The Indescribable Beauty of New Mexico's White Sands National Monument

An Island of White in the New Mexico Desert

Just west of Alamogordo, New Mexico on the north side of US Highway 70 lies White Sands National Monument. The term national monument is a U.S. Department of the Interior term that refers to an area of historic, natural or other significant interest that warrants preservation but is not considered large enough to be operated as a National Park. White Sands is too small to fit the government's definition of a national park but its geologic uniqueness and spectacular beauty qualifies it to be preserved as a National Monument.

While small, the area covered by the white sand is only about 275 square miles in size, most of which is within the boundaries of the national monument, a visit to this site is a spectacular experience. White Sands is not totally unique as there are a few other areas in the world that have the same geology and same white sand, but cover areas much smaller than the White Sands area of New Mexico.

The White Sands National Monument sits like an island near the edge of the U.S. Army's huge White Sands Missile Range. The National Monument borders the U.S. Air Force's Holloman Air Force Base on one side and the WSMR on the other sides. However, the white sand from which the National Monument takes its name is found almost entirely within the boundary of the National Monument while the Army's White Sands Missile Range consists of regular desert with land an vegetation similar to other desert areas of the American Southwest. The WSMR simply takes its name from the White Sands National Monument which it surrounds.

A desert yucca plant provides a bit of color sitting atop a sand dune in White Sands National Monument
A desert yucca plant provides a bit of color sitting atop a sand dune in White Sands National Monument | Source
A pond on the 16 mile circle route in White Sands National Monument - the geology of the pond is the same as that of the much larger Lake Lucero .
A pond on the 16 mile circle route in White Sands National Monument - the geology of the pond is the same as that of the much larger Lake Lucero . | Source
An area with considerable vegetation in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.
An area with considerable vegetation in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico. | Source
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
Sand Dunes in New Mexico's White Sands National Monument
Sand Dunes in New Mexico's White Sands National Monument | Source

Like a Vast Snow-Covered Field

The white sand that characterizes the monument consists of fine particles of hydrous calcium sulfate more commonly known as gypsum. While calcium sulfate or gypsum is a fairly common mineral it is not common in sand form. The white sand at White Sands National Monument is the result of the unique geology of the Tularosa Basin in which it is located.

Trapped within the basin is Lake Lucero which lies within the monument boundary but can only be accessed by tourists via scheduled, ranger guided tours. Lake Lucero is all that remains of a much larger ancient lake which has receded due to evaporation leaving vast beds of calcium sulfate.

Normally the calcium sulfate would be dissolved and washed away by rains, but here in the desert the lack of rain and drainage prevents this from happening.

The wind, however, does cause the slow breakdown of the calcium sulfate or gypsum into tiny sand crystals which are then blown about the area by the wind to cover the approximately 275 square mile area with a thick blanket of pure white sand.

With little rain to dissolve and carry away the sand, it basically covers the area like a thick blanket of snow.

The result is what appears to be a vast, snow covered terrain sitting in the middle of the hot New Mexico desert. Just like standing in a snow covered field on a bright sunny day, sunglasses are a great help in viewing the area.

Despite the hot sun and scanty summer or light spring and autumn clothing, most people can't resist playing in the sand as if it were snow. While not cold like snow, the sand is also not hot.

The white color not only reflecting the heat away but trace amounts of moisture just below the top layer of sand also act to keep the sand cool to the touch. Unlike a sandy summer beach, walking barefoot in the sand of White Sands is a cooling rather than burning experience for one's feet.

Being a finer grain than most common beach sand, the sand is also softer and easier on the feet to walk upon. But, like all sand, the sand at White Sands remains finely ground rock and, unlike snow which it appears to be, it is not soft when you fall or throw yourself upon it.

While it lacks the softness and cold temperature of snow, the white sand dunes practically beg people to frolic upon them as if they were snow covered hills.

Visitors, in turn respond to the invitation by frolicking on the dunes as if they were hills covered with snow. People roll down the dunes and slide down on crushed cardboard boxes and other play things with flat smooth surfaces just as they do on snow covered hills during the winter in cooler climates.

The vast stark beauty of the area makes this an ideal place for photographers and sightseers. Watching the sun set over this incredibly beautiful area leaves one speechless as they simply ponder with wonder at the natural beauty of God's creation.

White Sands National Monument - 16 Mile Loop Drive Viewing the Sand
White Sands National Monument - 16 Mile Loop Drive Viewing the Sand | Source
Welcome to White Sands National Monument
Welcome to White Sands National Monument | Source
Visitor Center at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Visitor Center at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
Side Exit of Visitor Center at White Sands National Monument
Side Exit of Visitor Center at White Sands National Monument | Source
The Fall Color of the Aspen against the White Sand
The Fall Color of the Aspen against the White Sand | Source
White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument | Source
Yellowing leaves on Aspen tree in Autumn at White Sands National Monument
Yellowing leaves on Aspen tree in Autumn at White Sands National Monument | Source
A few hearty desert plants on sand dunes at White Sands National Monument
A few hearty desert plants on sand dunes at White Sands National Monument | Source
Sand dunes in White Sands National Monument
Sand dunes in White Sands National Monument | Source
My wife climbing a sand dune in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
My wife climbing a sand dune in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
Ramada's in a picnic area in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Ramada's in a picnic area in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
My wife among the dunes.  White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
My wife among the dunes. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
Sledding on a dune in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Sledding on a dune in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
Sledding on the dunes in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Sledding on the dunes in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
That is white sand, not SNOW, on the road ahead. White Sands National Monument, NM
That is white sand, not SNOW, on the road ahead. White Sands National Monument, NM | Source
Ramada with picnic table in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Ramada with picnic table in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source

