There’s no place like it on the planet. The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located in White Sands National Monument in south-central New Mexico, about 15 miles west of the TDS cable communities of Holloman Air Force Base and Alamogordo, New Mexico.
The dunes are located in the Tularosa Basin and are made of soft mineral gypsum. There are over 275 square miles of rolling acres of brilliant, white dunes.
What to do at the dunes?
Climb them – Gypsum dunes are firmer and cooler than other types of dunes made of loose sand. The towering walls of white might look daunting, but the dunes at White Sands are incredibly easy to walk up. Drive to the end of the park loop and there are plenty of places to climb and hike.
Go sand sledding – Some of the dunes are steep enough to resemble hills of snow, and visitors, armed with plastic sleds, can be found sledding in the park. Sledding is not only allowed, but encouraged! Visitors can either bring their own sled, or purchase one at the visitor’s center at the entrance.
Have a picnic – Visitors can bring food into the park, and there are plenty of funky-covered picnic tables in the loop section of the main road.
Take a free hike with a Park Ranger – The Sunset Stroll is a free one-hour guided hike with a ranger through the dunes. The stroll is before dusk where the ranger talks about the area’s geology and flora/fauna, and then in a perfect position to watch the sun set over the sand.
Watch the sunset – Don’t miss the sunsets! The dunes turn shades of blue and pink under the setting sun and there are plenty of dunes with great vantage points.
Go during a full moon — Word has it that because the moon glistens off the sand, it’s as light as daylight during a clear night with a full moon.
How were the dunes formed?
For thousands of years, wind and sun have separated the water in the shallow Lake Lucero from the gypsum and formed selenite crystals. Wind and water break down the crystals making them smaller and smaller until they become sand. Steady strong southwest winds keep the gypsum sand moving and piling it up into dunes.
If you visit the monument
Bring water. Even when hiking a short distance. The Alkali Flat Trail is a strenuous five miles and while it doesn’t look dangerous, when the heat of the day picks up, it becomes deadly. In addition, there’s no shade on the trail. Since 2009, four deaths have occurred while they were hiking in the park.
Other interesting area facts
During World War II, the U.S. Military tested weapons in the dune field behind the park. In 1945, the first atomic weapon bomb was detonated at Trinity Site, 100 miles north of the monument.