Largest gypsum sand dune in the world
White Sands National Park is not to be missed when visiting Southern New Mexico. This huge gypsum sand dune is the largest in the world at 275 square miles and is just an hour from Las Cruces, close to Alamogordo. It is so large, in fact, that if White Sands were a business envelope, the next largest gypsum dune field would be size of the stamp in the corner!
The first thing you’ll notice is this sand is not like what you’ll find at a beach. It is brilliant white and cool, thanks to the high water table and the sand’s reflective ability. Feel free to walk barefoot here as you won’t scorch your feet!
Why? Unlike the sand at the beach, these dunes are created from small piece of gypsum blown from the dry bed of Lake Lucero, a prehistoric lake that filled with gypsum that eroded from the nearby mountains. Gypsum is the substance used in drywall, but fortunately for us, these dunes are protected and won’t end up being used for home construction.
Fighting for survival
However, these dunes are constantly on the move. Persistent winds drive the dunes towards the east, leaving some plants stranded with uncovered roots and others buried. Many of the plants have adapted to these extreme conditions. You’ll find giant pillars created by the root system of the skunk bush supporting the mounding plant even when wind has blown the previously supporting dune away. Some plants, like yuccas, grow taller as the dunes overtake them, then collapse when the sand is gone. Take care in areas with vegetation. Survival is challenging enough for these plants, so avoid walking on them as you explore.
Plants aren’t the only living things to have adapted to this unique environment. Scientists have discovered a wide range of creatures that have lightened in color to enhance their survival, such as the sand wolf spider, Apache pocket mouse, and bleached earless lizard. In addition, it is noted on the park’s website, “An endemic species is a species that lives no other place on Earth. White Sands National Park is home to about 40 endemic species of moths, which is more endemic species of moths than any other single location in North America.”
White Sands activities
White Sands became a national monument in 1933 when President Herbert Hoover protected it under the Antiquities Act. It was elevated to national park status in 2019. Between those dates, thousands upon thousands of people have visited the dunes for recreation, to film movies and commercials, to camp, and attend special events like full moon night programs, full moon bike rides, and the nightly sunset stroll. A hot air balloon festival is sometimes held at the park, providing beautiful sights of colorful balloons floating over the white dunes.
Along with picnicking, sledding down the dunes is a popular activity. There are hiking trails through the dunes as well as a road that progress from a paved surface to hard-packed gypsum. It is important when hiking in the dunes to take notice of your surroundings as people have become disoriented and lost their way. Notice where the mountains are and use them to track your return trip. Be sure to take water on your hike, wear a hat, and use sunscreen.
White Sands is the closest national park to Las Cruces. Be sure to schedule time to visit it and discover the wonders of a different world.
Written by Cheryl Fallstead for LasCruces.com
White Sands Sunset stroll
Its beauty is otherworldly, but it’s location to Las Cruces is within reach. White Sands National Park is a long-cherished jewel in our desert landscape. For visitors coming from near and from around the globe alike, White Sands has plenty of activities that let you experience the wonder of this unique landscape. One activity in particular will give you not only the sights, but the history.
The Sunset Strolls at White Sands have been ongoing since the 1970s. It’s a ranger-guided tour that starts about an hour before sunset and highlights the panoramic views of the area. Robin Milne, park ranger at White Sands National Park, explains that the sunset adds an extra dimension to enjoying the monument. “Every sunset is different,” she notes. “You can go out every day for a week and each day experience something different. Many visitors describe it as breathtaking or just simply can’t find the words to explain it.”
“The program itself is given while the sun is up and ends when the sun starts to touch the tip of the San Andres Mountains,” says Robin. The stroll is included
with the monument fees, which are $5 for those 16 and older and free for those 15 and younger. Pets are allowed as long as they are non-disruptive, on a leash no longer than six feet, and under physical control at all times. Pets, like humans, should leave only footprints, so make sure to bring a bag.
The stroll gives visitors a chance to learn more about the gypsum dunes. “During the walk, the whole geological story of the Tularosa Basin is covered. From 250 million years ago with the Permian Sea to the uplift of the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains,” Robin explains.
With its starkness, it’s hard to imagine that there are animals that call White Sands home, but some do show up during the walks. “It depends on the time of year for encountering wildlife,” Robin says. “During the winter months, very few animals are active. In the spring and summer, we can encounter lizards and darkling beetles.”
While the walk is leisurely, it’s listed as an easy to moderate hike that requires ascending and descending a few dune slopes. The hike is approximately one mile in length, and it is interspersed with stops along the path. The stroll doesn’t require climbing, but it does lead visitors off-road, across, and over the sand. Wheelchairs or strollers aren’t accessible, but accommodations to visitors with special needs will be made as best as possible. Robin recommends also that visitors be mindful of the location of their vehicle after dark.
Another factor of nature plays a role in the evening strolls. Weather can vary drastically and change quickly. The decision to cancel a program due to weather is rarely made more than 30 minutes before the program start time, but it’s requested that you call the monument at 575-479-6124 ext. 236 to confirm that day’s outing.
“Typically in extreme weather, we do not give the program for safety concerns like white outs with strong wind,” notes Robin, who recommends always coming prepared outfitted with a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and water. If it’s cold, of course, also a jacket and maybe gloves. In the summer, you’re welcome to take your shoes off and go barefoot.”
There are no age limitations for the stroll, and families are encouraged to come out. “The program is very kid friendly,” Robin confirms. “Toddlers typically really enjoy playing in the sand while their parents listen to the program.”
Heather Irwin went on an outing with her five-year-old daughter’s preK class and her toddler in tow. “We arrived at our designated dune just as the sun was setting,” she remembers. “Our girls ran around, wide-eyed and ecstatic. It felt like we were on another planet. All we could see was the hazy light behind the clouds, but the colors were vivid and majestic. We decided we would come back again. It’s a perfect place for kids.”
NOTE: Check for availability of this program at the White Sands National Park website.
Written by Cassie McClure • Photography by Ben Matkin
Originally published in Las Cruces magazine
Posted by LasCruces.com