Take a walk on the White Sands
Gypsum dunes near Alamogordo are a year-round attraction
By Lisa Kay Tate
From summer nights under the full moon to days of sledding and hiking the white dunes, White Sands National Monument is a year-round destination for outdoor enthusiasts, artists, scientists, nature lovers and historic and cultural tourists.
More than a half-million visitors come every year from all over the world to visit the 275 square miles of the largest gypsum dune field of its kind on the planet. It’s also home to several species of plants and animals seen only at the monument.
The area has also been a subject of both state and national pride, and efforts to preserve even date back to the late 1800s. White Sands National Monument was officially designated by Herbert Hoover in 1933, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Now, there are many who would like to see the monument become New Mexico’s second national park, which could mean an even brighter future for the white dunes.
The park averages just over 600,000 visitors each year, said Kelly Carroll, Chief of Interpretation for White Sands National Monument.
“We have a variety of visitors to the park, most are from outside the local area, including international visitors,” Carroll said, “but we see our communities of Alamogordo, El Paso, and Las Cruces visiting and enjoying their local national park site, which is great.”
White Sands sees its busiest times in the month of March for spring break, as well as Easter weekend and around Christmas and New Year.
The slowest months for the monument are January and February.
Carroll feels anytime of the year is great for visiting White Sands, as long as visits are planned accordingly.
“Summer is great for an early morning or a late afternoon hike or sledding session to beat the heat of the day,” she explained. “Spring can be really pleasant, but at times windy.”
Established trails for hikers to enjoy include the half-mile round trip Playa Trail, with outdoor exhibits focusing on subjects like the park’s prehistoric landscape that lead out to the small playa for which the trail is named.
The Dune Life Nature Trail has more family-oriented exhibits such as a look at the some of approximately 800 species of wildlife seen in the monument. The Dune Life Nature Trail is also the site of the annual MothaPalooza event that takes place mid-summer.
This event is relatively new to the park, but is popular as it explores the “diversity and entomologic research conducted in White Sands’ dunefield” including more than 40 moth species exclusive to the area.
“White Sands National Monument is a special place known for its natural beauty and its unusual geologic and biotic features,” White Sands Superintendent Marie Frías Sauter said in an announcement for last summer’s third annual event. Visitors to this event can see “moths found no other place on Earth” and possibly even and undescribed species.
The most strenuous trail is the Alkali Flat five-mile hike up and down dunes that skirts the edge of Lake Otero. This one takes about three hours to complete, and is not recommended for beginners. There is also a specified area for those wishing to bring horses or other pack animals, provided they follow all courtesy, safety and sanitation rules.
The park’s trails are open to self-guided tours, but White Sands is also well known for its ranger-led programs, which include year-round offerings like the monthly Lake Lucero Tours, a look at the “birth place of the dunes,” where the gypsum crystals first form, as well as nightly one-hour Sunset Strolls. Many of these tours require advance registration and additional activity fees.
The evening offerings increase May through October, with the monthly ranger-led Full Moon Hikes, as well as the diverse Full Moon Night presentations that can feature ranger talks, musical performances, storytellers and other events. There are also early morning “Sunrise Arts” events for photographers and artists, and weekly “Skins and Skulls” interpretive talks at the visitor center.
The first Full Moon Night of 2019 is Saturday, May 18, when the park will be open late and a special program offered at 8 p.m. A Full Moon Hike is offered the night before; advance signup is required.
For those with limited time or mobility, the main Dunes Drive is accessible by car, and is eight miles long. The 16-mile round trip goes past nature trails and picnic areas with outdoor exhibits, the park amphitheater, and a wheelchair and stroller accessible boardwalk. The drive is also popular for bicyclists, but wide tires are needed to negotiate the roadway of hard-packed gypsum.
The boardwalk, less than half-mile round trip, is a good way to learn about the park’s plants, animals, geology and scientific significance. Native plant guides are available for download or through the monument’s website at the National Park Service visitor center for those who want to learn even more about the White Sands’s natural features, and personal photography is encouraged as a ideal environmentally friendly souvenirs.
