South central New Mexico is home to the largest gypsum sand dunes in the entire world. And on Dec. 20, 2019, this unique area became the United State’s newest national park. White Sands National Park was first designated in 1933 as White Sands National Monument in order to protect its unique and beautiful terrain.
So what is gypsum anyway?
Gypsum is a common mineral and has a wide variety of uses. One property of gypsum is that it dissolves in water, but recrystallizes during evaporation of liquid. Think of salt in a glass of water, when the water evaporates the salt remains and is at it was before mixing with the water.
The dune field where White Sands National Park resides is nestled in between the San Andres and the Sacramento Mountains. This valley is called the Tularosa Basin. The surrounding mountain ranges are composed of layers of gypsum. As part of the weathering process rainfall and snowmelt dissolve the gypsum and wash it down to the Tularosa Basin, where it gets trapped.
As the rainwater and snowmelt evaporate, the gypsum forms crystals which are very brittle and fragile. The crystals break up and become sand, which in turn is blown around the basin to form the dunes.
Hiking at White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park has five hiking trails that take you into the dunes where you are surrounded by the unique landscape that makes up this beautiful area. You can choose between trails that are from a half-mile to five miles.
There is no shade, and even in the winter, so it can get hot on the dunes. White Sands National Park advises you bring two liters of water while hiking, even for a short hike. Walking along the dunes in the soft sand can also tire you out more quickly than on a normal hiking trail.
The Interdune Boardwalk trail is about 0.4 miles roundtrip and as the name suggests, takes hikers along a boardwalk. This makes the trail accessible for all people and is great for strollers and wheelchairs. Here you can view the life that thrives on the dunes. Informational placards dot the trail.
No, this trail is not named after someone who’s got game. A playa is a flat part of the desert that at times can become a shallow lake. Hiking along this 0.5-mile round trip trail you can see what a playa is and how it plays a role in the life of White Sands National Park. Also, be sure to look for growing crystals in the playa.
Dune Nature Trail
The Dune Nature Trail is a great way to see the life and vegetation that live among the dunes which make up White Sands National Park. This 1-mile self-guided loop climbs up a few dunes, so it’s a little more challenging than the Interdune Boardwalk and Playa Trail. Informational placards are placed throughout so you can learn all about who and what lives among the dunes. This trail reminded me of the dunes at Gulf Islands in Florida.
Alkali Flat Trail
Don’t let the name of this trail fool you. The Alkali Flat Trail is not flat. This 5-mile loop takes you deep into the dunes where the dune life is sparse. In some places, you feel like you are in the ocean bobbing up and down on the waves. Below the dunes, you are surrounded by tall massive piles of gypsum sand. On top of the dunes, you can scan the horizon and mountains to the east and the west.
There are no campgrounds within White Sands National Park. However, the park does offer backcountry camping for those who want to carry all their equipment. The Backcountry Camping Trail is only a 2-mile round trip hike, but it is a great way to experience the park at night.
The trail is also open for day hikes for those who want to explore the area but not backpack. So it’s a great shorter alternative to the Alkali Flat Trail if you don’t feel up to five miles.
Camping and lodging around White Sands National Park
The town of Alamogordo, New Mexico, is 13 miles from White Sands. I stayed at the KOA, which I found to be extremely nice. There are other options within the town as well as camping options in nearby state parks and national forests.
With all of those large sand dunes, it’s no surprise that sledding is a favorite activity at White Sands National Park. You can either bring your own sled or purchase one from the visitor center. The park advises that waxed plastic snow saucers work best for sledding.
White Sands National Park sits adjacent to White Sands Missile Range, which regularly conducts missile tests. So in order to ensure safety to park visitors, the park may close for up to three hours during tests.
You can check the park’s website for upcoming closures. Park staff are usually notified about two weeks before the tests; however, they may not receive notification until 24 hours before. The Visitor Center and gift shop do remain open, but all activity into the park is closed.
The park also advises that if you see debris from the missile test to not touch it. Note it’s location, and tell a ranger so it may be removed.