Sunscreen, check. Umbrella, check. Pail and shovel, double-check. Snow sled?
No, this is no day at the beach. A beach requires water, something that is glaringly lacking inside the borders White Sands National Monument. Other than that minor detail though, your preparations for a visit are basically the same.
Located deep in southern New Mexico, USA, White Sands is a landscape that would seem more at home in the Sahara. Or maybe even Tatooine or Jakku. With undulating ridges of powdery gypsum (yeah, the stuff they make drywall out of) this desert landscape is a bonanza for families and photographers alike.
The entrance to White Sands National Monument is a 15-20 minute drive west of the town of Alamogordo, NM, just past Holloman Air Force Base. The visitor center has some informative displays explaining the geology and wildlife of the area. It also contains the obligatory souvenir shop and restrooms – all in a classic southwestern adobe style that compliments the desert environment. From there you make your way down the only road in and out (after paying your entrance fees) then drive for several miles into the dunes which will soon fill your field of vision.
Inside the park, there are a few established trails, but what is most surprising – and appealing – is that you won’t have to walk far off the road to have your own little sandy kingdom to yourself. This is a good thing according to me and everyone else who has ever climbed a dune. At this point you have one of three options open to you: Explore, relax or go for a ride.
As an explorer who was born too late, my first inclination was toward the former. Mesmerized by the dazzling white sand and the ever-changing formation of the dunes, my camera was constantly clicking at the play of light and shadow, depth of field, and the evocative defiance of the scarce vegetation that manages to hang on in this rather unforgiving environment. Who would of thought I’d be inspired by a yucca plant? Like I said, this is no ordinary beach.
After an hour of traipsing over those loose sands you’re going to want to relax for a bit, whether you intended to or not. Fortunately, finding a vista unspoiled by fellow guests and their inevitable footprints does not require much searching. Listening to the winds gently interrupt the pervasive silence is just as soothing as distant sea gulls, which is good, because there aren’t any gulls around for many hundreds of miles. This is also where that umbrella and sunscreen will really come in handy.
The most popular activity in White Sands National Monument (just as an aside, it’s considered a national monument because it was designated so by a president; to be a national park it must be designated as such by Congress) is of all things, sledding. Granted, this is not your usual beachside activity, but since this isn’t really a beach I suppose exceptions can be made.
At the gift shop there are circular plastic sleds for sale – both new and used. If at the end of the day you wish to sell them back, they’ll give you a few dollars for it. Some might call it a rip-off. I just called it “renting”. Regardless, this is an enormous playground where you can range freely and pick whichever dunes are to your liking to slide down. If you come with others (like I did) you can also challenge them to a race (which I did as well). As a native of the Northeast I can say that while it’s not exactly the same as snow-sledding – mainly because there’s no snow – it can be every bit as fun. The main difference is that instead of feeling the chill of the snow when you wipe out at the end of the run, you just wind up with fine grains of gypsum sand finding their way to the most unmentionable of places on your person.
While most leave the beach at the setting of the sun, I heartily recommend sticking around for the sunset. Not only do they have free guided sunset walks led by park volunteers (meet at the marked sign alongside the road a half hour before the sun goes down – you can check at the visitors center) but the sands, which were blindingly white just a few hours ago, change in color and hue as the sun’s angle decreases – a literal golden hour for photographers and a great time to perch yourself atop a dune to enjoy the alpenglow of the surrounding mountains and reflect on the beauty that extends in all directions. At that moment you won’t even miss the water.
If you’re planning a visit here, there are a few things you should know. The first is that you are absolutely going to need sunscreen. Depending on your complexion, you might need lots of sunscreen. Those magnificent white dunes reflect all sorts of sunlight, which means you’ll have to lather up even on areas you don’t normally think to lather – the tops of your hands, the back of your knees, and even other areas if you’re feeling really bold.
Remember what I said about there not being any water inside the park? I’m not kidding. There’s a refill station at the visitors center, but beyond that you are responsible for your own hydration. Don’t underestimate how much you will sweat off while playing in the sand. Evaporation happens quickly in this kind of environment, so bring a sufficient supply of bottled water for your party.
Lastly, I recommend that you bring a spirit of reflection and amazement – along with a good camera. This is a landscape unmatched this side of Arabia, and a great stop in an area filled with regions of natural beauty. The right mindset will have you gushing about the experience – even after you’ve washed the sand from places you never knew you had.
Yeah, there’s nothing quite like a day at the beach for a little sun, sand and sledding. White Sands National Monument has all the dunes a beach bum could ever want. Sure, it lacks is an ocean, but until Arizona and California decide to step aside, a visit here is the next best thing. Now who’s up for a race?
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