White Sands National Park is an American national park in the southeastern region of the state of New Mexico. The park contains the world's largest gypsum sand dune field—275 sq mi (710 km2) of fine white sand, formed by the prevailing winds into large ridge-like dunes.
White Sands became a national monument on January 18, 1933 by order of President Herbert Hoover. Efforts to preserve the area's brilliant gypsum dunes had begun in the late 1800s, but it was the enthusiasm of local booster Tom Charles that finally led to the park's creation. In his words "gypsum may be divided into two classes - Commercial and Inspirational. The former everybody has, but as for recreational gypsum, we have it all. No place else in the world do you find these alabaster dunes with the beauty and splendor of the Great White Sands."
The park's creation coincided with the Great Depression, which was in some ways fortuitous due to the Roosevelt administration's focus on public works. WPA funds were used to improve many park areas and White Sands benefited by achieving a full measure of development within just a few years of opening. In its first year the park attracted 12,000 people, and today as many as 600,000 people visit the park annually.
White Sands was redesignated as a national park in December 2019.
The obvious natural feature of this monument is the pure gypsum dunes, but perhaps less obvious are the sources of the dunes, Lake Lucero and Alkali Flat. These two areas are the result of the gradual drying of an extensive Pleistocene lake that was rich in the mineral gypsum, with the dunes being the result of weathering and wind transport of these exposed surfaces.
The translucent golden-yellow crystals of selenite (gypsum) grow in saturated mud beneath the lake's remains. When exposed on the surface, these crystals are subject to weathering and erosion and may eventually become gypsum powder and sand grains, which can be carried by winds as dust or sand storms to become the white sands of White Sands National Park.
Flora and fauna
Most of the animals of White Sands have developed nocturnal habits to escape predators and the desert heat. Due to the white color of the sand, some animals have evolved lighter coloration, resulting in white reptiles, mammals, and invertebrates that blend with their white background; however, of the 44 species of mammals, 26 species of reptiles, 6 species of amphibians, and nearly 100 families of insects recorded in the park, the vast majority have normal coloration. Lizards can be readily observed in the interdunal areas where vegetation can be found for shade and protection. The park's mammals are primarily nocturnal, so are not as easily observed. The light-colored spadefoot toad only ventures from underground following thunderstorms when water is available for breeding and egg-laying in the pools of rainwater. Tadpoles quickly develop into adults and burrow into the moist sand, awaiting the next season's storms.
The Tularosa Basin, a high desert area, averaging 4,000 feet (1,200 m) in elevation, is subject to harsh, and sometimes rapidly changing climatic conditions. Summers are hot, with high temperatures averaging 95 °F (35 °C) 95°F (35°C) in July and August. Winters are relatively mild, but nighttime temperatures often go below freezing (32 °F (0 °C)) and cold spells can send the mercury below 0 °F (−18 °C). The lowest recorded temperature is −25 °F (−32 °C). Snowfall is infrequent, but heavy snows have occurred on occasion. Precipitation averages about 8 inches (20 cm) per year, with most falling during summer thunderstorms, often accompanied by lightning and hail.
Wind is the dominant climatic factor, especially from February through May. The prevailing southwesterly winds blow unimpeded across the desert and at times reach gale force. Wind storms can last for days in the spring. Living conditions for animal and plant communities become extremely harsh as the greatest dune movement occurs during this time.
|White Sands National Park|
|Climate chart (explanation)|
Visitor information center
- 1 White Sands Visitor Center, 19955 US-70, ☏ +1 575-479-6124. The visitor center was built in 1936 and is part of the historic district at White Sands. Inside you will find the park store as well as the museum for the park.
A private car is the best way to reach the monument as no public transportation services exist in the area. The visitor center is on U.S. Route 70/82, 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Alamogordo and 52 miles (84 km) east of Las Cruces. The monument is open daily, except Christmas Day. Summer hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day): visitor center 9AM to 7PM, Dunes Drive 7AM to 9PM. Winter hours: visitor center 8AM to 5PM, Dunes Drive 7AM to sunset.
Missile testing on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range occasionally causes the Dunes Drive to be closed for periods of up to two hours, for visitor safety. Route 70/82 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces is also closed during missile tests. Visitors on a tight schedule are encouraged to call the day prior to arrival for information on closures.
The closest major airport is in El Paso, Texas, from which the park may be reached via Interstates 10 and 25 and U.S. Route 70/82, with Las Cruces en route.
Fees and permits
Entrance fees are $20 per vehicle ($15 per motorcycle) or $10 per adult (age 16 and older), whichever is lesser (Dec 2019). Children 15 and under are free. Entrance fees are valid for entry for seven consecutive days from the date of purchase. An annual pass may be purchased for $40 which allows free park entrance for one year.
There are several passes for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot/bike that provide free entry to White Sands National Park and all national parks, as well as some national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and national forests:
- The $80 Annual Pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) can be purchased by anyone. Military personnel can obtain a free pass by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
- The $80 Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a 50% discount on some park amenities. Seniors can also obtain a $20 annual pass.
- The free Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
- The free Volunteer Pass is available to individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program.
- The free Annual 4th Grade Pass (valid for September-August of the 4th grade school year) allows entry to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid Outdoors website is required.
The National Park Service offers free admission to all national parks on five days every year:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January); next observance is January 15, 2024
- The first day of National Park Week (third Saturday in April); next observance is April 15, 2023
- The National Park Service Birthday (August 25)
- National Public Lands Day (fourth Saturday in September); next observance is September 23, 2023
- Veterans Day (November 11)
An 8-mile (13 km) scenic drive leads from the visitor center into the heart of the dunes. Wayside exhibits at pullouts along the drive provide information about the natural history of the park. Driving on the dunes is not allowed.
