Visiting White Sands National Monument

Book Review: Prehistoric Predators by Brian Switek
5 Los Angeles Misconceptions

The various deserts that make up the Southwestern United States are starkly beautiful, almost alien. They are full of striking rock formations, mountain islands, and a mixture of plants and animals uniquely adapted to their barren surroundings.

My first experience with the Chihuahuan Desert in particular was last year, when I visited Big Bend National Park, and it left a strong impression on me. So, when Tara and I realized that we would be driving through the desert when we moved her out to Los Angeles, we quickly made a game plan to visit one of its treasures: White Sands National Monument.

visiting white sands

For years I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to visit this unique place, where towering white sand dunes have taken over 275 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert to create the largest gypsum dune field in the world. For comparison, the second largest gypsum dune field, Cuatro Ciénegas in Mexico, only covers eight square miles.

I was so excited to finally get to see White Sands for myself, and it absolutely didn’t disappoint.

The Geology of White Sands National Monument

You may have seen sand dunes before, but none are quite like this. Made of gypsum, a soft sulfate mineral, the grains are incredibly fine and soft. Where did they come from, though? After all, White Sands is thoroughly land-locked. The beaches and surf that usually accompany sand dunes are nowhere to be found. In fact, you’re unlikely to ever find a gypsum sand dune near the beach. The mineral dissolves in water and would be carried away by the waves.

The answer lies in the mountains that surround the monument.

Beyond the dunes everything is desert and mountains.
Beyond the dunes everything is desert and mountains.

As rain dissolves the gypsum that occurs naturally in the rocks, the resulting fragments are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. Being a desert, all of that rain water eventually dries out, leaving crystallized gypsum (known as selenite) behind.

Selenite is super brittle and breaks easily. Natural forces, like the wind, continue to break down the selenite into smaller and smaller granules, and the wind carries the smallest of these away. Eventually the small granules pile up, creating drifts that eventually turn into the massive dunes you see today.

Like anything geological, White Sands is constantly changing. Unlike most geological structures, it is changing at an alarming rate. Some dunes will move up to thirty feet a year as the winds shift the piles of sand.

The result is a swath of towering dune fields, dotted with resilient plant and animal life.

The Biology of White Sands National Monument

There is not a ton of biodiversity at White Sands, given the limited resources. That said, evolution gets way cool at as plants and animals struggle to survive. With the white gypsum as a backdrop to every day life, any splash of color is incredibly visible. As a result, two different solutions have emerged.

Some of the wildlife, like the white lizard, has evolved a much lighter skin than those of its cousins living outside of the dune field. This lighter skin provides far better camouflage, allowing the lizard to hide from predators.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the resilient Darkling Beetle, a black insect that stands out starkly against the white sand. Despite the fact that it looks like easy pickings, though, you wouldn’t want to gobble this guy up. He defends himself by spraying attackers with a liquid that not only will stain your skin, but also smells like kerosene.

Our darkling beetle friend.
Our darkling beetle friend.

Visiting White Sands National Monument

Despite being in the middle of a desert, White Sands National Monument is fairly easy to get to. It’s only about an hour away from Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we were staying. On the trip there, you can make a pit stop at the White Sands Missile Range. This government base has a museum that houses a number of missiles, dating back to the 1940s.

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The entrance to White Sands National Monument itself an unassuming turn off of the freeway, with a small parking lot.

From the lot, visitors have access to a gift shop and small exhibit area. The exhibit includes a short video about the history of White Sands as well as a few hands-on exhibits.

From there, you can enter the park itself (by car). To do so there is a fee of $3 per person. When visiting White Sands National Monument keep in mind that the park itself is relatively small, so the time of year is important. We visited in the middle of the week, so it was relatively quiet, but it evidently can become quite crowded on weekends and holidays.

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Driving at White Sands National Monument

Despite covering 275 acres, the car-accessible portion of White Sands is small. There is a single 8-mile loop that takes drivers through the dunes, with various pull-off areas for further exploration. One of these areas contains a boardwalk, where visitors can learn about the wildlife and soak in the amazing views as they trek deeper into the dunes.

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Most of the road is paved, though the last couple of miles are simply hard-packed sand. We were driving a sedan and had no problems (even in light of recent roadside disasters).

Sand Sledding at White Sands National Monument

Let’s be honest. There is one very important reason to visit White Sands: The opportunity to go sand sledding.

Because what’s better than sliding down a sand dune like a five year old, screaming your head off?

You’re free to bring your own sled, or purchase one from the gift shop (used sleds are available at a discounted price). Our car was already loaded up with Tara’s belongings due to the move, so we opted to buy sleds that we then returned once we were finished using them.

Just hanging out with our sleds.
Just hanging out with our sleds.

Once you have your weapon of choice it’s a free-for-all. Any of the dunes are fair game, though the ones near the end of the driving loop are the largest.

Fair warning: You may have too much fun to ever stop.

Hiking at White Sands National Monument

Our trip was brief, so unfortunately there wasn’t an opportunity to hike extensively. It’s definitely on our list for the next trip, though, given the stunning beauty of the dunes.

There are five different hiking trails, including a backcountry trail for those who want to spend the night sleeping under the stars. During the summer months, interpretive hikes are offered, with guides leading the way. Some of these treks sound truly awesome, like the night-time full moon hike!

Speaking of a full moon, White Sands hosts a monthly Full Moon Night, a free program where you can come out and listen to live music played within the sand dunes.

Next time, we will definitely make a longer trip and try to catch one of these performances. I can just imagine the haunting sounds of a cello, lifting up into the desert air under a canopy of stars.

It sounds magical.

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Book Review: Prehistoric Predators by Brian Switek
5 Los Angeles Misconceptions
  • I’ve always wanted to visit White Sands. I’ve been to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Little Sahara in South Australia and wonder if they have the same geological history as White Sands. Did you find hiking up the dunes tiring? I certainly did.

    • So tiring! We only sledded down a few times because it was so exhausting getting back up!

  • sand dunes without a beach is half the fun, but sledding makes up for it, right?!

  • Ally

    This looks awesome! Thanks for hosting the #WeekendWanderlust link up!