So often I write about places that aren’t very well known. That’s because I want others to be able to experience the lesser-known places that I’ve enjoyed. However, I don’t want to be stuck in “off the beaten path”. So, today, here’s a park that we’ve been to many times, and is quite well known. In fact, it’s a national monument!
I’m talking about White Sands National Monument near Las Cruces, New Mexico. To be honest, I think the reason this park exists is because the government owned the land already as a missile testing range, but it is a truly nice park. We usually get there very early in the morning, so not too many people have hit the dunes yet. The only problem with this is that in the late fall through early spring the sand can be very cold at that time of day (and it can be very hot later in the day and in the summer), so we can’t always go barefoot as quickly as we wish.
To get to the national monument from the east, take US Hwy 70 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo, New Mexico. From the west, take US Hwy 70 52 miles east of Las Cruces. To get there from the North or South, you will have to take US Hwy 54 or I-25 to US Hwy 70, and follow the east/west directions to the monument. The turn into the monument is well-signed.
So, what is there to do in White Sands? Well, the only real attraction is the dunes themselves. But they’re well worth seeing, at least once in a lifetime, because, unlike so many other sand dunes, these are white. I don’t mean that they have a white-ish tinge too them that made early explorers think of washed-too-many-times-bed-sheets; this sand is nearly pure white. In fact, looking across the park makes you think that you are looking at many huge piles of snow (except that snow doesn’t pile like sand does).
Our favorite thing to do at the park is to park our vehicle in one of the many packed-sand parking areas, climb to the top of the dunes, and jump down. Some of us can do this over and over again, just about all morning long. Of course, it makes sense to pull off your socks and shoes (after all, who wants sand in their shoes?), then to get into shorts so you can feel the sand against your bare legs (and so that you don’t get your pants all sandy when you fall down—I, for one, don’t like wearing sandy jeans!). Then we can walk barefoot in what could easily be snow. It even feels as cold as snow in the early morning before the sun has warmed it up. The dunes, unlike Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, aren’t so tall that you can’t jump all the way to the bottom and then climb right back up to the top again. However, they’re high enough so you get a good jump.
There are also trails, although I’ve never walked any of them. Check out the national park website, and they’ll have information on that (http://www.nps.gov/whsa/). You can also get information about road closures, as sometimes the park gets closed when the nearby missile range is testing missiles. White Sands really is a free-range park, so while we were jumping and sliding, my parents just took walk off across the dunes. No one’s really going to care as long as you don’t get lost.
One time when we visited we found a steep slope, and discovered that by pulling the sand away from the edge of the dune we could create amazing sand sculptures, reminiscent of Bryce Canyon in Utah (except these are white). We’ve never been able to recreate these on other visits, but I think that’s because we weren’t using a steep enough or hard enough slope for digging. Also, too many people had probably jumped down the dunes we used on later trips.
In terms of facilities, there really isn’t much here. There are a few picnic tables scattered around, and an occasional pit toilet in some of the parking areas. Because the dunes are constantly shifting, you never know where they’re going to end up next, so the park people have made a loop road through the dunes. On our first visit, we even saw the grader that was maintaining the road! The road really just packed sand, but a car could easily transverse it. There is also a visitor center; however, we’ve never taken the time to stop and see what’s there.
So, if you’re ever in the area, stop by and experience the sand dunes…that could be snow, if it weren’t so hot!
Fees: $3 per person; 15 and under free. Interagency, etc, passes are also accepted.
[This blog post is dedicated to my sister: You have always loved this park, and ask to go there on every trip. We’ll do it again soon.]