Unlike any other place in the world, the glistening dunes of White Sands National Park are one of Earth’s great natural wonders.
Here in the heart of the Tularosa Basin lies a vast New Mexico gem. Gypsum sand sparkles with an otherworldly white as far as the eye can see. In fact, the national park houses most of this 275 square mile desert paradise.
White Sands National Park is hardly ever crowded, too, making it a perfect national park to knock off the bucket list. And after diving into the park’s best aspects and fascinating legacy below, it’ll become a must-see destination.
10. Park Approved: Bring a Sled or Saucer for the Dunes
Not only is White Sands gorgeous, but it’s the perfect sledding destination, too. A bit shocking for a New Mexico national park, though, isn’t it?
But sure enough, sledding down the giant sand dunes is a big part of enjoying White Sands if you’re up for it. Bring the kids, the dogs, the whole family! Everyone is welcome to climb and sled the gypsum sands.
And yes, the park encourages visitors to do so. The gift shop even sells waxed plastic snow saucers, which they recommend as the best method of sand sledding. If you have one you prefer, however, feel free to bring it along.
Be aware of where the dune slope meets the desert floor, though, as this can be a rude awakening if you’re not prepared. And always make sure the sledding path does not cross roadways or parking areas, and is free from vegetation, hard clumps of sand, or any obstructions. Stick to the above and you’ll have a blast.
9. These are Earth’s Largest Gypsum Sand Dunes
Did you know White Sands National Park protects the world’s largest geologically unique gypsum dunefield? Over 275 square miles of New Mexico are gypsum sands, creating the glittering white that makes the park famous (and gives it its name).
The National Park Service (NPS) protects these lands; their goal being to provide educational, research, and recreational opportunities “compatible with the protection of the resources and maintenance of the solitude and silence of the dunes.”
As always, keep in mind the Leave No Trace principles when visiting White Sands. The desert is a unique but fragile ecosystem, and we want to make sure the plants, animals, and protected (non-sledding) dunes remain as they are.
8. There is NO SHADE in White Sands National Park
This isn’t a very fun fact, but it’s an imperative one to share: There is no shade in White Sands National Park. It’s all desert and sand with no trees. As a result, it’s best to wear long sleeves, a brimmed hat, and sunscreen at all times.
Also bring plenty of water and snacks on your excursions. Past the park entrance and visitor center, it’s all sand. Literally. There are a handful of bathrooms and pavilions, however, and it’s best to know where these are in case you need a break from the sun.
On the bright side, this creates a truly wild national park, one that feels much less like a theme park than some of the super-crowded classics.
7. Trinity Site: History of the Atomic Bomb
No pun intended, but this fact blew us away. The first atomic bomb in history was tested on July 16, 1945. And it’s unfathomable explosion took place just 65-miles north of White Sands National Park.
This site is now known as the Trinity Site; a key historical site of the atomic legacy’s Manhattan Project. In response to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. military would establish a permanent presence in the Tularosa Basin for World War II. The original base site was called Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, but is Holloman Air Force Base today. White Sands Proving Grounds, now White Sands Missile Range, also borders the park.
So if you hear/see a few jets blasting overhead during your visit, now you know why.
6. Unrivaled Sunsets: Stay for Golden Hour
White Sands National Park is breathtaking no matter the time of day or year. The golden hour, however, is when the park truly comes alive. Incredible photos are plentiful as the sun sets, but never do justice to witnessing a White Sands sunset in person.
A few hours before true sunset, the skies come alive with color as shadows overtake the sand dunes, repainting the landscape. It is, in a word, unmissable.
Clouds are a welcomed sight at White Sands, as the sun paints them in shades of purple, red, orange, and yellow. For the best photographs, bring a camera with a zoom or wide lens that will allow you to capture a sunset’s full beauty.
The sun sets in the West, but the flat nature of the park allows for viewing sunsets from pretty much anywhere. And there’s no better way to end a visit to White Sands than this.
5. Drive to the End of the Park, Then Venture West
As we mentioned, White Sands National Park is not a crowded one, which is great. But for the best experience sans people, we recommend traveling to the far side of the park. Head as far out by car as you can, then travel west with the park.
Most people stick close to the entrance and visitor center, but the further out you go, the more wild, untouched, and serene the park becomes.
We also highly recommend downloading a map to have offline, as there aren’t many landmarks to orient yourself with. Most of the park is dunes, and getting lost in the desert is not something we wish on anyone.
4. Desert Tracks: Spot Wildlife in White Sands National Park
As the park notes, “White Sands National Park has unusually harsh environmental conditions, even for the desert. But that hasn’t stopped animal species from adapting, surviving, and even thriving here.”
Look closely, and you’ll spot thousands of tracks made by desert wildlife. Everything from tiny insect and small mammal and reptile tracks, to the slithering paths of snakes mark the sands. But the animals themselves may be hard to spot! The park is famous for its white species, which have developed all-white camouflage to blend into the white sands.
The park is famous for its white lizards, but over 800 species of animals (of all kinds) can be found in White Sands. The majority are nocturnal, however, so don’t plan on spotting too many during the day. The desert is a harsh place to live under the beating sun!
One of the park’s most charismatic residents is the long-nosed leopard lizard (above), which is easy to spot because of its – you guessed it – spots. Keep an eye out for their black and reddish-orange spots racing around in the desert.
Also keep in mind that there are two species of rattlesnake here: the Prairie Rattlesnake and Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. Encounters are rare, but always keep your distance from all wildlife, and never approach any species.
3. Indigenous History of White Sands’ Tularosa Basin
White Sands National Park is located in the Tularosa Basin. Here, the Jornada Mogollon people, a name given by archaeologists, long made pottery and made permanent houses in the area. As the park explains, “Evidence of their prehistoric presence dates back to about 200 C.E. (Common Era), over 1800 years ago.”
The Jornada Mogollon inhabited the Tularosa Basin for 1,200 years. But then, something changed. These Indigenous Peoples were gone by around 1350 C.E., leaving behind only puddled adobe and broken pottery shards.
Around 700 years ago, bands of Apaches would arrive in the area. Here, they followed herds of bison all the way from the Great Plains. The Apache also settled the area, utilizing the landscape in a much different manner than the ancient Jornada Mogollon.
Today, the Mescalero Apache living in the Sacramento Mountains are direct descendants of the first Apache settlers of the basin, and White Sands National Park lands remain an integral part of their cultural history.
2. The Mescalero Apaches Call the Basin Home
As the park cites, “Mescalero Apaches are the only Native Americans who occupy the Basin today.”
These direct Indigenous descendants of traveling Apache Tribes have survived many horrors and trials of both the Indigenous and Euro-immigration American legacies.
By the time Spanish colonization began in the basin, nomadic groups of Athabascan speakers were well established in the local mountains. History describes these ancestors of Apache as “hostile,” as does the park, but there’s no evidence that they forced the abandonment of the previous Jornada Mogollon peoples.
1. White Sands has only been a National Park Since 2019
If you’ve been reading the photo captions, you’ve noticed that the majority refer to White Sands as a national monument, and not a national park. That’s because the majority of photographs were taken or documented before 2019.
But the park’s history as part of the National Park Service is a long one. President Herbert Hoover established White Sands National Monument on January 18, 1933. His administration did so in order to protect a portion of the world’s largest gypsum dune field and all scenic, scientific, and educational interest within.
Then, decades later, President Donald J. Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, which included a provision that re-designated White Sands National Monument as White Sands National Park. This occured on Friday, December 20, 2019, and White Sands became the 62nd designated national park in the U.S. National Park System.
Outsider will have more on this incredible New Mexico national park soon.