White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park: Unveiling Its Unique Beauty

Since we live in the desert, visiting another desert environment like White Sands National Park has never been a priority on our bucket list. However, when we made it there this spring, we realized we’ve been missing out on some spectacular scenery.

I’ve never seen sand dunes as white or as extensive as the ones at White Sands.

Sure, the beaches of the Yucatan peninsula have white sand. Powdery, and a softer white color. And the sand dunes of Death Valley are extensive.

But none compare to the white sand dunes in New Mexico.

What Makes These Sand Dunes So Special?

Besides the color and size of these sand dunes, the most interesting thing I noticed about them was being able to walk on them easier.

I expected to be a hard walk, with my feet sinking into the sand with every step I take. But it wasn’t the case; Walking on the white sand dunes of the White Sands National Monument was comfortable. The reason for this is their composition: gypsum.

Gypsum is a mineral found all over the world. Though common in other forms, it is rare in sand form. And in White Sands it covers about 275 miles! This makes the dune fields of White Sands not only the world’s largest gypsum dune, but also a unique natural wonder.

White Sands National Park preserves a major portion of this unique gypsum sand-dune field, along with the plants and animals that live here.

How Did This Unique Landscape Form

This particular sand dune field lies in the Tularosa Basin, surrounded by two mountain ranges. The San Andres and the Sacramento Mountains offer a gorgeous background view from the dunes.

But they are more than just a beautiful background for the dunes: their composition, layers of gypsum, is the reason for the existence of these white sand fields.

Mountains surround the Tularosa Basin where the white sand dunes are.

Geological time-line

About 280 million years ago, when Pangea was the earth’s only mega-continent, a shallow sea covered much of the area we know now as the US Southwest. This area was under that sea we call the Permian Sea.

Over millions of years, sea levels rose and fell and during this process, it deposited minerals on the sea floor. In this area, the mineral was gypsum. Then, some 200 millions years later, as the tectonic plates began to shift and rise, they formed a mountain range.

Over the next 40 million years, the same tectonic plates pulled apart, cutting the mountain range and forming the Sacramento and San Andres Mountains, with the Tularosa Basin between them, where the sand dunes are today.

Millions of years later, the Rio Grande River was flowing at the southern edge of this basin. It deposited sediments along its route and eventually blocked the basin’s outlet to the surrounding sea. So, water got trapped in the center, forming an ancient lake.

After the last Ice Age, as the climate was warming, the melting ice and snow carried gypsum into this sea from the two surrounding mountain ranges. And, as the climate kept warming, the lake evaporated, leaving its gypsum bottom exposed.

Starting about 10,000 years ago, strong winds carried the gypsum pieces and broke them down further, creating the white sand we see today.

The same process still continues today. Snowmelts and runoffs carry gypsum from the mountains to the bottom of the basin. There, it forms the modern Lake Lucero. During the dry season, the water evaporates, leaving more gypsum behind, and ultimately white sand, behind.

The gypsum that forms the sand dunes originates in the mountains, carried down by snowmelt and runoffs.

The Ecosystem Of The Sand Dunes

White Sands National Park is at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert. The largest desert in North America, most of it stretches south of the border, in Mexico.

The desert environment affects the ecosystem in the park, but plants and animals have an even tougher time surviving here than in other parts of this extensive desert. The gypsum sand offers no nutrients for plants, and no food for animals. At least that’s what is seems like.

Still, some species of plants and animals adapted to live in even this inhospitable environment. When visiting, you can learn about them along the dune life nature trail – if you can read the signs.


Besides needing to adapt to the desert conditions, plants also need to find water and nutrients in the sterile gypsum sand.

This area is a desert within a desert, where even the minimal amount of water is salty and alkaline, and the ground is constantly shifting. But several plant varieties manage to survive even in this environment.

Cacti and succulents are common in the desert, and some survive in the white sand dunes. The cane cholla, strawberry hedgehog, and purple prickly pear grow here, besides the taller varieties like soap tree yucca and Torrey yuccas. They survive here thanks to their ability to store water and their little need for it.

Some desert grasses also grow in the sand, surviving because of their ability to grow and mature very fast, allowing new ones to sprout as soon as the old dies, this way populating several small areas.

Even a few threes and shrubs live in White Sands. The hoary rosemary mint, skunk bush sumac, and Rio Grande cottonwood can hold on to moist sand with their roots. In the flat areas between dunes , shrubs like Mormon tea and rubber rabbitbrush survive.

You will even find desert wildflowers growing in the sand. They are smaller than in other parts of the desert and bloom later due to the cooler air from the mountains, but you can find them in every season.

Several different plants live in the White Sands among the dunes.


