Exploring the gypsum dunes in White Sands National Park

**Note/Disclaimer** It has been several years since I’ve visited the park (these pictures were all taken back in May of 2018), and currently the park is going through a phased reopening due to the pandemic. So please check their webpage (https:www.nps.gov/whsa/index.htm) to find out what is actually open or closed.

The White Sands National Park is actually the world’s largest gypsum dune field in the world. Located in the Tularosa Basin in southern New Mexico, the gypsum dunes cover 275 square miles of desert. The park is also adjacent to a military base (Holloman Air Force Base) and is within its missile range, therefore they will also regularly close during missile tests. The park is usually given notice (up to two weeks), but sometimes they may only get twenty-four hours. So if you see the road-closed sign, hang out at the visitor center and gift shop–though the highway into the park may be closed as well. So it is a good idea to either call ahead to find out about missile tests or check out their webpage.

Various plants growing in the gypsum sand

So this was part of our brief whirlwind trip through New Mexico a couple of years ago (when we went to Roswell, White Sands, and then Carlsbad Caverns before heading back to OK).

Depending on how long you decide to visit the park (and where you’re staying), there are numerous things htat you can do:

Visit the visitor center–I think that this one is almost a given for any park. You want to be able to grab a map of the area, use the restrooms (depending on how long you’ve been in the vehicle), stretch your legs, and browse the gift shop.

Drive Dunes Drive (say that five times fast). We took the scenic sixteen mile drive (round-trip) through the dune fields, stopping every so often to get out and take pictures, plus hiked a couple of the dunes.

Desert Mentzelia growing in the White Sands National Park

Hiking within the park. So, we only did ‘mini-hikes’ to where we would hike up a dune or two–but staying within sight of the road at all times. One thing I can say, it would be extremely easy to get disorientated and lost hiking off trails and into the park. Since we were there early afternoon in mid-May, we didn’t see that many creatures (other than the bleached earless lizard) out and about.

Bleached earless lizard spotted within the park
Lizard tracks through the sand

Spending time with a camera (either phone or digital). This is something I enjoy doing anytime that I’m going somewhere (whether its new or not), is playing with my cameras. Photography is becoming a favorite pastime and hobby, and I enjoyed trying to get various pictures of the park. I would have loved to have gotten picture of other animals within the park, but since we were there in early afternoon (in early summer)–not that many animals were out and about (and I wasn’t going to try to go find them either).

Blooming yucca in the sand dunes

There are primitive camping sites offered within the park, but they require a permit and are first come, first serve (as there are only ten sites). In addition, you have to backpack in to your camping spot within the back-country. We didn’t do this, but I think it could be fun to give it a try the next time I’m in southern New Mexico.

You can also ride your bike along Dunes Drive. While riding a bike is permitted within the park, you can’t take your bike ‘off-road’. Therefore it is important to remember that there is only a partial shoulder along the first five miles of the drive (the part that is paved), sand is constantly being blown across the road, and that you should wear protective (and bright) clothes and a helmet. While this probably would have been fun to try (I did bike through Volcano National Park in Hawaii), I currently don’t have a decent ‘mountain bike’ for something like this (I would think one would want a bike with thicker tires and treads for going through the park).

You can also ride horses within the park (though you have to unload at specific sites within the park), and a permit is required. They also have spots within the park for having picnics. There are a few tables around the visitors center, and two more picnicking areas off of Dunes Drive. As with the camping areas, the picnic tables are first come, first serve–though if you have a large group you can reserve one of the areas off of Dunes Drive.

The biggest draw to the park is actually the sledding. You can purchase waxed, plastic snow-saucers at the visitors center and then sled down the dunes. I almost wish we had bought a ‘sled’ and tried sledding down one of the dunes, perhaps next time. There are also ranger programs that are usually offered, but currently are not being held due to the pandemic.

Gypsum Centaury growing in the dunes
Looking out over the White Sands National Park

As the above photo shows, if you’re lucky (and quick enough with the camera) you can even get a picture of sand being blown around in the area.

So that was our whirlwind passage through the White Sands National Park. I enjoyed seeing the dunes of gypsum, the wildflowers, and catching the glimpse of the lizard. I would like to go back and try to spot other wildlife (possibly show up earlier in the day or perhaps later in the day), or even camp out in the back-country for a night or two and look at the stars and nighttime wildlife (plus work on my nighttime photography).