3 Amazing Ways to Explore White Sands National Monument

Plus 9 things to know before you go and 3 science tidbits!

White Sands. You may have heard of it – maybe seen photos or video – but nothing compares to experiencing this awe-inspiring national monument!

We visited White Sands National Monument twice – yes, twice – while staying in Alamogordo, New Mexico. We went once during the middle of the day, and again just before and during sunset. It was absolutely worth both trips!

Before You Go

Before you head out to White Sands, there are some important things you should check or have with you.

  • Check the Gate Hours – The visitor center is outside the gate, so their hours are different. The gate closes at different times depending on sunset, and the park may close due to extreme weather or missile testing at the nearby White Sands Missile Range. In fact, Highway 70 may be closed in the area when they’re testing missiles; so you may want to check the testing schedule even if you’re just driving through.
  • Water with Electrolytes – It’s super dry out there and you’ll dehydrate pretty easily even on cooler days. Have at least one gallon of water per person, especially if you’ll be out there more than two or three hours and plan to do some walking around or hiking. We stayed longer than expected our first time there, and wished we’d brought more water.
  • Sun Protection – It’s white sand, meaning it’s very reflective and can cause major burns even in the winter. Bring sunblock, sunglasses, and a hat! We even saw people using umbrellas. It’s so bright, I only took my glasses off when taking a photo and kept my hat on the whole time. That’s saying something! I really don’t like wearing hats.
  • Camera Cleaning Equipment – Your camera will get sand on it. No question. Bring something to clean it that won’t scratch it – like an air blower. Wiping it with a cloth or your shirt may scratch the lens if you don’t blow the sand off first. And, trust me, you want to bring your camera!
  • Sleds – If you want to sled, bring your own. They apparently work better if they’re waxed because the sand isn’t slippery like snow. You can buy sleds at the gift shop, but they suggest calling ahead to make sure they have them in stock.
  • Snacks/Lunch – Silly us. It was a bit warm our first day there, so we thought we’d just drive the loop, take a few pics, and head home. Nope! We were there for three hours both times! Bring some snacks just in case or have a picnic lunch or dinner at one of the covered picnic tables.
  • National Parks Pass – Be sure to bring your National Parks pass so you don’t have to pay to get in. The fees when we were there were $20 per vehicle and $10 per person.
  • If you’re planning to venture away from the roads, hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, or even backcountry camping, you’ll want to be even more prepared.

Even before all that, check to see what tours or events are happening at the monument when you’ll be there or plan to be there at specific times. Sunset walks are guided by rangers nearly every evening. They also have full moon events, tours of Lake Lucero, meteor-watching parties, and more!

Drive or Ride the Dunes

We went to the visitor center right off the bat. They’re usually great places to learn more about the land you’ll be exploring and the wildlife you might see along the way. This one was no exception and is right off the highway before the gate, so it’s easy to access. They have exhibits explaining where the sand comes from and how the plants and animals survive in the dunes. More on that a little later.

Dunes Drive is the only public use road in or out of the monument land. After leaving the visitor center, you head through the gate, and drive through what’s more like sandy, scrub;. Then suddenly the road goes from smooth pavement to packed sand and the dunes appear! They’re breathtaking!

The funny thing is that they don’t seem that big…until you see people on them or go up yourself. At our first stop, Brian crested his first dune while I stood at the base taking photos. He seemed so small and far away! This was nothing compared to being further inside the dune field. Walking through the dunes, I can certainly see how people get lost in there. The terrain can all look very much the same, especially if you’re not paying attention.

If you don’t stop, the entire drive is quite short – about 16 miles round trip. It’s a lollipop route – up, around a loop at the north end, then back to the same road. Motorcycles and bicycles are also allowed on the road, and horses are allowed with a permit. Along the way, there are plenty of spots to park and explore with signs marking trailheads, picnic areas, and the Interdune Boardwalk.

For those who use a wheelchair or need assistance walking, that boardwalk is great! It’s level, stable, and even has a covered area if you need a break from the sun. There are educational signs all along the boardwalk as well.

Daytime, Sunset, or Night?

The dunes are a bit different when the sun is high overhead versus low on the horizon. During the day, sunlight shows off the dunes’ dazzling, sparkling white. You can see all the plants and maybe catch sight of a lizard or roadrunner. At dusk and sunset, the sand seems grayer and truly reflects that blue hour tone. It’s a great time for photography! The shadows allow you to better see all the beautiful patterns created by wind, animals, and humans alike. The dunes at dusk and twilight are super quiet and seemingly twice as vast. (Can you spot Brian in this photo?)

