When one thinks of a national park, what's the first thing that comes to mind? More often than not, it's the thought of hiking trails, nature walks, and maybe even kayaking or camping. Usually, the first thing that comes to mind is not sledding - especially not when it's done on sand rather than snow.
At White Sands National Park, that's exactly what visitors can expect. Well, that and a gorgeous landscape that's been seen in multitudes of photoshoots. The white sand of these dunes is breathtaking and truly mesmerizing, set against a remote background in New Mexico that makes one feel as though they're on another planet entirely. Here's how to take advantage of all the beauty these beautiful sands offer and have a little fun in the process.
Why Is The Sand At White Sands National Park So Pure?
One might be wondering why the sand at White Sands National Park is so different from any other beach in the world. For starters, there's no ocean as New Mexico is entirely landlocked. There are also no viable sources of water nearby that would create enough surf to tumble rocks to this point of pebble-like consistency, so the sand, in itself, is somewhat of a mystery. However, the mystery suddenly makes more sense when visitors realize that what they're running their hands through isn't actually sand in the true definition of the word - it's pure gypsum.
The scientific term for this 'sand' is hydrous calcium sulfate. Known as gypsum, this is what's left behind after an 'ephemeral' lake featuring an extraordinarily high mineral count evaporates entirely, leaving behind a collection of pulverized minerals in its wake, i.e. gypsum. Therefore, what visitors find upon entering the park is a landscape full of pure white dunes that have been left there post-water evaporation. What's even more interesting is that since there's no water left to keep these gypsum piles in place, they have a tendency to move around. This means that the dune fields have the potential to move up to 30 feet in a northeastern direction each year - making for somewhat of a treasure hunt for those who visit the park in search of these stunning sand piles.
Getting To The Park And Finding The Dunes
Getting to White Sands National Park is fairly easy. It's located near the Chihuahuan Desert, not far from a military missile-testing facility. Directions to the park are as follows:
- Coming from Carlsbad Caverns can drive straight through the Sacramento Mountains on U.S. 82 before reaching the park.
- The visitor center is located on U.S. Highway 70 in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
- From there, the dunes can be found in the western part of the park - there will be signs to guide hikers, and the visitor center is a wealth of information.
Dune Sledding And Other Activities At White Sands National Park
One of the biggest attractions when it comes to finding these dunes is the potential for dune sledding, AKA sand sledding. While this can be done in several places around the world, the fine, powder-like gypsum sand makes it incredibly easy for visitors to slide down its already slick hills. While it might look like snow, visitors should be aware that dune sledding is not quite as easy as sledding on well-packed powder like it would be on the ski slopes.
- Visitors could opt to go barefoot but hiking boots are usually the best bet - they provide some traction and if they're ankle-high, they'll prevent some of the sand from making its way into one's shoes.
- A regular sled is all one needs to take part in dune sledding, and plastic sleds work the best thanks to their smooth exteriors. However, anything - including a metal garbage can lid or even a smooth wooden board - would work just as well.
- Be respectful of wildlife, as there are plenty of desert creatures who also call the park their home.
- Carry-in and carry-out - the dunes are remote and there are not many places to dump trash.
Flora And Fauna In The Park
Hiking through White Sands National Park is a great experience and one that can also be filled with plenty of local wildlife encounters. Visitors can see species unique to the landscape such as the kit fox, African Oryx, and Bleached Earless lizards.
Hiking through the park is relatively easy with the exception of the work it takes to climb up and over certain dunes, but there are plenty of ways in between them, as well. The plant life in the park is just as fascinating as much of it has adapted to the dry-desert lifestyle.