While the enchanting Chihuahuan desert landscape is not exactly famed for its bodies of water, tucked into the heart of the Tularosa Basin visitors can still discover a stunning sea . . . of sand! White Sands National Park is home to the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. It covers 275 square miles, was established as a national monument in 1933, and re-designated as a national park in 2019.
Alamogordo native Jim Burrell shares, “Growing up, I had plenty of birthday parties at White Sands. I think it’s the size and uniqueness of the park that attracts people. Once you drive a bit into the dunes, the shrubs and plants start to disappear, then it’s just pure gypsum for as far as you can see. You really don’t get to see anything like it anywhere else.”
• Summer park hours are 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. In fall, the park closes at 8 p.m. and in winter, at 6 p.m. The visitor center/gift shop and museum exhibits are open from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. For the more curious guests, park rangers are available at the visitor center to answer any burning questions, and a 17-minute informational film plays every half hour from 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Spanish and audio-only versions are available upon request. Don’t forget to pick up a few sleds from the gift shop (and maybe some wax for extra speed) before heading out!
• The entrance fee is $25 per vehicle and is valid for seven consecutive days. Or you can opt for the annual vehicle pass for $45, which admits the pass holder and three persons (16 years and older) in a private non-commercial vehicle into the park for a period of one year from the month of purchase. Those aged 62 and older might want to explore getting an America the Beautiful Senior Pass for $100 for lifetime access to many federal lands including national parks or an annual pass for $20.
• Don’t forget — you are allowed to bring your furry family members to the park! Pet waste stations are available and located on the west side of the visitor center parking lot and the west side of the gift shop parking lot. Keep in mind, however, that they must stay on a leash no longer than six feet at all times.
Currently, backcountry camping is not available, with no set date to resume. Please see nps.gov/whsa/index.htm for the most up-to-date information.
When things start to cool down in the fall, it’s a great time to enjoy some special activities that are offered at White Sands National Park.
Experience the enchantment of sitting on the dunes beneath the light of a full moon reflecting off glistening white gypsum during Full Moon Nights. Catch the last two of the year on Saturday, September 10, and Monday, October 10, 2022 when park hours will be extended from 7 a.m. – 11 p.m. The October full moon night will also feature live music by Randy Granger. Even more appealing, no reservations or tickets are required, although standard park entrance fees apply.
If you want to take the full moon experience a step further, take part in an adventurous Full Moon Hike offered once a month. Participants spend approximately 1.5 hours exploring the one-mile-long Dune Life Nature Trail. This hike is rated as moderate on the difficulty scale and requires hikers to climb multiple steep dunes and at times walk on soft sand. If you decide to take the trek, for safety reasons the group must stay together, and no one is permitted to leave the program early. There is a fee and reservations are required for this activity that is offered through December in 2022.
“The full moon events are amazing. Once you are out there, the moon lights up the dunes without needing flashlights. There is something about being out there during a full moon and sitting in the cool gypsum that is so relaxing!” says Jim.
Hot air balloons, sand dunes, and music . . . what could be better than combining a few of Southern New Mexico’s best attributes all in one place! The White Sands Balloon and Music Festival will take to the land and sky from September 16 through September 18, 2022. The schedule of events includes hot air balloon mass ascensions, food and craft vendors, live music, cornhole tournaments, and even a petting zoo! Friday and Saturday events take place at Ed Brabson Balloon Park in Alamogordo and Sunday, weather permitting, will feature a mass ascension at White Sands. Learn more at balloonmusicfestival.com.
Sunset Strolls are ranger-guided walks through the gypsum landscape and are free with regular park admission. They provide a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the dunes while learning about the distinctiveness of the park’s geology, plants, and animals. They are timed beautifully to end with a panoramic view of the sun setting behind the mountains, perfect for photo opportunities.
In September, Sunset Strolls occur every week on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. In October, you can enjoy this experience nightly. The leisurely exploration is approximately one mile long and is considered an easy to moderate journey. It does not require a lot of climbing, but it does lead visitors slightly off-road and into the elements.
General Park Safety Tips:
• Bring (and drink!) plenty of water! There is no water available beyond the visitor center.
• Always know your location by using landmarks such as trail markers and the mountains, and never hike alone.
• Rest often: Plenty of shaded picnic tables are scattered throughout the park. This will help avoid the possibility of heat stroke.
• Wear proper attire including sunglasses and a hat, and apply sunscreen.
• If you find yourself digging tunnels in the sand (which we all do!), be extra careful, as tunnels can easily collapse and potentially cause suffocation.
• Weather in the Tularosa Basin can shift quickly. In the event of a lightning storm, take cover in a closed building or vehicle with the windows rolled up.
“White Sands is perfect for the entire family, from having barbecues, birthday parties, photo shoots, to just a nice day out. It is really just a great place to enjoy the outdoors,” Jim summarizes. Looking back to my elementary school years, I remember having heated debates with peers about whether or not Southern New Mexico was home to one of the official Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Although we didn’t quite make that list, after visiting these ever-changing gypsum dunes there will be no further debate: We have, in fact, the secret number eight.
White Sands National Park
19955 Highway 70 West, Alamogordo
Story by Desiree Bustamantes
Additional photos by Chas Miller and Cheryl Fallstead
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.
Posted by LasCruces.com