On even a partially a sunny day, the white sand reflects the heat; so the air can be warmer than the surrounding area. As soon as the sun dips behind the San Andres mountains, though, it’s chilly! It gets colder by the minute after sundown, so be sure to bring a warm jacket if you plan on staying for a little while past sunset or are camping overnight. My lightweight jacket was good for about 30 minutes after the sun went down. If we’d stayed much longer, I would have been wishing for something heavier!

I suggest bringing a flashlight if you’ll be out there even a little while after sunset. The remaining light was reflecting off the sands enough for us to easily see our way back to our car. As we were driving out, though, it got darker very quickly. Bring that flashlight just in case!

As I mentioned above, there’s a third option – at night during the full moon. We didn’t get to experience this, but have since heard from others that it’s amazing. The NPS website says they have live music and ranger talks during the full moon nights. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!

So which wins – day or sunset or night? All three! If you only have a few hours, go at a time when you can spend about an hour or two during the day driving around and exploring a few of the trails or the boardwalk. Then head to the ranger-led sunset hike, which is timed to end just at sunset so you can take some amazing photos and experience twilight in the Sands. If you don’t want to do the ranger-led hike, scout out a place for sunset during the day and head there at golden hour. If you can, and you’re there at the right time, check out the full moon events…and let me know how it goes!

Learn a Little

The Geology

Where did the white sand come from? Well, it started a long time ago – around 280 million years ago according to geologists. The area was covered by the ancient Permian Sea back then. Over time, as its level rose and fell, that sea deposited many minerals, including gypsum, onto the land. Then tectonic shifts happened about 70 million years ago and pushed some of the land upward, creating many mountains in the area including what are now known as the Rocky Mountains. Later the tectonic plates shifted and split, separating the local mountains into what are now the San Andres to the west and the Sacramento Mountains to the east.

Various rivers and seas formed, shifting or evaporating over time leaving behind selenite crystals (a form of gypsum.) Winds eroded the crystals into fine grains and pushed the sand into the dunes we see today. Every now and then, Lake Lucero fills with water – runoff from the surrounding mountains that are made primarily of gypsum. The water evaporates leaving more selenite crystals that get broken down into fine grains by wind and water – continuing to build and shift the dunes today.

Why doesn’t the powdery sand just blow away? Believe it or not, there’s a fairly shallow water table below the surface. That water keeps the sand moist and prevents it from blowing away. We did have winds of up to 50 mph while we were in Alamogordo and you could see a huge white dust cloud roiling above the dunes, but it all stayed right there.

The Plants

The plants living in the sand dunes have adapted to their environment through a variety of methods. There are the cacti and succulents that store water. Some plants, like grasses, simply grow fast and let the winds carry their seeds to grow again. Others cling onto more solid areas where the water has glued together sections of the gypsum sand or send their roots far and deep into the dunes and below – ever seeking the fickle water table. And one, the Soaptree Yucca, grows super tall so that it stays above the shifting dunes. Once its dune has moved on, it falls over because it no longer has any support and produces new shoots.

The Soaptree Yucca was an important plant to the local Natives. Like the bison of the plains, this plant gave of itself in many ways. From NPS.gov, “The young flower stalks are rich in vitamin C. The flower pods can be boiled or roasted like a potato. The leaf fibers were used for the fabrication of rope, matting, sandals, baskets, or coarse cloth. The roots were chopped and boiled to produce soap to wash hair, blankets, and rugs.”

The Animals

In both of our visits to White Sands National Monument, we never saw any wildlife. We did see some roadrunner tracks though! Part of the reason we didn’t see any wildlife may have been due to the fact that it was October and many species might have begun their migrations elsewhere. We were also there in the hottest part of one day and at dusk the other, and we stuck close to the road. There is also the fact that many of the White Sands inhabitants have adapted for survival by becoming lighter-colored. Mice, lizards, scorpions, grasshoppers, spiders, and even moths on the land have all evolved over the years to be nearly white. Check them out!

Honestly, Alamogordo was just a stop between destinations on our journey. White Sands hadn’t been on either of our bucket lists. It was simply something to check out while we were in the area – and we’re so glad we did! White Sands National Monument should definitely be on your bucket list even if you’re only in the area for a couple of days or have to veer off-route a little. The dazzling dunes of White Sands are worth the effort!

Check out our Facebook and Instagram for more photos and discussion about White Sands, and read more about it on the White Sands National Monument website!

Need to know where to stay? Here’s our review of Boot Hill RV Resort.

Thanks for joining us as we live our journey…

~Julie

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