Weekend Trip: White Sands National Park

This past weekend we ventured to White Sands National Park. The park is famous for its sparkling white sand dunes, which exist in the middle of the southern New Mexico desert. I’ll talk a bit about kid-organization, and a bit about the geology of White Sands. If you want just the science, skip down about half way!

Going with kids, my biggest considerations were that we were going somewhere kid-friendly, fun, and safe, and that I could time the drive to my toddlers’ nap. White Sands is ideal: I knew I could spend a decent amount of time at the dunes, kids absolutely love it there, and we could stay nearby in Alamogordo to shower, sleep, and eat. 

White Sands is ideal for kids. The biggest playground EVER. Be sure to protect your eyes, especially kiddos who can’t necessarily tell you their eyes hurt. I use these soft wraparound sunglasses because they stay put!

Getting There

From Albuquerque, it is a fairly easy 3 hour 15 minute drive south on I-25, then a jog eastward and a bit farther south through Alamogordo to the park. We opted to spend the night in Alamogordo, which has several hotel options (and a Starbucks). 

Many people also like to stay in Las Cruces, which makes an easy half-way point if you are also visiting Carlsbad Caverns.

We left at lunchtime on Saturday, meaning my toddler snacked a bit and then passed out in a nap. My older girls took the opportunity to break out the tablet and watch a movie with their headphones. I love the quiet of a napping/movie car ride, which meant that I could listen to my book club audiobook (currently: People We Meet On Vacation).

When to Go

The park is open year round. I think the best times to go are fall and winter. Going in late October means that while the day time is warm enough to be barefoot and in shorts, we do not have the not blasting heat (summer) nor ripping wind (spring), both conditions New Mexico is known for. It also means that the sunset is early enough that we could grab a quick dinner in town and still have time to hit the hotel swimming pool before bedtime.

In the Park

When we actually go to the park itself, it is a surreal experience. You drive through the brown, scrubby desert, slowly seeing pale dunes start to peak out on the flat basin floor. Upon entering the park, you pass a few parking areas for a playa walk, a boardwalk, and then get to the main body of the dunes. The sand is brilliant. It is plowed and piled on the roadside like snow. 

My favorite place is to park in the backcountry trail parking areas (there are a few locations), some of which have bathrooms. Then, head into the dunes! We usually just pick a direction and go. 

There is a nice visitor center, gift shop and area with restrooms at the park entrance. This is worth a stop if you are new to the park and want to check the latest conditions, upcoming park events (sunset guided tours, moonlight walks) talk to a park ranger.

A toboggan is both fun and provides a good way to let little legs get a break after hours of playing in the sand. Photo Credit: my sister!

The NPS Site has an excellent page on safety, and every visitor should check it out before going. A couple of key logistical considerations:

Gear Tips

My biggest piece of advice when visiting White Sands: BE SERIOUS ABOUT SUN PROTECTION. It’s so much more fun when you aren’t burning your eyes, skin, and lips! I am pretty deliberate in the gear I use, so here are my best-tested anti-sunburn suggestoins:

Sunglasses

Even when infants, my kids wear sunglasses. Glasses protect both from sunburn, but also blowing sand, which honestly is the one guaranteed way to ruin a trip to White Sands. I like these soft wraparound for infants like these Mausito glasses. The soft, stretchy strap is adjustable for tiny baby heads! For bigger kids, I tend to stock up on RIVBOS glasses. They come in a lot of colors, and the frames are flexible, so when you kids stuff them into their backpack, sit on them, or yank them off their head, they stay together. Plus, they’re cheap enough to not be too sad when you lose them.

Hats

We spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun. We love the Sunday Afternoon Play Hat because again: lots of colors, excellent sun coverage, and a chin strap so the hat stays put in breezy weather. As we’ve found out, these are actually also excellent hats at keeping rain off of heads!

Bring a saucer, hat, sunglasses, and be ready for fun.

Clothing

My kids tend to wear whatever is comfortable, but we tend to encourage bright/light colored and long sleeves in the middle of the day. Sunscreen is a must, but covering the skin offers easy, mess-free protection. In October, the temperature can really swing: it can easily be 75° at 4pm and a chilly 45° after sunset, so a jacket is a good idea.

Just bring it

When we are out on a hike in the dunes, I pack a big backpack with everything we could need. We never walk far, so I would rather bring it with me than wish I had it an hour into our play adventure.  I take a lot of water, snacks, sunscreen and sweatshirts/jackets depending on the weather.  When we’re out in the evening, which is ideal for stunning sunsets, I be sure to bring a headlamp for everyone. Kids tend to like these ones, made for smaller heads. We also tend to bring a saucer and tobbogan for dune sledding (and after-play transport). 

Evening in White Sands can be magical. Here, we stayed out late to watch the full moon rise. It was incredible.

Geology Time!

White Sands NP is located in the Tularosa Valley, between the San Andres Mountains (to the west) and Sacramento Mountains (to the east). Here three factors necessary for development of dunes come together: a source of sand, plenty of wind, and a place where the wind is forced to release the sand it carries. Most of the worlds’ dunes are composed of silica (quartz) sand, but the dunes at White Sands are sparkling white and are the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Gypsum is a soft mineral (it is softer than your fingernail!) and breaks down easily as the wind, rain, and freeze/thaw events attack it. 

To create sand dunes, wind must blow 15 miles per hour or more –and the wind indeed howls for essentially the entirety of springtime. A broad white playa, the bed of ancient Lake Otero, lies southwest of the present dune field.

The Tularosa is an internally-drained basin, meaning that any water that falls within its boundaries stays within the basin. Rain and snow that falls onto surrounding limestone-cored mountain ranges carries dissolved gypsum into the Tularosa basin, where it pools in ephemeral playa lakes. As the lake water evaporates, gypsum precipitates in white crusts visible from roadsides. Most of the gypsum that ends up in dunes comes from the floor of this playa lake, which existed as a much larger lake during the last ice age. At the southern end of the playa, Lake Lucero will pool with water after heavy rains even today.

In silty lake deposits that fringe Lake Lucero, large, clear, daggerlike selenite crystals seem to grow right out of the soil. These crystals, cracked and shattered by desert temperature changes, and blasted by wind, break down into sand-sized particles that the wind can pick up and bounce across the lake flats to the dunes.

An up-close view of the crusts that form after a rain in the dunes.

Within the dune field, wind is slowed down by turbulent flow over the dunes themselves. Wind bounces the sand grains up the long, gentle windward dune slopes, often leaving ripples like these.  At dune crests, the wind loses its power and drops the grains. Accumulating near the dune crests, the sand eventually avalanches down the steep lee faces of the dunes.

There is a lot more to the amazing geology of White Sands National Park, which I’ll be including in the upcoming book I’m coauthoring: The Roadside Geology of New Mexico, Second Edition (by Mountain Press). If you’re interested in learning more about Colorado geology, I’ll recommend my other book, Colorado Rocks: A Guide to Geologic Sites in the Centenial State. Get your signed copy here, or check it out on Amazon.  

Are you interested in more weekend trip ideas? More about the geology and natural history of the places we explore? Any place in particular you are interested in? Please let me know in comments!

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