Life In the Big Green Jolly

Embrace local. Explore often.

Embrace local.  Explore often.

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument.

We’ve all seen the pictures. 

The perfect dune sunset – no footprints, no shadows. 

Obviously a place made just for photographers or Instagrammers.

But actually, White Sands National Monument is SO MUCH MORE.


Take the ranger-led Sunset Stroll Tour.  It lasts about an hour and will give you a deep appreciation of what the area is all about.

White Sands National Monument is the largest of the world’s three gypsum sand basins.  Fun fact – the next largest gypsum basin is in the nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park.   

Mars has the largest known gypsum sand dune – keep this in mind. It’ll be important later in the story.

Gypsum is used in many products – think sheetrock (have you ever put up drywall?) for the most common examples.  

The ranger had us pick up the fine white sand and feel it. After asking for ideas of what it was, she told us it was basically table salt.

 Imagine…standing on a dune of table salt. Anyone want fries with that?

Dunes at White Sands National Monument

A tourist asked if the park service plans to protect the dunes from erosion – perhaps by planting vegetation.  Smiling, the ranger took that as her stepping stone for our next geology lesson.

Long, long ago in geology timeframe, the area was a lake larger than the size of the current Salt Lake in Utah.  

Now, there is an aquifer underneath the basin.  If you dig down thirty feet and pull water from the aquifer, you may be getting water from the Ice Age.  

Two feet below the surface is the salty ground-water that roots the dunes today.  (Seriously, take the tour. They show you the water in a 2-foot hole!)  

Hole showing water 2-feet below the gypsum dune
2 feet down…water!

Gypsum needs water (because it is essentially salt) so that underground water and aquifer are what protect the dunes from erosion.

Ah – but we have all heard that aquifers around the country are at risk.  Well-water and corporations routinely drill down to use water directly from aquifers.  Isn’t that a risk here, you ask?

The ranger smiles again as you give her a smooth transition into the next lesson of the area. 

White Sands National Monument is a unique spot. It sits in the middle of a military area and thus the military (inadvertently?) protects the aquifer.  

It’s a codependent relationship between the National Park Service and the military.  Some of the land is co-use/no-use meaning the military determines where and when the rangers or the public are permitted on those grounds.  It is not unusual for the entire park area to close for half a day or more when the military is running missile tests.

The grounds have been used for a variety of modern day human activities such as:

  • The first atomic bomb testing
  • V2 rocket development
  • A back-up spot for shuttle landings. The Columbia shuttle did land here in the 1980s.

A recent use of the basin — testing Mars landing equipment.  Remember we said earlier that Mars has a large gypsum sand dune?  Well, what better place to test that landing equipment than on the largest earthly gypsum sand dune!

Salt Crystal
Salt Crystal

From an ancient perspective, the dunes protect long-ago footsteps.  Depending on how the wind blows, footprints are revealed as dark patterns. If you know what you are looking at, you’ll realize it is a giant Sloth footprint.  If you are real lucky, there will be human hunter footprints beside it. We didn’t see any of those on our visit but it’d be worth visiting again to see if we could stumble across some.

The ranger might mention salt crystals that form under certain conditions (evaporation or lightning strikes).  Rangers and tourists both hunt for the crystals. Be sure to ask if she has ever seen any. With a flourish and a “Well, since you asked…” exclamation, she’ll pull a few out of her bag and pass them around for show and tell.



There are five official trails.  Check the park map for details.

Off-trail hiking is permitted, but not encouraged.  The rangers get tired of having to find unprepared and lost souls. 🙂

Because these are gypsum sand dunes, the sand does not get hot. You can walk barefoot through the dunes even in the middle of the summer.


Permitted only on the Dune Loop.

Bring your own disc sled or purchase one at the visitor center.


Stay at least an hour past sunset time – the colors change dramatically.

Sunset over White Sands National Monument

Ranger-led programs

Take the sunset tour.  

If you are there during a full-moon, check out their full-moon calendar of events.  Rumor has it there are bands onsite during some full moon weekend events.


Since this is a National Monument (versus a national park), funds for facilities are limited.  

Onsite, there are a few pit toilets located through the lands.

There is primitive backcountry camping (permit required).  If you prefer front-country camping, check out nearby Oliver Lee Memorial State Park.

There is some interpretative signage.

Grab-n-go food and beverages are available at the visitor center near the entrance.


  • Check the weather before visiting. During heavy rain, the park can flood like an over-sized pool. Windstorms can also  crop up.
  • Check the facebook page and website for planned and unplanned military closures.
  • Take water, electrolytes and sun protection.  The sand itself may not get hot but you will.
  • Don’t sell yourself short.  Plan for at least a day in the area.  Seeing a sunrise and/or sunset is a must.

Area Attractions

Sadly, we had limited time in the area and did not get to check these out.  

On the list for future visits:

  • White Sands Missile Range Museum
  • New Mexico Museum of Space History

Fast Facts

  • Trip Date: September 2019
  • Name: White Sands National Monument
  • Location: New Mexico
  • Cost: $  
  • Family-friendly: Yes
Map showing location of White Sands National Monument