White Sands, New Mexico is a bit off the typical tourists’ beaten track.

But it should be on yours.

It’s a unique geologic phenomenon: 275 square miles of gypsum dunes that mound and move with the wind in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico.


White Sands, New Mexico CancerRoadTrip

The shifting gypsum dunes of White Sands, New Mexico


Gypsum is a soft sulfate mineral used in commercial applications ranging from drywall to Plaster of Paris. These particular gypsum fields were formed when the Permian Sea retreated millions of years ago. Weather and time have allowed this desert of gypsum to form. In 1933, President Hoover made White Sands a national monument.

The White Sands legacy goes beyond the dunes. At the northern edge of the park lies Trinity Site, the site of the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945. Today, part of the park is an active missile range. Testing periodically closes the dunes to the public. (Be sure to check on the White Sands website before you go!)

The desert like terrain of White Sands can be misleading. The endless, shifting shoals of gypsum, unlike sand, are not gritty or hot. They’re cool to the touch (even in the heat) and oh so soft.

Colorwise, the powdery substance ranges from white as snow to a soft vanilla, depending on the light. And across the surface, ridges form as the wind passes through.


White Sands, New Mexico CancerRoadTrip

The wind creates waves in the sand at White Sands, NM


The dunes are dynamic. They move several feet a year, burying plants in their path. A few plants have learned some adaptive techniques, but the area lacks much of the desert plants found elsewhere.

Interestingly, the water table is just below the surface. That means that when it rains, pools form creating a network of small shallow lakes in the crevices between the dunes. This in turn encourages some plant growth.  Until, of course, the dunes shift and move with the wind. And the cycle repeats and continues.


White Sands, New Mexico CancerRoadTrip

Plants grow in the dunes at White Sands.


Dawn at White Sands

Morning is my favorite time of the day and dawn at White Sands borders on a spiritual experience. Standing high atop the dunes, the sun rises, bathing the dunes in a soft light.  During my visit the remains of  Hurricane Willa were approaching from Mexico, bringing with it a weather system of clouds and rain. The rain was delayed a bit, but the morning clouds provided color and contrast to the pure white, undulating terrain. Pockets of sun would punch through the clouds, illuminating distant dunes. A curtain of rain showers could be seen approaching from miles away, and the air became heavy with the approaching storm.


CancerRoadTrip White Sands, NM

The approaching storm


CancerRoadTrip White Sands, NM

In the distance, a break in the clouds allows sunshine to spill onto the powdery sand.


The enveloping silence, the endless dunes and the morning light were simply magical. Evenings the park rangers offer a sunset walk–take it. You’ll learn about the park and get some amazing views as well.


Traveling to White Sands

Bring plenty of water, a compass or GPS, and be prepared to be wowed. Hiking, camping and sledding are all available at this Park. Camping is extremely rudimentary –there are NO (I mean zero) amenities– but nearby Alamogordo offers plenty of hotel options.


White Sands, NM

The route from Santa Fe to Almagordo, near White Sands


You’ll want to get away from the road to get to the more pristine dunes. The nearby dunes tend to be full of footprints, particularly at the popular sledding areas. Be sure to bring lunch (there are no concessions at the park). But there are numerous picnic grounds scattered throughout the park that offer a bit of shade and shelter from the prevailing wind direction:


White Sands, CancerRoadTrip

Sheltered picnic tables and BBQs at White Sands



Weather In White Sands

The climate can range from searingly hot to frigidly cold depending on the season.  Summers can get into the triple digits. The rainy season begins in July and runs through the end of September. December through February evenings are cold. Snow, wind and rain are all possibility. In the spring, strong winds and windstorms are not uncommon.

In short, check the weather and be prepared for wild swings in temperature and comfort throughout the day. Bring layers and be prepared to adapt. A hat is your friend!

Here is some seasonal weather information:


CancerRoadTrip White Sands, NM

Seasonal weather data from the National Park Service

If you get to southern New Mexico and enjoy the outdoors, do make it a point to visit White Sands. It is remote, beautiful and truly a special place.


More Reading on Fall in New Mexico:

New Mexico Road Trip: White Sands to Mesilla
Fall Color New Mexico
Wine and Chile
Timeless Truchas
Autumn in Taos


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