At the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert lies a mountain ringed valley called the Tularosa Basin. Rising from the heart of this basin is one of the world's great natural wonders - the glistening white sands of New Mexico.
Here, great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed
275 square miles of desert and have created the world's largest gypsum
dune field. The brilliant white
dunes are ever changing: growing, cresting, then slumping, but always advancing.
Slowly but relentlessly the sand, driven by strong southwest winds, covers
everything in its path. Within the extremely harsh environment of the dune field,
even plants and animals adapted to desert conditions struggle to survive. Only a
few species of plants grow rapidly enough to survive burial by moving dunes, but
several types of small animals have evolved a white coloration that camouflages
them in the gypsum sand.
White Sands National Monument preserves a major portion
of this gypsum dune
field, along with the plants and animals that have successfully adapted to this constantly changing environment.
White Sands National Monument is quite pretty, especially
during the winter. I would not plan on spending much time at the park
during the Summer, as temperatures are well over 100 degrees. Remember
to bring Sun Glasses, as the white sand is so bright during the day that
it is very hard to see reflecting the sun. Many people bring "snow
sleds" to slide down the dunes, although I am not sure if the National
Park Service frowns upon this or not.
Basic Information on White Sands National
Operating Hours, Seasons
The monument is open daily, except Christmas Day. Summer hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day): Visitor Center 8:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m., Dunes Drive 7:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. Winter hours: Visitor Center 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., Dunes Drive 7:00 a.m. - sunset. Special Note: Due to missile testing on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range, it is occasionally necessary, for visitor safety,to close the Dunes Drive for periods of up to two hours. U.S. Highway 70/82 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces is also closed during times of missile testing. Visitors on a tight schedule are encouraged to call the day prior to arrival for information on closures.
How to Get to White Sands National Monument
Nearest Airport to White Sands National Monument - The nearest airport is El Paso International, roughly 1 1/2 hours away.
Driving Directions to White Sands National Monument -
The visitor center is located on U.S. Highway 70/82, 15 miles southwest
of Alamogordo and 52 miles east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Travelers from
Carlsbad Caverns to southern Arizona can follow U.S. 82 through the scenic
Sacramento Mountains to White Sands National Monument.
Weather & Climate
The Tularosa Basin, a high desert area, averaging 4,000 feet (1200+ meters) in elevation, is subject to harsh, and sometimes rapidly changing climatic conditions. Summers are hot, averaging 95°F. (35°C.) highs in July and August, with occasional readings over 100°F. (38°C.). Winters are relatively mild, but night time temperatures often go below freezing (0°C.) and cold spells can send the mercury below zero (0°F., -17°C.). The lowest recorded temperature is -25°F. (-32°C.). Snowfall is infrequent, but heavy snows have occurred on occasion. Precipitation averages about 8 inches (20cm.) per year, with most falling during summer thunderstorms, often accompanied by lightning and hail.
Wind is the dominant climatic factor here, especially from February through May. The prevailing southwesterly winds blow unimpeded across the desert and at times reach gale force. Wind storms can last for days in the spring. This is the time of the greatest dune movement, when living conditions for dune animal and plant communities become extremely harsh.
The Visitor Center is accessible to wheelchairs.
Camping at White Sands National Monument
Open All Year
There is no car camping at White Sands National Monument. However, the park does have primitive backcountry campsites for backpackers wishing to enjoy a night on the white sands. The backcountry campsites, located about one mile from the scenic drive, are reached from a trailhead on the drive 6 miles from the visitor center. The campsites are primitive with no water or toilet facilities. No ground fires are permitted at the campsite or anywhere else in the park. Backpackers must register for campsites in person (no advance registration) at the Visitor Center by one hour before sunset. The backcountry campsites are occasionally closed due to missile testing on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range.
Activities and More Information
Sightseeing along Dunes Drive; picnicking in the Heart of the Dunes area; hiking, backcountry camping; observing plants and wildlife along the boardwalk.
Your first stop should be the White Sands visitor center, which includes a museum, information desk, book store, gift shop and restrooms. Allow approximately 30 minutes for visitor center activities.
From Memorial Day to mid-August, ranger-led activities are scheduled daily, including nature walks and evening slide programs. Check at the visitor center for the day's activities.
An eight-mile scenic drive leads from the Visitor Center into the heart of the dunes. Wayside exhibits at pullouts along the drive provide information about the natural history of the park.
Numerous parking areas along the drive allow visitors to stop and walk in the white sands. Allow 30 minutes driving time for the 16-mile roundtrip, plus additional time for walking, photography or stopping at pullouts. The Interdune Boardwalk has interpretive exhibits.
For those who would like to explore the dunes onfoot, the
Big Dune Trail is a one-mile self-guided nature trail. A booklet, available
at the trailhead, discusses the plants and animals that live within the
dunes. The Alkali Flat Trail, which starts from the end of the Dunes Drive,
is a 4.6 mile (round-trip) backcountry trail that traverses the heart
of the dunefield.
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