White Sands National Monument

Written by on June 22, 2015 in NM Outdoor Adventures - Comments Off on White Sands National Monument

Gleaming like arctic snow, the sand dunes of White Sands National Monument are anything but cold. Here, great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert just north of the border with Mexico, and have created the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Gypsum typically forms large crystals. There is a cave in Naica, Mexico where the crystals dwarf the people standing next to them. So it is most unusual to find gypsum in the form of sand.
The gypsum that forms the white sands was deposited at the bottom of a shallow sea that covered this area 250 million years ago. 70 million years ago, at the same time the Rocky Mountains were formed, the gypsum-bearing marine deposits were uplifted into a giant dome. Around 10 million years ago, the center of this dome collapsed and created the Tularosa Basin. The high sides of the dome now form the  San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges that ring the basin. The evaporation of this ancient lake contributes to the formation of the dunes and does the seasonal water that comes into the basin.

Water is brought down from the surrounding mountains by small streams which carry large amounts of dissolved minerals (especially gypsum). Because the basin has no natural drainage, the water sits in alkali flats or playas to naturally evaporate under the hot desert sun. As the water evaporates from the ancient lake and the playas (and it does so rapidly), the minerals left behind form gypsum deposits that are eventually blown northeast by prevailing winds to form the white dunes. This dune field is not stationary. Active dunes move to the northeast at a rate of up to 30 feet per year, although there are stable areas of sand that move very little.

Although the area appears totally barren, many species of plants and animals have developed very specialized means of surviving in this area of cold winters, hot summers, very little surface water and ground water that contains lots of dissolved minerals.  Many of the plants are adapted to alkaline, nutrient poor soils with a high gypsum content, like yucca and rosemary. The kangaroo rat eats only dry seeds and never drinks water.

You can see the dunes by car or by foot. The Dunes Drive is a scenic 8-mile trek from the visitor’s center into the heart of the park. There are plenty of places to pull out and take pictures or short hikes. If you choose to see the park on foot, take great care to have at least a gallon of water per person per day with you. Even the winter, it is easy to become dehydrated in this extremely dry climate. In addition, much as snow on a sunny day can cause snow-blindness, so the reflective qualities of the white sands can cause vision impairment. So be sure you have sunglasses with you. Finally, it is easy to become lost or disoriented in the dunes, especially when the wind erases your footprints, so a compass is a must.

There are no campsites in the park. The closest public campground is 24 miles away in Oliver Lee State Park. Nearby Alamogordo, New Mexico offers lodging, dining and shopping.

Other attractions in the area include:
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

White Sands National Monument
PO Box 1086
Holloman AFB, NM 88330
Phone: 575-679-2599

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