The dunes themselves and the outdoor recreational opportunities are the main attraction, but the visitor center itself, a 1938 Pueblo-Revival style building, also houses the gift shop and book store, a native plant garden, interactive museum exhibits and a theater for viewing the award-winning orientation film “A Land In Motion.”
The park also attracts researchers. Since White Sands’s designation as a National Monument in 1933,various archaeological and scientific resources have been discovered. As recently as last year, an Ice Age trackway was found, where early people might have hunted giant sloth more than 11,000 years ago.
Every visitor to the park, as well the rangers and other park staff, has their favorite activity, including Carroll who really enjoys the daily ranger-led guided “Sunset Stroll” hikes.
“It’s a beautiful way to end the day at White Sands,” Carroll said. “Walk with a ranger, learn about some unique topics, some that may surprise you, and end on a high dune to watch the sun set below the San Andres mountains.”
Safety on the sands
The dunes offer plenty of safety for all sorts of activities such as sledding, Frisbee and other games because the soft gypsum cushion any fall. But the glistening gypsum can also deceive visitors unaware of certain dangers. The highly reflective dunes can expose people to sunlight from every direction any time of year.
Kelly Carroll, the monument’s Chief of Interpretation, suggests that visitors bring not only plenty of sunscreen, but also lots of water and snacks, and be sure to wear head covering and sunglasses.
“Even though the air temperature may be comfortable, the gypsum sand dunes reflect a lot of the sun’s energy - making it much warmer in the dunes than the air temperature suggest.” Carroll warned. “We don’t recommend starting a hike if the temperature is 85 degrees or higher.”
General use of the park closes each evening. Permits are available for backcountry camping, but RV and car camping are not allowed. Those who wish to camp should see the visitor center to obtain their permit for an additional fee, and make sure to follow safety requirements. The hike to the camping area is more than a mile and a half, and is marked with orange trail markers.
Besides avoiding excessive heat and thunderstorms, campers and hikers should be cautious during high winds, when it’s easy to get lost because of whiteout conditions and the wind wipes all footprint tracks. GPS signals are not always reliable on the dunes.
A community partner
White Sands National Monument’s next door neighbors are Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range, so military families are among its most avid visitors, particularly for families. The city of Alamogordo is about 20 minutes away by car.
“We have Junior Ranger programs for kids, fun hiking trails, lots of picnic areas, and of course, excellent sand dunes to sled down,” Carroll said.
The Junior Ranger program offers booklets with age-appropriate tasks for kids from preschool to teen, and those completing the booklet will receive a patch, badge or sticker. The park also works with youth-centered groups like Boy or Girl Scouts to arrange special education projects.
To help with this, Junior Ranger Adventure Packs may be available for use for kids during their visit to the park. These backpacks include items like a compass and flashlight, field guides to flora and fauna, and binoculars, and should be turned back into a ranger at the end of their stay.
As a neighbor of the missile range, Highway 70, as well as the park’s Dunes Drive may periodically close for missile tests, although the park’s Visitor Center will remain open.
The City of Alamogordo’s pride in the nearby national monument is evident in the name of its main thoroughfare, White Sands Boulevard. The city’s visitors guide talks about how “Filmmakers and photographers are drawn to the area to capture this and the other magnificent geological formations of the region.”
Heavy metal legend and now Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce member Ozzy Osbourne visited the monument last year and he and his family fell in love with the area.
“I just had the most amazing time in White Sands National Monument. I’ve never seen anything like this place,” Osbourne’s son, Jack Osbourne said last year on his Facebook feed. “America is an amazing country.”
Carroll points out the White Sands makes a major economic contribution the surrounding communities. In 2017, for example, it’s estimated that visitors to the monument spent over $31 million in the region.
White Sands National Park?
White Sands might soon become an even better-known attraction in the area, as members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation recently reintroduced legislation to promote the designation of the monument to national park.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) originally introduced the federal legislation a year ago. According to the legislation, giving National Park status to White Sands would also include provisions for a land exchange between the U.S. Army and White Sands.
