When driving east on Interstate-10 across the southern part of New Mexico, you will generally see flat lands with low hills and plateaus in the distance. But eventually the landscape will change, and you will notice bands of white appearing in the distance. Eventually these white patches of sand change into dunes, as seemingly endless gypsum fields come into view. On a sunny day the flecks of gypsum reflect with a particular brilliance, giving the desert a dramatic appearance.
When we visited White Sands in the winter of 2015 it wasn’t yet a National Park, but a National Monument. The designation changed in 2019 when it was given national park status. Now, the official name is White Sands National Park, and it is well deserving of the recent change in status.
As we entered the park it felt like a winter scene, with shining white dunes everywhere. There were many places to stop and walk around, along with boardwalks and rest areas if you wanted a break from climbing the dunes.
Although it is called “White Sands,” the dunes contain a particular type of sand: gypsum crystals. It is the largest collection of gypsum dunes on earth, and has some unique characteristics compared with other types of mineral sand. Gypsum is soluble in water, and will dissolve and then cement together into a layer after it rains. This solid layer of sand resists erosion from the wind and helps to keep the dunes from disappearing.
While it doesn’t prevent plants and grasses from being covered by the dunes. certain species of plants are able to survive by growing fast enough to resist being completely covered. Other plants are able to form hard pedestals for stability.
The dunes can go up to 50 ft (15 m) in height, particularly on the western side of the park. Below the loose outer layer the dunes are actually very moist, and water is only a few feet below the surface. Using laser scanning. scientists have discovered ancient lake shores beneath the dunes.
Another interesting feature of the park are the lines in the sand made by the wind. Their consistency and ubiquitous patterns were mesmerizing.
It only looked like a winter wonderland when we went through White Sands National Park. The weather was chilly but quite dry. Little did we know that just a few days later we would hit a record snowstorm as we entered Albuquerque, with a foot of snow hitting the ground and forcing us to adjust our plans heading back to Arizona. But that’s a story for another time…