White Sands at Sunset

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
My enjoying sunset at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
My enjoying sunset at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico | Source
Sun setting in distance at  White Sands National Monument, NM
Sun setting in distance at White Sands National Monument, NM | Source
Sunset at White Sands National Monument, NM
Sunset at White Sands National Monument, NM | Source
Sunset in White Sands National Monument, NM
Sunset in White Sands National Monument, NM | Source
The sand takes on a pink glow at sunset in White Sands National Monument, NM
The sand takes on a pink glow at sunset in White Sands National Monument, NM | Source
Last rays of sun in White Sands National Monument, NM
Last rays of sun in White Sands National Monument, NM | Source
Day ends at White Sands National Monument, NM
Day ends at White Sands National Monument, NM | Source

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Comments 16 comments

chamilj profile image

chamilj 5 years ago from Sri Lanka

Truly beautiful photos. Thanks!


wanderingpops profile image

wanderingpops 6 years ago

I have GOT to visit this place. Another of NM's beautiful features I have on my agenda for 2011.

Thanks for the information.

David Sims


Angela Harris profile image

Angela Harris 6 years ago from Around the USA

I drove right by this on more than one occasion. I'm so upset that I never got to visit. I didn't even have a camera. But at least we stopped the car and I was able to walk in the sand by the road a bit.

It really is a shocking sight. It looks like a blizzard hit the middle of the desert!


yenajeon profile image

yenajeon 6 years ago from California

Sad I miss home now! Great Hub=)


Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Sue, I would plan on at least ten days to two weeks, especially if you want to spend a little time at some of these places. Also, in addition to the major places like Grand Canyon, there are many equally interesting but not as well known (or as big) places to see. This article was on White Sands but nearby in Almagordo there is the New Mexico Museum of Space History ( http://hubpages.com/travel/Rockets-Galore-at-New-M... ) and another free rocket museum further west at an Army Base on the White Sands Missile Range.

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon can take about a day to see, especially in summer when you have to park in a parking lot on the permiiter and use a free shuttle bus to get from observation point to observation point. Then within the park a half mile or less from the rim is the Tonto National Forest with wildlife and ancient Indian ruins. Outside the east side of the park on the road back to Flagstaff is a stunning volcanic area where the entire area is black volcanic cynder with an occasional spot of green and the white caped San Francisco Peaks. There is also the site of a huge meteor crater. Further south is Oak Creek Canyon and the red rock city of Sedona ( http://hubpages.com/travel/Road_Trip_to_Sedona_Ari... ) to say nothing of two or three national monuments containing ancient indian ruins.

Chuck


Sue 7 years ago

Basically, we wanna do a roadtrip this summer. If we were, we would drive in a Grand Vitara SUV. If we were to make a few stops to some US tourist sights (mount rushmore, grand canyon, etc.) along the way (and stay in a hotel overnight whatever state we’re in), how long do you guys think would it take?


earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 7 years ago from Melbourne Australia

Very beautiful. Thank you.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

marisuewrites - thanks for the comment. I am glad you enjoyed the Hub and pictures. This was my second visit and my wife's first. We had planned to spend 2-3 hours there and then continue on to Santa Fe but after a late start and and extended stay at the Army's missile museum earlier in the day we arrived an hour or two before sunset and ended up taking the sunset excursion and then returning the next morning and spending a good three hours leisurly driving around, with numerous stops, the 16 mile circle drive. As to the dunes growing, I don't know and don't recall the ranger saying anything about that on the sunset excursion - but I was so busy looking at the view and taking pictures that I could have missed that comment.


marisuewrites profile image

marisuewrites 7 years ago from USA

OH MY!!! I grew up in Alamogordo, in the 50's and 60's and my parents worked in the space program at White Sands Missile Range, these bring back so many memories, beautiful! Are the dunes still growing? They were moving an inch or so a year....

nice hub, and thanks for the stroll down memory lane, tears here...=))


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

Beautiful pictures, Chuck. I love the way the sky looks in the desert, so incredibly blue. My son was just out there and said that it snowed! He said the sight of snow on the white dunes was breathtaking.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Peggy W - Thank you for the comment and link. Here is a link to yours for those who would like to see more pictures and your perspective on the park. http://hubpages.com/travel/The-bright-dazzlingly-a...


SEM Pro profile image

SEM Pro 7 years ago from North America

Awesome - wonderful pics. Thanks for sharing!


Hawkesdream profile image

Hawkesdream 7 years ago from Cornwall

Well deserves the National Monument status, great photos.


lisa in texas 7 years ago

beautiful pictures!! loved reading this


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

Your article was so good and full of photos that I went back and linked yours to mine. A big thumbs up to you!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

Great article with photos. I did a mini-one in comparison to yours. Congratulations!

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