The official day 2 of our Southwest Spring Break 2K18 adventure was spent at White Sands National Monument and the surrounding areas of Alamogordo and Cloudcroft. Alamogordo is home to pistachio orchards and wineries, such as PistachioLand which boasts the ‘world’s largest pistachio.’ We made a stop here on the way to the national monument for some wine-tasting and souvenir shopping. The kids picked up some ice cream as a snack while Dad and I were looking around. And wine-tasting.
White Sands, the world’s largest gypsum sand dune field, is a park like no other. Formed from gypsum carried from the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains to the Tularosa Basin by rainwater and snowmelt during the last Ice Age, the gypsum deposits settled in what used to be Lake Otero. It has since dried out, leaving deposits of selenite, gypsum’s crystalline form. Over the course of thousands of years, the effects of desert sun and wind transformed the lake bed into what it is today. The air currents exposed the selenite crystals, and after years of freeze and thaw cycles eroding the gypsum pieces into fine grains of soft sand. The minuscule grains are carried by the desert wind, and eventually formed the famous dunes of White Sands. Today this geological process of deposit and evaporation and erosion continues. This is occurring at Alkali Flat and Lake Lucero on a much smaller scale, however, new sand continues to form and shape the landscape of White Sands.
This gypsum sand is different from the typical quartz-based sand you’d find at the beach. Gypsum sand is rare because it is water-soluble. It does not absorb the heat of the sun’s rays, and so stays rather cool to the touch. The dunes at White Sands are made up of about 98 percent gypsum sand. The unusual white sand and desert climate gave rise to some interesting species of wildlife. Plants and animals here have to be able to survive on very little water. There are some examples of evolution in action, such as the bleached earless lizard and little white whiptail, lighter-colored varieties of lizards adapted for life on the white sands. We saw evidence of the desert roadrunner at our picnic site. Most of the animals were hiding on the day of our visit. The temperatures were very mild, in the mid-70s with very little wind, but the sun was strong.
More than learning about the wildlife and geology of the area, the kids really enjoyed sledding down the sand dunes. The visitor center has saucer sleds available for purchase if you forget to bring your own. Sledding on sand was very different from snow sledding. The sand wasn’t quite as slippery as snow, so most of the time, the kids were doing more rolling than sledding. Still, it was a lot of fun. The husband and I were able to just relax on the cool, smooth sand. A margarita in hand would have perfected the afternoon if it were allowed in a national monument.
White Sands is located about 15 minutes southwest of Alamogordo, the closest city and is surrounded by White Sands Missile Range and close by Holloman Air Force Base. Missile testing can impact park hours, so check the NPS website for possible closures. Be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen. Also to protect this unique desert environment, please follow Leave No Trace principles. Pets are welcome as long as they are leashed, however, they’re not allowed in the visitor center or gift shop.
White Sands has a junior ranger program for kids ages five and up featuring Riley the roadrunner and his friends. The booklet can be picked up from the visitor center or printed and brought to the park. Participants who complete the required activities can earn either a cool junior ranger badge or an even cooler patch. And there’s no limit to the ‘up’ in five and up, so adults can participate too.
White Sands is an experience like no other and is definitely worth a stop if you’re in the vicinity of the Tularosa Basin. Happy trails!
Photos: the Haas family