White Sands is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world, covering over 275 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert with brilliant white, soft dunes. They’re located on the west side of the Tularosa Basin, between the San Andres and the Sacramento mountains. The White Sands Missile Range surrounds the park, so the road in (US 70) is sometimes closed during missile range tests. Those closures average twice a week for one to two hours, so it’s worth checking before you head out. Missile tests are obviously only conducted in the middle of nowhere, and in my opinion, sharing the location is in this case a good thing, because if White Sands was easier to get to, it would be completely run amok with crowds of both adults and children playing in the cool, soft sand. There were plenty of fellow visitors, to be sure, but based on the fun to be had here, I think location is playing a part in the preservation of it’s delicate ecosystem.
I started out the day by just walking through the dunes, photographing in the soft morning light, and watching the kids (and adults) sledding down the dunes.
The visitors center had listed a “sunset walk” later in the day, so I did some other exploring around Alamogordo and went back for that. Boy was I glad I did, because the afternoon light made the place look very different as the colors warmed up and shadows emerged.
As that was happening, I followed one of our rock star Park Service Rangers into the desert to learn more about this beautiful place. From what I can tell, pretty much every explanation of a geologic feature in North America begins with the supercontinent of Pangea, and the point about 175 million years ago when it began to break apart. This was no different, but our ranger did a great job of keeping to the high points: the two mountain ranges around us were once one, they split apart and the Permean sea retreated, leaving behind large layers of gypsum. Later, water from retreating glaciers dissolved the mineral and returned it to the basin. Today, the process continues as rain, snow and wind break the selenite crystals down until they are sand dunes that continue to move each year.
To my surprise, I also learned that this desert has water located only inches to a few feet below the surface of the area where we were walking, and that it’s actually salty water. The presence of water is how the plants live, but it’s actually an indirect process by where cyanobacteria absorb the water and then release it into the plants, because most of the plants can’t actually use saltwater. Our ranger continued to point out examples of symbiotic life forms at White Sands, and they were all over the place! Very cool.
After the Sunset Walk was over, most of the participants hung around on the dunes watching the sunset, which was a perfect way to end the day.
Overall impression: This was like a super fun science field trip. The giant sand box feel contributed to a sense of whimsy, despite the massive scale. It’s a little out of the way, but a very worthwhile destination. Be sure to take lots of water!!
Costs: There is a $5 per person fee to enter Dunes Drive, which is the road that takes you into the dunes and eventually loops you back around. Children 15 and younger are free. My entrance was free, as it was covered under my annual National Park Pass. I stayed at the KOA in Alamogordo for two nights for $65.09, including a KOA Value Kard discount of 10%. Meals and drinks were at my camper, plus a packed lunch.