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Sledding along at White Sands, America’s newest national park
By Tom Adkinson

ALAMAGORDO, New Mexico – It may take a little while for the signs at White Sands National Monument to catch up with a new reality, but for the time being, they are all wrong.

That’s because this surreal location in the Chihuahuan Desert got upgraded from national monument to national park status just before Christmas. White Sands now shares national park status with 61 other American treasures under National Park Service stewardship, places such as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the Great Smoky Mountains.

white sands national park dunefield
The dunefield at White Sands National Park covers 275 square miles in southeastern New Mexico. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Even though White Sands has joined the Big Boys Club so to speak, it is relatively small. The park protects the vast majority of a 275-square-mile dune-covered landscape that delivers a beautiful white reflection of the desert sun, while Yellowstone covers 3,468 square miles, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers more than 780 square miles.

white sands national park sledding
The gypsum sand is so smooth that sledding is a popular diversion, especially for children. Image by Tom Adkinson.

More than 600,000 people find this spot on U.S. 70 between Las Cruces and Alamogordo every year to learn about the ever-moving dunes, capture extraordinary photos and go sledding. Yes, the sand of White Sands is so fine that it is possible to slide down a steep dune on a plastic disc without bundling up in layers of winter clothing.

white sands national park sunset
The setting sun silhouettes a White Sands hike. The San Andres Mountains are in the background. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Pods of a soaptree yucca, one of many desert plants to observe at White Sands National Park, stand out against a blue sky. Image by Tom Adkinson.

This obviously is a geologic oddity. After all, it is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world – one big enough for astronauts on the International Space Station to observe. Gypsum is the key word here. These gentle swaths of gypsum, the same stuff in sheetrock walls, plaster of Paris and even toothpaste, are different from the silica sand found in desert and beach settings.

Creation of this gypsum sand is a tale millions of years in the making. Here are the basics, told at a very elementary level.

Sediments in a prehistoric sea dried out when the sea disappeared, mountains were formed with layers of gypsum, a basin took shape between two mountain ranges and rain began to fall. Rain carrying water-soluble gypsum washed from the mountains into the basin and formed a shallow lake. It was like a bathtub, but with no drain, so when the lake dried up, evaporation created gypsum crystals that were blown by the wind and broken down into today’s sand.

All it takes is time. Lots and lots of time.

A visit today is full of surprises, not the least of which is learning that the massive dunes move. Steady southwest winds can push them up to 38 feet a year. You won’t see any movement as you stand there, but you certainly can see evidence of movement, such as pillars of vegetation that once were surrounded by sand.

white sands national park picnic shelters
Single-table picnic shelters offer a bit of protection from wind and sun. Image by Tom Adkinson.

This otherworldly scene has attracted humans for at least 10,000 years. Commercial development (remember gypsum has value) was short-circuited in 1933 when the area gained national monument status and the National Park Service came on the scene.

More recently, movie producers have found this scenery ideal for a variety of movies – especially westerns, science fiction and apocalyptic films – such as “Hang ‘Em High,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “My Name is Nobody” and “The Book of Eli.”

white sands national park visitor center
This sign at the Pueblo Revival-style visitor center is due for updating to national park status. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Regular visitors come to take sunset or full-moon walks with park rangers, enjoy picnics in wind-protected shelters, hike almost nine miles of trails or just drive the park’s eight-mile loop. Plenty of them, of course, buy or rent plastic discs at the visitor center’s store and get the unusual treat of sledding in the desert.

Trip-planning resources:,, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published December 27, 2019

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