“Everyone who visits White Sands marvels at its remarkable geology, spectacular scenery, and outstanding recreation experiences,” Heinrich said. “Since I introduced White Sands National Park legislation last year, the broad regional support we’ve received demonstrates the endless opportunities this designation would offer to communities and local businesses across southern New Mexico.”
At present, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the only national park in New Mexico.
Some area county commissioners noted this designation may increase costs and regulations, and that the change may not be necessary as White Sands National Monument is already the most-visited National Park Service site in New Mexico.
State Sen. Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces recently stated in an Associated Press article he feels this legislation would be a positive move.
“Making (White Sands National Monument) a national park is a super smart move,” he said. “It’s the next level.”
White Sands hours, costs, events
The glistening gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument are about 16 miles southwest of Alamogordo, N.M., on U.S. 70.
Park hours are 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. through May 25; and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. May 26-Sept. 14. Last entrance is one hour before closing.
Visitor Center hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through May 26; and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 27-Sept. 14.
Entrance fees are $20 per vehicle; $10 per person and $15 per motorcycles.
Information: (575) 479-6124, nps.gov/whsa or on Facebook.
Sunset strolls are offered daily. “Skins and Skulls” mammal identification talks are 3 p.m. Sundays.
A Full Moon Hike is 7:45 p.m. Friday, May 17. Reservations required: Recreation.gov or by call (1-877-444-6777),
The first Full Moon Night of the Season is 8 p.m. Saturday, May 18. Amphitheater program to be announced.
Stay another day in Alamogordo
While White Sands National Monument is the top tourist attraction in the area, the nearby city of Alamogordo, just 16 miles away, has plenty of opportunities for an expanded visit.
• New Mexico Museum of Space History. Home of the International Space Hall of Fame and the Tombaugh IMAX Dome Theater and Planetarium, it features both indoor and outdoor exhibits, as well as lectures, workshops, tours, star parties and more. Special events include the Great Southwest Star Party celebration of the area’s night skies May 31-June 2. Information: Information: (575) 437-2840 or nmspacemuseum.org.
• Alameda Park Zoo. The oldest zoo in the Southwest was established in 1898. It’s home to about 250 exotic and indigenous animals.
• The Toy Train Depot. More than 1,200 feet of model railroad are housed in the actual train depot built in 1898. It also offers rides through Alameda Park on a 1/5 scale train track. Open Wednesday through Sunday. Information: (575) 437-2855.
• Old Town. New York Avenue is considered “Old Town” Alamogordo with several early 20th century retail shops of various designs, and the popular Flickinger Center for the Performing Arts with touring performances, film screenings and their annual Valentine’s Day cabaret and Chocolate Buffet.
• PistachioLand and Heart of the Desert. Heart of the Desert Pistachios and Wines is at Eagle Ranch Pistachio Groves, New Mexico’s oldest and largest producing pistachio groves. It has free sampling at the gift shop, free tours in the afternoon, and special events like “Wine Down Wednesdays.” Information: Heartofthedesert.com.
McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch (PistachioLand) is home to the “World’s Largest Pistachio,” as well as pistachio sampling and motorized tours of the winery and orchard. Information: pistachioland.com.
• Founder’s Park. The park on the corner of Highway 54 and 10th street was created during the city’s centennial celebration in 1998, and features bronze sculptures by several local artists depicting the area’s cultures, including Native American, American Cowboy and Spanish Conquistadors.
• Tularosa Basin Historical Society Museum. The free museum is next door to the Chamber of Commerce on White Sands Boulevard next to the Zoo. Information: (575) 436-4438.
• Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. The park is south of Alamogordo on Highway 54. It offers tours to its historic ranch house. Star parties and other ranger-led events offered throughout the year. Information: (575) 437-8284.
• White Sands Missile Range Museum and Missile Park — The highlight of the free museum is the history of the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested, as well as the V-2 rocket, ranchers on the range and missile optics. The outdoor Missile Park displays rockets and missiles tested on the range. The Trinity Site itself is open to the public twice a year, the first Saturday in April and in October. Information: (575) 678-8824 or wsmr-history.org.
For more information on visiting the Alamogordo area, visit alamogordo.com.
Copyright 2019 by Cristo Rey Communications