White Sands Overview

White Sands National Park, nestled in the Tularosa Basin in southern New Mexico, USA, is a landscape of rare and mesmerizing beauty. Covering approximately 145,762 acres (590 square kilometers), this remarkable park is home to the world’s largest gypsum dune field, spanning over 275 square miles (712 square kilometers) of desert. Established as a national monument in 1933 and redesignated as a national park in December 2019, White Sands stands as a testament to the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the natural world.

The park’s dazzling white sand dunes, composed of gypsum crystals, create a surreal, otherworldly landscape that captivates visitors. Unlike quartz sand dunes, which can become scorchingly hot under the sun, gypsum does not readily convert sunlight into heat, allowing the dunes to remain cool to the touch even during the hottest summer days. This unique characteristic makes the park a fascinating place to explore year-round.

White Sands National Park is not only a place of stunning beauty but also of significant ecological and scientific interest. The park’s ecosystem supports a variety of life adapted to its harsh, fluctuating conditions, including species of plants and animals that have evolved unique strategies for survival in this gypsum environment. Some of these species are endemic to the park, found nowhere else on Earth.

Visitors to White Sands can enjoy a range of activities, including hiking, picnicking, sledding down the cool, white dunes, and photography. The park also offers ranger-led programs that delve into its natural history, geology, and ecology, providing insights into the forces that have shaped this unique landscape over thousands of years.

White Sands National Park is a place of quiet beauty and stark contrasts, where the rolling dunes and brilliant blue skies offer a peaceful escape and a reminder of the natural world’s wonder and resilience.

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White Sands National Park Highlights

Creatures of the Dunes

White Sands National Park, with its vast dunes of glistening white gypsum, offers a unique ecosystem in New Mexico, where specialized wildlife species thrive, adapting to the park’s otherworldly landscapes and providing visitors with a glimpse into the resilience and beauty of life in this stark, yet stunning environment.

Bleached Earless Lizard Adapted to blend into the white sands, the bleached earless lizard is a prime example of evolutionary adaptation, making it a fascinating find for visitors.

Apache Pocket Mouse The apache pocket mouse, with its remarkable ability to survive in arid environments, forages at night, utilizing the cool sands and avoiding daytime predators.

Ord’s Kangaroo Rat Active at night, Ord’s kangaroo rat navigates the dunes with ease, its long hind legs allowing it to leap away from threats and find food.

Great Horned Owl The great horned owl reigns supreme in the night skies of White Sands, its silent flight and powerful talons making it a top predator of the dunes.

Darkling Beetle The darkling beetle, often seen wandering the dunes, plays a crucial role in the decomposition process, breaking down organic material and enriching the sand.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake A master of camouflage, the western diamondback rattlesnake blends into the sandy environment, a reminder for visitors to watch their step while exploring.

Kit Fox The elusive kit fox, adapted to desert life with its large ears for heat dissipation, hunts under the cover of night, seldom seen by park visitors.

Coyote The coyote, a symbol of the American Southwest, roams the park’s fringes, its adaptability allowing it to thrive in White Sands’ harsh conditions.

White Sands Pupfish Unique to the area, the white sands pupfish survives in isolated springs and pools within the park, a testament to life’s persistence in extreme environments.

Prairie Falcon Soaring above the dunes, the prairie falcon scans the ground for prey, its keen eyesight adapted to spotting movement against the white backdrop of the sands.

White Sands National Park’s wildlife, from the uniquely adapted bleached earless lizard to the soaring prairie falcon, showcases the incredible diversity and adaptability of life within the park’s mesmerizing white dunes, inviting visitors to marvel at the natural wonders of this unique ecosystem.

Cool Dunes of White Sands

The dunes of White Sands National Park are a mesmerizing natural wonder, encompassing the world’s largest expanse of gypsum sand. This breathtaking landscape covers about 275 square miles (712 square kilometers) of desert in southern New Mexico, forming part of the Tularosa Basin. Unlike the quartz sand found at most beaches, gypsum is water-soluble and typically dissolves into rivers and oceans. However, the unique conditions of the Tularosa Basin prevent the gypsum from escaping, allowing these brilliant white dunes to form and flourish.

Among these dunes, there isn’t a single “biggest” dune in terms of a permanent structure; rather, the dunes continuously shift and change shape due to the strong winds. Some can reach heights of up to 60 feet (approximately 18 meters), creating dramatic landscapes that captivate visitors.

The park’s dunes are not only a geological marvel but also an ecological one, supporting a variety of life adapted to the harsh, shifting environment. Notably, the dune field is also eerily quiet, as the gypsum sand absorbs sound, creating a tranquil silence that adds to the surreal beauty of the landscape.

A remarkable feature of these gypsum sands is their coolness, unlike typical desert sands made of quartz; even on the hottest summer days, the sands of White Sands National Park remain cool to the touch. This unique characteristic makes the park a comfortable place for exploration and recreation year-round.

