Say hello to our newest national park: White Sands National Park.
With its rolling white sand dunes and incredible desert plants and animals, its no wonder that White Sands got a promotion this year. The 275-square-mile area in southern New Mexico has been designated a national monument since 1933, but this month was upgraded to national park. (If you’re wondering, national monuments are protected for some scientific, historical or cultural significance, while national parks are generally preserved for natural features and recreational value).
White Sands became our nation’s 62nd national park on Dec. 20, when President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 into law.
The park, located in the Tularosa Basin, consists primarily of rare gypsum sand dunes. Gypsum is a special type of sand that can dissolve in water — for example, when you heat gypsum with water, you get plaster of Paris or chalk. It’s commonly used as a binding material in household goods like toothpaste and drywall.
The gypsum found at White Sands is a product of the nearby San Andres and Sacramento Mountains, which are made up of layers of gypsum. When it rains or snows, the mountains’ gypsum is dissolved and washed down to the floor of the Tularosa Basin.
Much of the gypsum settles in Lake Lucero and when the water evaporates, what remains is known as selenite (basically, the crystal form of gypsum). In addition to seeing the chalky gypsum sand here, you’ll also see massive selenite crystals sticking out of the ground in various parts of the park.
If you’re inspired to visit White Sands National Park, you should know that federal law prohibits you from taking any sand home with you as a souvenir. But while you’re there, you can do some pretty cool things. Dunes Drive, for instance, is a 16-mile roundtrip scenic drive that takes you right into the middle of the gypsum dunes.
While at the park, you can also go camping, learn about the native plants, go hiking or take a tour led by a ranger.
But perhaps one of the best ways to experience the dunes, especially if you’re traveling with children, is to go sledding. That’s right, sledding. It’s not quite like sledding in the snow (sand is not actually slippery!), but it’s fun nonetheless. You can bring your own sled or buy one from the gift shop (the park advises that waxed plastic snow saucers work best for this terrain).
Nearby, you’ll find the towns of Las Cruces (which has an amazing farmers market) and Alamogordo. You’ll also be near Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range, a military testing area and the home of the Bataan Memorial Death March, an annual 26.2-mile march that commemorates the Bataan Death March of World War II.