“What is that up ahead?”
“Is that snow?”
“How could it be snow? We are in New Mexico and it’s July.”
“Well, what else could it be?”
“Look how white that is. I wonder what it is.”
Those were some of the questions and comments being expressed the first time we saw White Sands National Monument over 20 years ago. We were on our way to Las Cruces to visit Alan’s folks and had come by way of Cloudcroft, high up in the mountains to the east. As we began our descent, we entered the Tularosa Basin and the pure white sand of the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. It was incredible! We had never seen anything like this! After a morning spent hiking, sledding, and gawking (yes, gawking), we vowed that each and every time we would visit southern New Mexico, White Sands would be on the “Must See” list. Our latest trip to White Sands was in March 2016. Once again, it wowed us!
White Sands National Monument is located off of highway 70, about an hour’s drive from Las Cruces and only 13 miles from Alamogordo. Since White Sands National Monument is near the White Sands Missile Range, it is subject to closures during missile testing, so call first to see if they are open. When you enter the monument, first, stop at the visitor center. Here you can get your National Parks Passport book stamped, buy a snow-saucer for sledding on the dunes, browse through the gift shop, get information on ranger programs, and look at the interactive displays. You will learn a lot about the dunes environment; plant and animal life; the effects of wind and water on the dunes; and how to safely enjoy your visit. There is an entrance fee of $5 for adults, children are FREE, and of course, if you have a National Parks Pass, you get in FREE.
The 8-mile scenic road which takes you deep into the heart of the 275 square mile dunefield has several pullouts with interpretive signs and/or trailhead parking. As you drive further and further along, the walls of sand rise up on both sides of the road reminding one of plowed snowdrifts. And the deeper you get into the dunes, you suddenly find yourself completely surrounded by white sand, not seeing anything else, except the blue sky and the mountains rising up to the west. It is simply remarkable that by driving only a few miles, you can find yourself in another world.
Besides the scenic drive, there are many other activities to enjoy. White Sands boasts several hiking trails, ranging from 1200 ft to 5 miles; countless dunes to sled down; covered picnic shelters; ranger-led programs; backcountry camping; and horse trails. And it probably goes without saying that White Sands is a photographer’s paradise. One could spend all day AND all night capturing the many, changing moods of the dunes and that wide western sky.
Caution must be taken when visiting White Sands. Dehydration is of utmost concern. In a desert environment, you can dehydrate very quickly, so drink, drink, drink! Another concern is the sun. Not only do you have to worry about the rays coming from above, all that white sand reflects the sunshine right back at you, so hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are a must. And sand dunes are tricky, deceptive, and constantly changing landforms. It is very easy to get disoriented and lost in the dunes. Sadly, people have lost their lives while hiking at White Sands because they went off trail, could not find their way back, and were unprepared for hiking in the desert heat.
You could spend all day at White Sands, during the cooler months. In the summer, morning and evening are the best times to stop, thus avoiding the heat of the day. Other nearby attractions include: White Sands Missile Range Museum and Missile Park, a FREE, very informative museum with a large static display of rockets and missiles; Alameda Park Zoo in Alamogordo, the oldest zoo in the SW United States; the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo; as well as the cities of Alamogordo and Las Cruces.
White Sands is a one-of-a-kind, magical place for us, full of family memories. We’ve hiked miles of dunes, up and down, encouraging the boys, “You can do it! One more dune!” There was the time we were the first visitors of the day and were early enough to watch the bleached earless lizards before they burrowed their way down into the sand to escape the heat of the day. How many photos do we have of White Sands? Innumerable. One of our sons even stopped there with his new bride on their way west. Probably my fondest memory, but one that is bittersweet, was all of us having one last romp on the dunes after Alan’s dad’s funeral. He loved White Sands and I’m sure he was smiling down on all his kids and grandkids sliding and jumping and digging in the sand.
White Sands National Monument is an extraordinary place. Each time we visit we are in awe of God’s handiwork and thankful to those who have worked so hard to preserve it for future generations to enjoy.