Shining away in the Tularosa Basin of the Chihuahuan Desert in south-central New Mexico, is 275 square miles of glistening white sand. People showed up here nearly 11,000 years ago, and farmed this land until a drought hit in the 1300s. American Indians returned 300 years later, followed by Europeans in the 1800s. As the railroad brought increased settlers, the people of Alamogordo pushed for protection to this unique landscape. President Herbert Hoover designated White Sands National Monument in 1933 and this unit gained National Park status in December of 2019.
There may be thousands of years of human history in this area, but to understand how these magnificent dunes formed in the first place, we have to go back even further. Lasting for approximately 47 million years, the Permian Period marked the end of the Paleozoic Era, some 250-300 million years ago. This era was the most catastrophic for life on Earth. There was so much change taking place on the planet during this time, that it took life almost 30 million years to recover. One of the major changes during this period was the retreat of the Permian Sea. As this process occurred, layers upon layers of gypsum were left behind. As mountains formed and glaciers melted, these high beds of gypsum were broken down and pushed back into the basin as the sand we see today. Amazing!🤓
Endless white sand and blue skies
Even before White Sands became a National Park, it had been on our list for awhile. Who wouldn’t want to play around in endless dunes of gleaming white sand?! As we headed out on our southwest trip, this was probably the site that we were both most excited for!
We grabbed some new NPS masks at the visitor center!
With less than an hour drive from Las Cruces, we had the whole day planned for White Sands. (FYI, coming from this direction, you pass through a border patrol checkpoint). Their visitor center opened at 9am and we were there a little early. It seemed to be a theme for this trip, that the heat and sun woke us up early and we were on the road sooner than we planned almost every day. If only we could have that daylight time back in the evening! Anyway, we had some breakfast in the car, got in line and waited for them to open the doors. The rear side of the visitor center is where you are able to rent sleds! It was a Saturday, so it was busier than our other stops so far. We purchased all of our souvenirs and postcards and took our sign pics. By the time we were ready to enter the park, there was a little line and we actually had to wait about 20 min to get in.
Driving through a winter wonderland???
We had a list of 5 things that we absolutely wanted to do and once we got a hold of a map, we decided to start at the end of the park. The Alkali Flats Trail was the longest hike we had planned and thought it would be nice to start it while it was still a little cooler. We also wanted to escape all the traffic. There’s only one road through the park and it’s an out-and-back. We headed straight to the end, where the Alkali Flats Trailhead is located and got right to it!
A beautiful hike!
The trail is a 5-mile loop, marked by metal stakes throughout the dunes. As the signs warn, it is very easy to lose your sense of direction. Climbing up and down dunes means you will lose sight of the parking lot. This is an interesting trail because it’s so wide open, you don’t necessarily have to stay on a path. Again, be careful and mindful of your direction and location. We decided against the full 5-mile loop and did our own thing. We tried to spread out from others and find some dunes to ourselves.
Our private dune!
The cool sand feels amazing!
This was by far the highlight of the park. It is exactly what you picture when you think of this place. We hiked up and down a few dunes, relaxed and took in the incredible views of this amazing park. We had previously read that the temperature of the sand was much cooler than sand from a beach. It absolutely was! It felt amazing as the temperature started rising and our feet were cooled with every step. As the temps did start to rise quite quickly, we wanted to make sure we could safely make our way back to the car. We only hiked a total of about 1.5 miles, but felt completely satisfied. It was so nice to take it a little slower and enjoy our surroundings at a more leisurely pace.
Kayla's happy place.
A vast landscape.
Once we made it back to the car, we dusted off and finished the loop at the end of the road. There’s plenty of picnic areas all around, but just beyond the trailhead was the Yucca Picnic Area with shaded structures, grills and plenty of area to spread out. Being a weekend, there were a bunch of families having parties and gatherings. It would be an amazing place to spend a day.
Looks like a snow plow came through!
We started our way back towards the entrance and made the couple other stops we had planned. First up was the Interdune Boardwalk. This is an easy .4 mile out-and-back boardwalk into the dunes. There are 10 exhibits along the way, detailing the unique science that is happening in the area.
End of the boardwalk
Lastly, the Playa Trail is a .5 mile round-trip trail showcasing an ever-changing palya. The playa, a shallow depression in the ground, temporarily fills with water when it rains and looks different every season. It can be brown or white, and if you’re lucky, you might be able to see it filled with water. Other times, it can even grow crystals. We walked out as close we could and took-in this interesting landscape.
The Playa Trail
This was our last stop at White Sands. We skipped the Dune Life Nature Trail that we had put on our itinerary. It was getting warmer and busier and we already felt so fulfilled. We had only spent about 3 hours in the park and were so surprised at how quickly we enjoyed this park. We could have done the entire Alkali Flat Trail and really took our time, or even scoped out a picnic spot, but we were excited to have a whole afternoon in front of us. This was the least amount of time that we spent at a park on this trip, but it was one of our favorites at the same time! Make sure you get out and walk the dunes, but be smart. Keep your directional senses on point, carry plenty of water, cover up in sunscreen and sunglasses because the reflection is no joke, and you will absolutely enjoy this one-of-a-kind place!