New Mexico Road Trip | White Sands National Park -
Starry nights over White Sands National Park with yucca in foreground

Viewed from 9,000 feet elevation on the front lawn of The Lodge Resort in Cloudcroft, distant White Sands shimmers as an immense snow-white expanse on the Tularosa Basin’s tawny desert landscape that stretches to the western horizon.

Mystery and Majesty

People seen in the distance at White Sands National Park.
Visitors can hike over the dunes and explore the plants and animals that have adapted to this unique environment. Photo by Rob McCorkle.

This 275-square-mile anomaly of undulating gypsum sand dunes, established as a national monument in 1933, has drawn humans for more than 10,000 years to its otherworldly environs. Today, even in the midst of a pandemic, the recently designated national park attracts record numbers of visitors from all over.

Interestingly, the world’s largest dune field isn’t composed of sand like you’d find at the beach, but rather granular gypsum, the second softest mineral in the world with the consistency of super fine sugar. White Sands owes its existence to a unique confluence of natural forces such as wind and water, the perfect climate, and its location in a vast basin wedged between the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains.

“It’s far more than a giant sandbox because there are so many unique aspects other than the sand,” says Kelly Carroll, the national park’s lead interpretive ranger. “Every time I get out in the park, I’m amazed by the mystery and majesty of the place.”

According to Kelly, water, in the form of periodic rainfall and a “perched aquifer” atop an impermeable clay layer just feet below the surface, serves as the park’s most critical “glue” that holds the sandy dunes in place.

Gypsum, which is actually a clear substance, only appears white because the grains are constantly in motion, slamming into each other and creating scratches that reflect sunlight. Since the sun’s rays aren’t absorbed by gypsum, the dunes remain cool to the touch even during scorching summer months.

What Is Here?

Footprints in the gympsum sand at White Sands National Park. Photo by Rob McCorkle.
Footprints in the gypsum at White Sands National Park. Photo by Rob McCorkle.

The park’s scenic yet surreal setting of distant mountains, rippled sand dunes, a pancake-flat playa (dry lakebed), an ephemeral lake, and sparse vegetation, such as creosote and soaptree yucca, has served as the ideal location for thousands of movies, commercials, documentaries, and music videos by the likes of Pink Floyd and Puff Daddy. Hollywood has been filming at this Southern New Mexico location dating from 1950 (King Solomon’s Mines) to more recent films, such as Steven Spielberg’s Transformers and Clint Eastwood’s The Mule.

But more importantly, White Sands exists as a living laboratory and outdoor classroom for a legion of scientists and researchers intrigued by its unique natural and cultural history that date to the end of the last Ice Age 11,000 years ago. Later, the Indigenous Jornada Mogollon farmed the area until the 1300s when a drought sent them packing. Native American tribes centuries later migrated to the area, which once featured the vast Lake Otero. It is gone now, leaving behind the sprawling dune field, Alkali Flat, and ephemeral Lake Lucero to the west.

Park Superintendent Marie Sauter elaborates on the many reasons for folks to put a visit to the country’s 63rd national park on their bucket list.

“White Sands protects the largest dune field in the world that at times has caused unusual and unique environmental and geologic conditions, such as rapid adaptation of some animal species,” Marie explains. “An abundance of ancient Ice Age fossilized footprints have been found that comprises the largest collection in North America.”

Back in time

More recently, scientists discovered hundreds of thousands of prehistoric footprints in a dry lakebed, including the longest trackway of fossilized footprints — almost a mile in length — ever found. The straight-as-an-atlatl (spear) trackway tells the ancient story of a prehistoric adult carrying a child through the mudflats to a distant destination and back again.

Today’s tourists can thank Alamogordo businessman Thomas Charles and other conservationists for their prescience in lobbying the U.S. government in the 1920s to protect the dunes from being mined for gypsum for industrial uses. The dune field was designated a national monument in 1933 and opened in April 1934.

Popular Dunes Drive — an eight-mile, mostly paved road through the dunes — was first paved in 1935. The following year, the Works Progress Administration began constructing a visitor center complex designed in a Pueblo Revival style and built of adobe and timber logged in the Lincoln National Forest. The impressive structure has been listed as a national historic district. The center, built around a traditional New Mexico courtyard, houses a gift store, exhibit hall, mini-theater, and park offices.

Although all but the entrance to the building is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions and overnight camping is currently prohibited, there’s still plenty to see and do for both kids and adults. Hiking, picnicking, cycling, nature photography, and sledding down the dunes on large, plastic discs provide popular recreational diversions.

Dunes Drive provides easy access to the one-mile Dune Life Nature Trail, the short Playa Trail, the Interdune Boardwalk, the group use/picnic area, and backcountry camping area. Wayside exhibits about the park’s location in the Chihuahuan Desert, common desert plants, animals, and other interesting factoids inform the visitor experience.

Interpretive signs erected along the slightly elevated, 2,000-foot Interdune Boardwalk illuminate the salient aspects of the park’s evolution from ancient seas to the playas and dunes seen today. Other exhibits describe some of the park’s critters, such as the Apache pocket mouse, earless lizard, and kit fox, as well as common shrubs and grasses like little bluestem and sacaton. One panel explains that researchers have identified more than 650 species of moths, 35 unique to White Sands, living in a two-mile radius! Remarkably, the seemingly dry and barren dunes are home to more than 200 bird species and 800 animal species.

Most of all, when you visit what some have called “The Galapagos Island of North America,” don’t forget your camera, sunscreen, and plenty of water, especially in the hotter months. See ya’ on the dunes.


Due to current New Mexico Public Health orders, at press time the national park prohibited backcountry camping and was open for day use only. All ranger-led programs were canceled. Check their website or call for updated information. The entry fee is $25 per vehicle or $15 for the sole occupant of a vehicle or motorcyclist. In addition, the park and U.S. Highway 70 may be temporarily closed during missile range tests.

White Sands National Park is located 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo and 54 miles east of Las Cruces on Highway 70. The park is open daily except Christmas. Hours vary by season. For more information, call 575-479-6124 or visit their website.


Written and photography by Rob McCorkle. Top photo by Kelly Carroll. 

Originally published on Neighbors magazine | 2021

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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