Since plants adapted and survive in the sand dunes, some species of animals did, too.

Many of them are white, as they learned to adapt to the white sand environment for camouflage. These are endemic to the White Sand dunes, meaning they don’t live anywhere else on the planet. Among them are about 40 different species of white moths and two species of sand threader camel crickets. Others, like the sand wolf spider, live in any sandy area, but here they are lighter in color.

Though you probably won’t see them, some mammals also live here. Most are nocturnal, and have adapted to the hot environment by hiding in their dens until it cools down. Among them are the kit fox, coyote, desert cottontail, and black-tailed jackrabbit, besides the kangaroo rat and the Apache pocket mouse.

Visiting White Sands National Park

When we stopped at the Visitor Center and saw how many people were there, we thought we’d have to deal with crowds throughout the park. We barely found a parking spot – and they have two large parking lots, extending on both sides of the building. Worse, the line to enter the park was longer than we expected. Considering it is so out of the way, White Sands National Park is much more popular than I expected.

However, the line thinned as soon as we passed the entrance. The park has plenty of parking areas with trailheads (though it’s hard to even see a trail in most places), and even picnic areas.

The one thing you won’t find in the park is water, so before heading in, make sure you have enough. The Visitor Center has several fill-up stations for your reusable water bottle.

Things To Do In The Park

Most people love to hike, walk, or sled on these unique sand dunes. Yes, sledding is a popular activity here. Unlike other sand dunes, where you’ll sink into the sand, the gypsum sand is easier to walk on and easier to sled on.

No matter what activity you choose in the park, driving the whole of the scenic drive is a must. We did it twice, in both directions. We drove to the farthest point, stopped for a hike, then planned to stop at all the other stops on the way back. But since the drive is a partial loop, it made sense to do it from both directions.

Driving Among The Dunes

Dunes Drive is an 8-mile (13 km) long road through the sand dunes. The first five miles are paved, but the last three are on hard-packed gypsum sand.

Without stopping, the 16-mile (26 km) round trip would take about 45 minutes. However, you can take as long or as little as you want (or need).

When driving on the hard-packed sand, make sure you don’t get off the road, since you could get stuck in the sand. And, of course, you’ll need to drive with your windows closed, especially if you see other cars on the road.

Also, watch out for people sledding close to the road. Although the Park Service warns against sledding close to the road, several of the popular dunes are close to the road, and people use them, so when driving, watch out for kids on sleds.

If you walk off trail, stay in the sand.


Although you can walk among the white sand dunes anywhere, you’ll find several designated hiking trails within the park. However, dunes are constantly shifting, the winds move sand across the trails, so they are hard to see. Because of this, whenever you hike in the dunes, make sure you remember some landmarks you can see at any time, at least from the top of the dunes.


We visited White Sands while on a road trip, on a day when by afternoon it would get extremely windy. Which meant we didn’t have a lot of time to spend there. The wind would’ve made a visit impossible.

Because of this, we only walked a bit between the dunes, and followed part of the Dune Life Nature Trail.

The one-mile loop trail showcases some of the desert vegetation growing on the sand. Well marked and popular, the Dune Life Nature Trail is easy to follow. Even if you don’t see the markers, you’ll always see other hikers. At least we did when we visited. The trail takes you up and doesn’t several dunes, so it isn’t flat, but not a hard walk either. The real challenge is the sun, and when present, the wind.

Although you’ll see plants here, you won’t find any shade, and the sun is extremely strong here. Don’t leave your car without water and sunscreen.

You can find several other trails to follow, from the 0.4-mile fully accessible Interdune Boardwalk to the 5-mile long Alkali Flat Trail. Although marked, trailheads are hard to see in the sand. And you rarely ever see footsteps in the sand, unless someone walked it minutes before you.

No matter what hike you choose, or even if you just walk among the dunes off trail, it is an otherworldly experience.

Safety on the trails in White Sands:

Since you are in an inhospitable desert environment, it is important to follow some safety measures if hiking in the park.

Always carry water when leaving your car. Drink water before you start hiking, and turn around when your water bottle is half empty.

Make sure your cellphone is fully charged before leaving your car, especially if you plan on hiking longer distances.

Wear sunscreen, lightweight, and light colored clothing, a wide brimmed hat, and sunglasses. Sunscreen is even more important here than in other desert environments, since the white sand reflects the sun, so you might also get burned from the reflection.

You can hike off the trail in the park, as long as you only walk on sand. However, you should not wander far from your car off trail.

We walked in the dunes, but stayed close enough to see the parking lot from the top of any dune we climbed. In between the dunes though you can feel million miles away from anything and everything; You don’t need to go far for a feeling of solitude.

