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.
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 at Sunset
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Chuck Nugent