5 Things to Know About White Sands National Park

 5 Things to Know About White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park is one of the newer national parks in the U.S.

Rising from the heart of the Tularosa Basin is one of the world's great natural wonders – the glistening white sands of New Mexico.

Great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert, creating the world's largest gypsum dune field.

This National Park preserves a major portion of this unique dune field, along with the plants and animals that live here. On Dec. 20, 2019, a bill was signed into law that officially designated White Sands as a national park in the U.S. With some help from the folks at TravelTrivia.com, here is a list of what to know about White Sands. 

White Sands National Park Camping is Allowed nearby

Though White Sands National Park does have primitive camping sites for backpackers, there isn't a campground for RVs or vehicles within White Sands National Monument. However, there are many campgrounds, both public and private, within an easy drive of the park.

You will need this Area Camping brochure created by the National Park Service for locations and contact information of many local campgrounds. 

White Sands National Park with cloudy blue sky
Photo by Meredith Fontana on Unsplash

White Sands Is the World's Largest Gypsum Dune Field

That means rolling hills of white sand shimmering in the sun as it reflects the light. Scientific minds will know that gypsum is a mineral that dissolves in water, so it normally gets washed out of the sand. But not in this part of New Mexico. The climate is dry enough that the gypsum remains, covering hundreds of square miles with its otherworldly glimmer.

White Sands is located on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in an area known as the Tularosa Basin. When the water in the basin evaporates, the minerals, including gypsum, are left behind. The strong desert winds eventually shape them into the postcard-worthy dunes for which the park is known.

Fun Fact: While the overall landscape stays the same, the dunes themselves actually change quite a bit, with some of them moving up to 30 feet per year as a result of the wind.

More Than 800 Different Species Call It Home

With more than 800 species living in White Sands, there's far more diversity than initially meets the eye — though you're unlikely to spot many yourself as the majority of the animals are nocturnal.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of species — over 600 of them — are insects and arachnids, including spiders, beetles, scorpions, and more. These serve as food for many of the other animals, including reptiles, mammals, and birds. Some of the most notable of these are burrowing owls, jackrabbits, bobcats, turtles, snakes, and roadrunners, as well as the state bird of New Mexico.

You'll find some species to be significantly lighter in color than ones you'd find elsewhere in the world: over the millennia, the mice and various insects have evolved a white coloring to better blend in with the surrounding sand.

Perhaps the most unexpected creature in the desert park is a single species of fish known as the White Sands pupfish. These are small fish, around 2 inches long, that have evolved to live in the extremely limited water supplies of White Sands National Park, which include a couple of springs and a local creek. With such a limited habitat, the pupfish is currently considered a threatened species by the state, and measures have been taken to protect the population in the park.

5 Things to Know About White Sands National Park 1
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White Sands Has Been a National Monument Since 1933

5 Things to Know About White Sands National Park 2
White Sands dunes

Efforts to protect the White Sands dunes began in the 1920s, after commercial attempts to mine the gypsum sand alerted locals to the risk of losing the unique area for future generations. The land was successfully established as a national monument during the final days of President Hoover's administration in the midst of the Great Depression.

About a decade later, White Sands gained another interest: the military. During World War II, areas of the monument were used for tank maneuvers and missile testing. This has continued to the present day, with the monument occasionally being closed to visitors as a safety precaution when weapons tests are occurring.

With its recent designation as a national park, however, these closures will end, and the military will remain on grounds on the western perimeter of the park, while the rest of the land will be permanently available to the public.

It Is Visited by Over Half a Million People Every Year

The number of visitors has only continued to grow in recent years. The previous average of around 500,000 people grew to over 612,000 in 2017, making White Sands the most popular destination in New Mexico — and that was before the national park designation.

But you can Avoid the Crowds at White Sands National Park and other great geological formations.

The iconic dazzling dunes have also made their appearance in a wide range of movies over the years, from the expected Westerns like Hang ‘Em High and Bite the Bullet, to sci-fi and apocalyptic action films like Transformers and The Book of Eli.

Have You Visited White Sands National Park?

If you're planning an RV trip to New Mexico, be sure to check out the New Mexico Annual Camping Pass.

We'd love to hear about your White Sands National Park camping experience. Please share in the comments below!

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5 Things to Know About White Sands National Park

Mike Wendland

Mike Wendland is a veteran journalist who, with his wife, Jennifer, travels North America in a small motorhome, blogging about the people, places, joys and adventure of RV life on the road at RVLifestyle.com. He and Jennifer also host the weekly RV Podcast and do twice-weekly videos on the YouTube RV Lifestyle Channel. They have written 10 books on RV travel.

3 Comments

  • No mention of the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), museum, or Trinity test site tours? While not part of the park, it’s right next door and a must-see if you’re in the area, especially if you’re there in early April or October when they open the Trinity site – the site of the first nuclear bomb test – to the public. More information here (https://www.nps.gov/whsa/learn/historyculture/white-sands-missile-range.htm) and here (https://www.wsmr.army.mil/Trinity/Pages/Home.aspx).

  • […] Roswell Museum & Art Center. Once you’ve had your fill of Roswell, make your way over to White Sands National Park, which I just wrote about and you can find […]

  • We visited White Sands a couple years ago. Was an amazing place. Sunset there is awe inspiring. We stayed close by at the Alamorgado KOA and enjoyed it there. Also make sure to visit the worlds largest pistachio!

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