Why You Should Add The White Sand Dunes To Your Bucket List

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Playing in a grown-up sandbox is a blast when it’s at White Sands National Park near Alamogordo, N.M. These white sand dunes are located in the middle of White Sands Missile Range. Here, the gypsum sands are no respecter of age.

Children from 5 years old to 95 years old can be found riding sleds down the 30-foot tall white sand dunes. They’ll also be hiking from dune to dune and exploring the vast expanses of this evaporated lake bed and its indefatigable plant life. 

In fact, it’s become such a popular location that over 600,000 visitors make the trek to Southern New Mexico every year!

About White Sands National Park 

With 275 square miles of white sand in the midst of a barren desert, White Sands National Park is an anomaly. Created by the erosion of gypsum in nearby mountains carried into long-forgotten lake beds, the park lost water which eventually evaporated, leaving sand that took more than 12,000 years to form.

Today, this fine white substance is 30 ft to 60 ft deep. It covers the Tularosa Basin and creating the largest dune field on earth. In fact, it’s easily spotted on satellite images.

Once named a national monument, White Sands added the title of “national park” in 2019 as the most visited NPS site in the state of New Mexico. It hosts an 8-mile loop road with various pull-outs and displays. Its grand attraction is hiking on any of the undulating white dunes, using landmark stakes as locators. 

Folks can also purchase plastic snow saucers at the Visitor Center to take a ride that’s out of this world!

The white sand dunes during sunset with a pink sky

Where Is White Sands National Park? 

Located 52 miles northeast of Las Cruces and 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo, White Sands is in the middle of the White Sands Missile Range Military Installation. With such explosive neighbors, the park sometimes closes during missile tests, but these sand dunes are well protected! 

What Is the History Behind White Sand Dunes? 

The dunes themselves were created over 12,000 years, starting out as gypsum minerals in the surrounding mountains that were eroded and carried down to what was once Lake Lucero. When the lake’s waters dried up, it left selenite crystals that eventually eroded into the gypsum sand seen today.

Since then, the area was finally protected from development by its designation as a national monument in 1933. Already an established ‘playground’ for dune climbing and picnic lunches, visiting White Sands picked up popularity quickly. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration quickly constructed a park headquarters building, museum, public restrooms, and staff residences on the property.

But in 1942, just after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the surrounding land in the Tularosa Basin was designated as Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range. White Sands National Monument now had an interesting neighbor that eventually morphed into the White Sands Missile Range.

By 2019, enough interest in the park pushed White Sands into national park status, hosting more than 6,000 people a day. The region only welcomes sled-seeking tourists, but it has become a sought-after film location for movies, television, and music videos.

The white sand dunes with a blue sky background and a green plant growing out of the sand

Why Are the White Sand Dunes White?

The white color of the dunes comes from the gypsum mineral that makes up the sand. This rock is found in the surrounding San Andres and the Sacramento Mountains and was carried to the Tularosa Basin.

This is where water evaporated, leaving crystals of selenite, gypsum’s well-defined “mother.” The selenite eroded for thousands of years, turning into the fine sands seen throughout the park today.

Why You Should Take A Trip to White Sands National Park

The sandbox here is huge, lending itself to various activities for every member of the family, including Fido! Here are just a few of the reasons you should add White Sands National Park to your “must-see” travel itinerary:

Go Sledding in Summer

How many opportunities are there to ride a sled (or a snow saucer) in any other season besides winter? Mile after mile of white dunes are available for your own private sledding hill.

Adults and children participate in sliding down these gypsum mounds, emitting squeals of delight before trekking back up the rise for another trip down.

Back of man sitting on sand in white sands dunes national monument in New Mexico on green disk sled for sliding down hills

Incredible Stargazing

Viewing the desert night sky is as close to becoming an astronaut as most earthlings will experience. With virtually no light pollution, viewers can see constellations, planets, and galaxies from the Tularosa Basin without the aid of telescopes. For the best star gazing experience, check when the full moon hike takes place when checking in at the Ranger Station.

Today’s movie special effects are a poor substitute after you’ve seen the real thing!

Otherworldly Landscape

With its constantly shifting waves of sand, White Sands National Park is a great stand-in for lunar landscapes. Visitors will find a few tenacious plants, types of grass, and flowers that refuse to be overtaken by the inhospitable elements. Still, in many places, the park replicates the barren topography of planets only visited by our imaginations.

‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Hiking

There are some designated hikes with the park, like the popular Dune Life Nature Trail. However, with much of the open dunes, adventurers can scamper wherever they’d like. This can become challenging when the winds pick up because there are very few natural landmarks to mark a trail.

Posts have been installed on the dunes to guide hikers, but if getting away from it all is your desire, the white sand dunes are the place to do it! If you’re not sure where to start, stop by the visitor center to get a recommendation from the park ranger.

It’s a Fairly New National Park

Even though White Sands is the most visited National Park Service (NPS) destination in New Mexico, it still is relatively undiscovered by the crowds that head to Yellowstone or Zion. Yet, its unusual geography and mesmerizing views make it a popular destination for many new travelers.

Having been designated as a national park just three years ago, these white dunes still have a fresh new feel. It’s like you’ve discovered a secret that very few know about. 

A National Park Service sign on a brick building

When Is the Best Time to Visit the White Sand Dunes?

The southern New Mexican desert can be quite hot in the summer. So avoiding the sweltering heat of July and August might be a good idea.

But White Sands is captivating at night for star gazing trips and daily treks across the dunes at almost any time of year. Just avoid windy days and use the blue trail markers when hiking trails! It is easy to get disoriented in an all-white landscape!

Getting Into White Sands National Park

As with most national parks, White Sands has an entry fee. However, it doesn’t require reservations or timed entry passes like those found recently at very busy parks.

A day pass for a private, non-commercial vehicle is $25. Motorcycle daily passes are $15, and people entering the park walking or by bicycle are charged $10.

And of course, annual passes like the America The Beautiful Pass or its counterpart, the Senior Lifetime Pass, are accepted. These passes are good at any national park, monument, or historical site.

Keep Exploring: When you’re done visiting White Sand, head northwest and visit The Mighty 5: Why You Need to See These National Parks in Utah.

Add White Sands to Your Bucket List 

You’ll never forget a day spent at White Sands National Park. It will be the highlight of any trip. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in the world’s largest sandbox while discovering a geologic aberration that isn’t anywhere else.

And best of all, it provides the perfect setting for carefree fun in the sand where it’s least expected – in landlocked New Mexico!

Will you add it to your bucket list?

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