interpretive trails and are excellent opportunities to learn more about the park.
Towards the end of the Dunes Drive, you’ll encounter the Yucca Picnic area which is the most popular section of the park with plenty of opportunities to explore the desert hills. Here you’ll likely see people riding sleds down the dunes – a popular activity which may take a little practice. You can purchase sleds at the visitor center or bring your own.
If you’re looking for a challenge, head to the Alkali Flat Trail. This a strenuous 4.6-mile trail across the biggest dunes in the park to the dry, mineral-encrusted bed of Lake Otero.
Visitors during the summer may be surprised by the temperature of the sand. This is because unlike dunes made of quartz-based sand crystals, the gypsum does not convert the sun’s energy into heat and so it can be walked upon safely with bare feet, even in the hottest summer months.
The park does have a unique relationship with the U.S. military. It is completely surrounded by the largest military installation in the country – the White Sands Missile Range. This military installation serves as a testing facility and was the site of the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945. The military base is still very active so the park can close temporarily for time-to-time so be sure to check ahead.