White Sands National Park Pictures

Engaging White Sands National Park

Sledding Down the Dunes offers a thrilling way to enjoy the park’s vast gypsum dunes. With specially designed sleds available at the visitor center, visitors of all ages can glide down the soft, white sand, experiencing the park’s natural beauty in an exhilarating way. The cool sand ensures a comfortable ride, even on warmer days, making this activity a favorite among families and adventure seekers alike.

Hiking through White Sands National Park unveils the subtle intricacies of the dune landscape that might be missed otherwise. The park features several marked trails that range from easy to moderate difficulty, guiding visitors through the heart of the gypsum dunes. Hiking here is unlike anywhere else, with the stark, white sand stretching to the horizon, creating a sense of serene isolation.

Each trail offers a different perspective of the park, from the interdunal areas where plants and animals have adapted to the harsh environment, to the tallest dunes that offer panoramic views of the surrounding Tularosa Basin. Early morning hikes are particularly magical, with cooler temperatures and softer light, enhancing the already breathtaking scenery. It’s an immersive way to experience the park’s unique ecosystem, geological features, and unparalleled beauty

Picnicking amidst the dunes offers a relaxing way to enjoy the park’s natural beauty. With several picnic areas equipped with tables and grills, visitors can enjoy a meal surrounded by the stunning landscape.

The cool gypsum sand and the gentle breeze create a pleasant environment for a leisurely lunch or a sunset dinner, making for a serene and picturesque dining experience.

White Sands National Park Trails

Interdune Boardwalk

Rating: Easy

Distance and Elevation Gain: 0.4 miles round trip with minimal elevation gain

Description: This accessible boardwalk offers visitors a chance to explore the heart of White Sands without stepping into the sand. It’s perfect for those looking for a quick and easy way to witness the park’s unique gypsum dune field. Interpretive signs along the path provide insights into the area’s ecology, making it a great educational experience for all ages.

Alkali Flat Trail

Rating: Moderate

Distance and Elevation Gain: 5 miles round trip with minimal elevation gain

Description: Despite its name, the Alkali Flat Trail is not flat. It takes hikers through the heart of the dunes, offering an up-close experience with the vast gypsum dune field. Hikers will navigate by following posts with reflective markers. This trail offers stunning, unobstructed views of the dunes and the surrounding Tularosa Basin.

Dune Life Nature Trail

Rating: Easy to Moderate

Distance and Elevation Gain: 1 mile loop with minimal elevation gain

Description: This loop trail is perfect for those interested in the diverse life forms that inhabit the gypsum dunes. With informative signs along the way, hikers can learn about the plants and animals adapted to this unique environment. The trail provides a fascinating look at the ecosystem within White Sands.

Backcountry Camping Trail

Rating: Moderate

Distance and Elevation Gain: 2 miles round trip with minimal elevation gain

Description: This trail is primarily used by those wishing to camp in the backcountry among the dunes. It offers a unique overnight experience, with incredible star-gazing opportunities. Hikers should be prepared with water and navigation skills, as the dunes can be disorienting. The solitude and beauty of the dunes at sunrise and sunset are unmatched.

Playa Trail

Rating: Easy

Distance and Elevation Gain: 0.5 miles round trip with minimal elevation gain

Description: This short trail leads to a seasonal playa (dry lakebed), providing insights into the geology and hydrology of the gypsum dune field. The trail is easy and suitable for all ages, offering a quick look at one of the park’s playas, which are crucial to the ecosystem of White Sands. Interpretive signs explain the significance of these features.


1. What is White Sands National Park known for?

White Sands National Park is renowned for its strikingly beautiful landscape of white gypsum sand dunes. Covering over 275 square miles (712 km²) of desert, it is the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

This unique feature forms the heart of the park’s attractions and activities, offering a surreal and otherworldly landscape that captivates visitors.

The gypsum that creates these dunes is a soft mineral that is rarely found in the form of sand because it is soluble in water. However, the unique set of circumstances in the Tularosa Basin traps the gypsum and creates the magnificent white dunes.

Unlike typical desert sand, the gypsum sand does not absorb the sun’s heat, so it remains cool to the touch, even in the heat of summer, making it comfortable for barefoot exploration.

White Sands National Park is known for more than just its beauty; it offers a variety of recreational activities. Visitors can enjoy sledding down the dunes, hiking, photography, picnicking, and star gazing under some of the clearest night skies in the United States.

The park also supports a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals adapted to this extreme environment, including species such as the bleached earless lizard, which are specially adapted to blend into the white sand.

Furthermore, the park has a rich history, from ancient cultures that left behind fossilized footprints to the testing of the first atomic bomb at the nearby Trinity Site. White Sands National Park offers a blend of natural wonder, recreational fun, and historical intrigue, making it a unique and captivating destination for visitors.

  • All Trails, White Sands National Monument,, retrieved April 2024.
  • Britannica, White Sands National Monument,, retrieved April 2024.
  • National Park Foundation, White Sands National Monument,, retrieved April 2024.
  • National Park Service, White Sands National Monument,, retrieved April 2024.
  • New Mexico, White Sands National Monument,, retrieved April 2024.