White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico is a unique place. Established as White Sands National Monument in 1933, we were not sure that it should have been re-designated as a National Park in 2019. It surprised us and definitely exceeded our expectations.
October was the perfect time to visit. The weather was cool enough to make hiking pleasurable and there was very little wind when we were there. This trip was during the pandemic so access to the visitor center was limited but social distancing was really easy.
In the heart of the Tularosa Basin, great dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert creating the largest gypsum dune field in the world. White Sands National Park preserves more than half of this dune field.
White Sands was surprising in so many ways.
Dunes Drive (the only road within the park) is an 8-mile drive leading from the visitor center into the heart of the dune field. Along the road are outdoor exhibits, hiking trails, picnic areas, vault toilets, and parking areas. There is no water available beyond the visitor center. We saw many families “sledding” the dunes but this sand is not as slippery as the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The first five miles of Dunes Drive are paved and the last three are a hard-packed gypsum sand road. With the wind continually shifting the sands, this road has to be well-maintained. Driving in many places gave you the feeling you were driving through snow, the road plowed but still white and drifts piled high on either side.
There are five marked trails in the park and we did four of them the day we were there. The trail markers are definitely different than on most trails we hike.
One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises was the ease of walking in the dunes. This sand isn’t like beach sand or the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. It is a lot more solid and stable. It also doesn’t get overly hot so one can walk barefoot – we didn’t but we did see barefoot prints in the sand in places.
Water, only inches below the surface of the dune field, ensures that the dunes remain moist during the longest droughts. The shallow water table rises to the surface after heavy rains and creates temporary ponds. This moistness also makes the sands more stable to walk on.
Part of White Sands National Park is a ”Zone of Cooperative Use.” During WWII, the US military tested weapons in the dune field beyond the park and in 1945 the first atomic bomb was detonated at Trinity Site 100 miles north. White Sands Missile Range regularly conducts missile tests and during those tests, for visitor safety, Dunes Drive may be closed. Lake Lucero is located in this “zone of cooperative use” and is a restricted area with permits required. Guided tours are held once a month.
Gypsum is a common material used in a variety of products from drywall to toothpaste. Gypsum is an evaporative mineral which means that it dissolves in water and will recrystallize during evaporation of liquid, much like salt. This property is crucial to the formation of the White Sands dune field.
The Tularosa Basin is surrounded by the San Andres and the Sacramento Mountains. These mountains are composed of layers of gypsum. Rainfall and snowmelt dissolve the gypsum and wash it down to the basin floor which has no outlet. Water settles at the lowest point, which is Lake Lucero, and then evaporates. In this process, the dissolved minerals recrystallize and form selenite crystals which are very brittle and fragile. Wind plays its part in breaking down these crystals into sand and forming dunes.
Sand is defined as any mineral between .065 millimeters and 2 millimeters in diameter, which is about the width of a nickel. Mineral sands are formed by geological forces. Sand can be composed of any mineral so there are endless combinations of sand. Most sand on earth is quartz. The mineral that forms the dunes of White Sands National Park is about 98 percent pure gypsum sand. Gypsum sand is considered rare because gypsum is water soluble. Even rarer is gypsum sand in the form of dunes – 4.5 billion tons of gypsum sand piled up by wind.
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