Everyone has their own way of enjoying the White Sands. For us it was all about appreciating the landscape, getting away from other people to feel the rather eerie atmosphere, taking on the challenge of adequately capturing the dunes in our photos. But others were here to have fun!
Things were pretty quiet when we arrived just after 7.00 am, but as the morning wore on it got busier. By the time we returned to our car after doing part of the Alkali Flats trail (see my Things to Do tip) it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much more full the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively temperate October!
Tobogganing down the dunes is also a popular pastime, and you can buy or hire toboggans at the Visitor Centre. We are perhaps more accustomed to appreciating the great landscapes of the US through its National Parks system and I was a little surprised at how accessible the dunes are here - there are no restrictions on where you can walk, or sled.
While gypsum is a common mineral, it is rarely found in the form of sand due to it dissolving so easily in water. This “chalky” mineral is used in shampoos and is the basis of plaster of Paris due to this solubility. As you can imagine, to find it in its sand form, you would have to be in a very arid climate and White Sands National Monument provides just that. The combination of this lack of moisture, high winds, and blaring sun help to keep the “white sand” just that and leads to the massive dune formation. This 275 mile expanse of the rare sand is much coveted by commercial enterprises who estimate that it could provide enough drywall for 1000 years but thankfully good old Herbert Hoover had it designated it a protected National Monument in 1933. The sand is very different to feel and has a bit of a squeaky sound as you walk on it. It also is cool to the touch, it being white it reflects much of the constant sun that beats down on it.
As you drive along the Dunes Drive you may be surprised to find what activities the locals enjoy in the monument. We saw some people sunbathing, stretched out on beach towels and dressed in swimsuits. Others were playing in the sand, picnicking, and a few were flying kites. Others were sliding down the dunes on sleds as though these were hills of snow.
Please remember that the sand is there for all of us. Resist the temptation to take some home with you. Your grandchildren will thank you (not now, but later, when they visit years from now).
If you want white sand, Alamogordo sells souvenirs, and there's always the missle range. Sure, the sand might be a bit irridated from various tests of weapons of mass destruction, but hat just makes it all the more special, right?
Please note that you are not allowed to remove any sand, rock or plant from the National Monument without permission. If you ask, however, the rangers may be willing to let you have some sand. Personally, I hiked enough to have a ton of it in my shoes by the time I left.