There aren’t very many people at White Sands National Park. I don’t know how many national parks you can say that about anymore. On the days I was there, weekday and weekend, I was mostly morbidly alone. The sand is lovely, but who wants to go to a beach without water? And hiking in the sand, I can now tell you from experience, is precisely as difficult as you might expect it to be. But this place isn’t about the common or expected and it’s not for everyone.
1. DRIVING TO WHITE SANDS IS A ONE-OF-A-KIND EXPERIENCE
Part of the low visitation is the difficulty of getting there. The park, somewhere between a town called Alamogordo – where I stayed – and Las Cruces, New Mexico, isn’t exactly on the way to anything else. Nor is there anything else to see nearby. You must circumvent any other more interesting or lively route to get there. But this remote placement has given it a claim to fame: the Trinity Site. It’s where they tested the world’s first nuclear bomb on July 16, 1945. It’s now marked by an obelisk made of black lava rock and a commemorative sign if you’re so inclined to visit. Twice a year, they allow visitors.
That site is now part of the White Sands Missile Range. I drove through it on my way to the park. You likely will, too, if you go. You can’t miss the signs. The wind is so fierce that it feels like a missile coming at you through that long barren stretch of land. You can see why they tested the bomb out there. I’d be lying if, at this point, I didn’t admit I was a little scared and wondering if the effort expelled to get here was worth it.
2. WHITE SAND THAT LOOKS LIKE SNOW MAKES YOUR MIND WORK DIFFERENTLY
The sign still says “White Sands National Monument” since the park service only upgraded it to a national park in 2019. I stopped at the gift shop, where they sell – can you guess? – lots of sand-filled curiosities, but not filled with actual sand from the park, the signs say, which defeats the purpose, in my opinion, but it’s the concept, I get it. I grabbed a map unnecessarily, as it turned out. The park is small and only one road, with signs marking the key points along the way.
The gypsum dune fields go on for over 100 miles in the park. The literature says the dunes make up about 176,000 acres or 275 square miles, but less than half (41%) of that is part of the park.
They plow the white sand from the road like snow and occasionally, parking lots along the nine-mile road are cleared. I hail from the Midwest and seeing piles of white plowed off to the sides seemed so snow-like it was impossible not to touch it as soon as I got out of my van. The play of light throughout the day too gives wide variance to the colors in the park.
I pulled into a lot at the end and joined only two other vehicles. They seem to be families, with bright red circle sleds stomping up and slowly sliding down the dunes repeatedly. The highest dunes are only up to 60 feet tall, so it takes determination. It’s good for kids with lots of energy. Not so good for out-of-shape adults, ahem.
3. HIKING AND SLEDDING ON THE SAND DUNES
Where else can you hike and sled at the same time? And how many places can you hike five different trails for over nine miles in the sand? Nay – in gypsum sand? I’ll tell you: nowhere in the world.
On this morning I chose a short 2.2-mile trail. Of the five trails, the only variation is the length. The trailhead wasn’t easy to find because everything is white on white on white. The lack of color and glare of the sun is, after a while, disorienting. That’s why the trails are so short. You might think you can do more, but once you’re out there, it’s all just white sand and glaring sun. Perhaps if you’re lucky, it will be overcast and cloudy. Both days I went, it was sunny, making it more difficult. The sun bounces right off the gypsum. They say to wear extra sunblock because it acts like a reflector and people burn from it.
Once you’re on the trail, the only way to follow it is by the tall, bright orange sticks stuck in the ground every 50 or so feet. You follow from marker to marker and in this way, you can follow the entire trail to its end. Without trees, bushes, or other landmarks, not even footprints – since the wind removes them quickly – the markers are the only thing you can depend on to know your way.
4. GYPSUM DUNE FIELDS IN SPACE
You’re wrong if you think you wouldn’t get lost in the dunes. The dune field has about 4.5 billion tons of sand. They say it would fill 45 million box cars on a train long enough to circle the earth more than 25 times. I don’t know who did that calculation, but it’s as impressive as the fact itself.
The dune field is so large you can see it from space. If you ever go to space, please report back. The most interesting to me is that the dunes are always moving. They say that the dune moves with the wind and over time, they come and go around the park, covering plants and leaving others and their roots exposed.
5. SPECIES TURNED WHITE
One thing you won’t see at White Sands National Park is animals. That doesn’t mean they’re not there, just that you likely won’t see them – they’ve learned to blend in. White animals found at White Sands include three reptiles, one amphibian, three mammals, and numerous insects. The park literature says there are at least 45 species only found at White Sands and nowhere else on earth:
- Apache pocket mouse
- White Sands wood rat
- Bleached earless lizard
- Two camel crickets
- 40 species of moths
White Sands National Park isn’t easy to get to and there isn’t a lot around it to keep you highly entertained. It’s a quiet place with unusual features and rare lifeforms. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for some of us.
If you go, your boots will get filled with sand and probably your eyes too. You’ll wonder how long a missile range can possibly be and if gypsum is anything like quicksand? But you’ll experience the sun radiating off the largest gypsum dunes in the world, and maybe you’ll catch sight of a bleached lizard or sled down a sand hill. If you do any of those things, you’ll be among the very few who ever will.