But if you want to wander farther, make sure you are on a trail, and you are not alone. Follow the trail markers, and look carefully for them before continuing. If you can’t see the next trail marker, turn back. The park rangers warn that many people get lost in the sand dunes every year. Being there, I could see why. Blowing sand may cover your footprints, and trail markers, or wind may knock them down. And if you are far from your car, or the road, and can’t see familiar land marks, it is easy to get disoriented and lost.


The most popular activity in the park is sledding. In fact, we’ve seen more people sledding that hiking when we visited.

You can buy sleds at the Visitor Center at the entrance to the park. Once in the park, you’ll find plenty of sand dunes that offer great sledding conditions.


Picnic tables in the park are not only shaded, but also protected from the wind. You’ll find several of them in a few picnic areas, with grills and garbage containers near it.

Join A Ranger Program

Besides exploring this unique environment on your own, if you have a longer time to visit, join one of the several ranger programs offered. These programs range from guided hikes, like the sunset stroll and full moon hike, to the Lake Lucero Tour and the MothaPalooza, where you can learn about the moths endemic for this area, and other community events the park hosts throughout the year.

Practice Sustainability During Your Visit

When visiting any outdoor place, but especially areas as unique as White Sands, it is important to leave the environment as we found it, to minimize our negative impact on the land. This is especially important as the number of visitors grows every year.

Bringing awareness to a natural site comes with a responsibility: we need to make sure we educate potential visitors about their impact on the environment of the land they visit. When writing about a place I often worry about inadvertently contributing to its deterioration by helping more people learn about it. Which is the reason I often decide not to write at all. On the other hand, all natural places already have more visitors than they can handle, so I feel I am not adding to the numbers, but maybe I can help bring awareness about responsible visitation.

It is by now common sense to follow practices that harm the environment the least. National Parks especially are great about educating visitors about their impact. So, my main advice is: read and follow the park’s regulations.

Leave only (temporary) footprints

When walking in the sand, stay off the darker areas like this; here microorganisms and plants work on creating topsoil if not disturbed.

As opposed to other National Parks, in White Sands you can walk off trail. You can leave your footprints visible in the sand, no one stops you.

But your footprints are only temporary. For me at least, it is so satisfying to know that my footprints are erased by the wind soon after I leave. It makes me feel like I left the place the way I found it.

However, it is important to know where to walk off trail, to stay only in the sand. Don’t walk on any vegetation, animal burrows, or on biological soil crust found in this desert. You’ll recognize this fragile soil as a dark, bumpy surface. Here, a community of microscopic organisms live and work to create a nutrient-rich soil surface where plants will grow – if not disturbed.

It is also important not to take anything, including plants, rocks, or even historical artifacts. Leave them as you found them. This unfortunately also includes a safety warning: the park is surrounded by an active missile range, and missile debris may fall into the dune field that may get buried before they can remove it. If you see something like it, park management advises to let them know, and in any case, do not touch them.

Don’t leave trash of any kind

This is common sense, at least when it comes to plastic, paper, or glass containers or trash.

However, we might think it’s ok to leave an apple core or orange peel, for example. Until a few years ago, I used to assume these types of leftovers were better thrown out than in garbage bins. However, I learned this is not always the case.

Leftover food of anything that is not native to the area you are visiting is harmful for the environment. At White Sands, any leftover food fits this criteria, since nothing we eat grows here naturally. Orange peels and apple cores might not grow a tree that becomes invasive species, but it harms wildlife and make them sick.

For the same reasons it is important to pick up after your pets. White Sands is one of the few National Parks where you can bring your pet. Be a responsible owner and pick up after them.

So it is important to place your trash in the provided recycling bins, trash bins, and dumpsters. You’ll find them around the park, near picnic tables and in parking lots.

Be considerate to wildlife and other visitors

Though you are not likely to see them, White Sands is home to a variety of wildlife. Some of them are venomous, so even if you only consider your own safety, watch them from a distance (if you see them).

And, of course, if you see wild animals, never ever feed them. It would damage their health, of course. But what’s even more dangerous for them: it alters their behavior, which could expose them to dangers, including predators.

Some plants have sand pedestals that help keep them alive. These pedestals are also home to desert animals. Do not carve into them or damage them in any way, since these plants are so fragile, any damage to it can kill the plant – which in return might kill wildlife that used it as home.

Please keep your voice down when enjoying nature

I always feel the urge to speak softly when I am in a natural setting, to enjoy nature sounds. I know many others are the same, but not everyone. By not making loud noises, you are allowing other visitors to enjoy the peace and quiet of the dune field. Not to mention you may allow wildlife to feel safe enough to come out from hiding.

View from the trail in White Sands National Park

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