The dunes drive is an easy ride for individuals on bicycles. During full moons the park service offers reservation-only full moon bike rides, during which the drive is opened after-hours to bicycles. A special use fee is charged. Reservations can be made by calling ☏ +1 575 679-2599 (ext 111).
- Wildflowers. From mid-April to mid-June desert wildflowers can be often be seen in bloom. The claret cup cacti bloom from late April through mid-May, while cholla cacti start blooming in mid-May. Some wildflowers bloom in Fall, usually from mid-August until as late as November.
- White Sands Hot Air Balloon Invitational. This annual balloon festival sees numerous balloons rising over the monument.
Visitors are free to roam over any area within the park, but should avoid walking on the cryptobiotic crusts of the inter-dune areas. Entering the White Sands Missile Range is not allowed, so be aware of your location. Marked trails include:
- 1 Playa Trail. (0.2 mile, 0.3 km round-trip). A very short trail to a dry lakebed.
- 2 Dune Life Nature Trail. (1 mile, 1.6 km round-trip). A self-guided nature trail.
- 3 Interdune Boardwalk. (0.4 mile, 0.6 km round-trip). A wheelchair-accessible nature trail.
- 4 Alkali Flat Trail. (4.5 mile, 7.2 km round-trip). A backcountry trail through the heart of the dunes. This trail is marked by posts with orange tape on them and may be difficult to follow for inexperienced hikers.
In addition, there is a monthly ranger-led hike to Lake Lucero (located in the missile range). The cost is $8 per person, and the round-trip takes three hours (Dec 2019). Reservations are required and can be made by calling +1 505 479-6124 or +1 505 679-2599. The tour schedule is posted online, and is also available from the visitor center.
Some of the dunes are tall and steep enough to provide a good ride on a plastic toboggan or sled. While some visitors attempt sledding on everything from cardboard boxes to garbage bags, you'll want to bring your own sled for the best experience.
The park service hosts a Perseid Meteor Shower Watching Party in August.
Dune photography is best in the morning and evening when the sun is low on the horizon, producing interesting shadows on the dunes. Camera meters may be fooled by the white sand, so it is a good idea to meter slightly higher than what is reported by the light meter to avoid having the sands appear grey.
The gift shop at the visitor center offers books, maps, posters, films and other souvenir items for purchase. Gas and supplies must be purchased outside of the park.
Light snacks and beverages are available in the visitor center gift shop, but there are no restaurants in the park. The nearby town of Alamogordo, 15 miles east of the park, has several restaurants available.
Water is available outside of the visitor center. Alcohol is prohibited within the park at certain times of the year; check at the visitor center for specific restrictions.
The park does not offer overnight lodging, but the town of Alamogordo, located 15 miles (24 km) east, has several hotels.
The park has a group-use area requiring a $25 non-refundable reservation fee, and an additional fee if camping overnight (Dec 2019). A minimum of 12 people is required for tent camping in the group-use area (also see backcountry camping below). Public and private campgrounds are located near the park in Alamogordo (15 miles (24 km) east), Las Cruces (52 miles (84 km) southwest), Oliver Lee Memorial State Park (22 miles (35 km) from park on highway 54, south) and at Aguirre Springs, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recreation area (35 miles (56 km) southwest).
White Sands National Park offers ten primitive backcountry campsites located about 1 mile (1.6 km) from the scenic drive. Groups are limited to no more than six people per site. The trailhead to the campsites is 6 miles (9.7 km) from the visitor center. The campsites are primitive with no water or toilet facilities. No ground fires are permitted, and visitors must pack out all trash and biological waste. The backcountry fee is $3 per person age 16 and older and $1.50 for anyone age 15 and under (Dec 2019).
Note that during testing at White Sands Missile Range the backcountry is closed and no permits are issued. Since missile tests are subject to change, please call the park the day before you plan to use the campsite to verify that the site will be available that night.
While hiking on the dunes, be aware of your location as it is easy to become disoriented. Watch the weather, as sandstorms can reduce visibility and make it nearly impossible to find your way. Heat-related issues are also a concern; carry water with you, and drink at least a gallon of water per day on hot days. Sunscreen is a must.
When driving on the park roads, follow speed limits, use turnouts, and lock your vehicle when not attended.
- White Sands Missile Range, known locally as WSMR (and often pronounced "whiz-murr"), is nearby, with an interesting museum that covers some of the area's history and examples of some of the rockets and missiles that have been launched there. Generally open 10AM-3PM or 8AM-4PM, but call +1 575 678-8824 to verify hours; as it is on the territory of the Air Force base, closures or restrictions due to security concerns are possible.
- 2 Trinity Site (arrive north on I-25, east on NM 380, enter at Stallion Gate). Site of the first nuclear bomb explosion, now a National Historic Landmark, in the remote area at the north of the range where the first atomic bomb was tested. Public tours, held twice a year on the first Saturday in April and October from 8AM-2PM, are a sobering experience (although not a hazardous one -- radiation levels at the site are generally back down to natural background). Free.
- Continuing on the space/science theme, the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo is worth a visit; the International Space Hall of Fame and a piece of lunar rock are among the attractions.
|Routes through White Sands National Park|
|Merges with ← Las Cruces ←||W E||→ Alamogordo → Roswell|