The Wave-Like Dunes of White Sands

January 15, 2016Travel Ideas

It's impossible not to be struck by the starkness and grandeur of White Sands National Monument.  Wave-like dunes of pure white gypsum sand engulf 275 square miles of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, creating one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders.  White Sands was established as a national monument in 1933, but its history goes back much further. 

A unique history

President Herbert Hoover signed White Sands National Monument into the National Parks System on Jan. 18, 1933, under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The landscape had already been home to the Mescalero Apache for generations, but they were not the first residents. The earliest human inhabitants arrived about 10,000 years ago, hunting mammoth and bison in what was then a lush grassland along the shores of ancient Lake Otero.

People hiking in the white sand dunes of White Sands National Monument

Following the end of the last Ice Age, geological processes and an increasingly dry climate gradually dried up Lake Otero, exposing gypsum crystals that had formed beneath its silty bottom. Thousands of years of wind and weather broke the crystals down to fine sand and scattered them across the desert, creating the vast (and still growing) area of white sand that visitors see today. 

Rich in life

White Sands National Monument may appear lifeless, but an observant visitor can spot its many inhabitants. More than 800 animal species reside within White Sands National Monument. Many have evolved with light colors to match their surroundings, and are found nowhere else on earth. 

Hundreds of insect species scuttle across the sand dunes, providing food for lizards, birds, and small mammals. Apache pocket mice and kangaroo rats live here as well, but often fall prey to rattlesnakes, kit foxes, and burrowing owls.

Indigenous amphibians spend most of their lives beneath the sand, but emerge to breed in great numbers during the summer monsoon season. A single fish species—the diminutive White Sands Pupfish—ekes out a precarious existence in tiny springs and pools. Only four tiny, isolated populations of this fish species exist on the planet, and they are all found within White Sands National Monument! 

Planning your visit

White Sands National Monument is most accommodating during the relatively mild winter months, but no matter what time of year you visit, there won’t be a shortage of things to do

Ranger-led programs and events take place year-round, giving you a chance to learn firsthand about the people, animals, and geology that make White Sands such a special place. Sunset strolls, tours of Lake Lucero, and kids' craft projects are among the most popular programs. Other ways you can enjoy your time at White Sands National Monument include: 

  • Camping: Ten primitive backcountry campsites are almost always open along the park's desert backpacking trail. No facilities are provided in the backcountry, which means campers are responsible for their own food, water, and cleanup.

Pitched tent at the white sand dunes
  • Scenic driving: The Dunes Drive is a 16-mile circuit around the White Sands dune field. Picnic areas and toilets are located at the end of the drive. 
  • Sledding: White Sands National Monument offers a slightly non-traditional take on a popular wintertime activity. Sledding down the face of the dunes is a thrilling experience, and many visitors come ready to hit the sandy slopes with waxed plastic snow saucers. 

Two children sledding down white sand dunes

Just a few miles west of Alamogordo, White Sands National Monument is a place of stark natural beauty. Despite its seemingly barren landscape, the monument is home to diverse animal life and boasts a rich human history, making it one of our most unique National Park Service units.

For ideas on trails to enjoy in White Sands National Monument, and in other parks across the system, be sure to download your free copy of our Owner’s Guide, “Happy Trails.”

Photo Credits: National Park Service; Jess Curren and Margaret Storb via Share the Experience Photo Contest


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