Crystal White Waves
Love to sled, but hate the cold and wet of snow? Maybe it’s time to put White Sands National Monument onto your winter travel itinerary. In fact, it’s possible to go sledding on the beautiful, soft, white sand dunes in the heart of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin year-round.
The sand dunes here are special because they’re made up of gypsum, a mineral rarely found as sand and more commonly found as large crystals or dissolved in water. It's so ubiquitous, it can be found in your drywall, shampoo, and even in tennis court clay.
It all started with the Pangaea 280 million years ago when parts of what we now call New Mexico were covered by the ancient Permian Sea, rich with minerals including gypsum.
Things began to shake up about 70 million years ago as the tectonic plates collided to create tall mountain ranges while other parts of the earth’s crust pulled apart, making fault zones and basins, including the Rio Grande rift, which trapped gypsum deposits in the Tularosa Basin nestled between the newly-formed ranges.
During the last Ice Age, rain and snowmelt carried even more gypsum from the surrounding landscape into the basin, settling onto the lakebed of ancient Lake Otero. After the Ice Age ended, Lake Otero evaporated, leaving concentrations of crystalline gypsum, selenite, in the dry lake bed, or playa.
Over time, freezing and thawing broke selenite into progressively smaller chunks, eventually turning it into gypsum sand. These grains of sand moved a few inches at a time over thousands of years, eventually forming the famous white sand dunes.
Today, the white sand dunes are still being formed (albeit much slower) as the gypsum crystals in modern-day playa, Lake Lucero, are exposed and broken down.
Thinking of visiting the ever-changing landscape of this New Mexican national park? Learn more about ways you can explore the wave-like dunes of White Sands National Monument here.