Editor’s note: Like Christian, I also love White Sands National Park, both for its unique white gypsum sand and the ability to run as fast as one can down a dune. It is worth a visit, and Christian’s page (click here) is as well, especially if you like national parks.
I’ve always made an effort to be honest with my readers. I’ll continue that tradition by admitting to you that I’m not impressed by every national park. Not every park is the Pinnacle of quality, if you catch my drift. White Sands National Park was a lowly National Monument when I was there, but it’s definitely as deserving as any place in this great nation to hold the National Park status that it has today. In actuality, the difference between a “park” and a “monument” is mostly nominal, but you’ll have to read the blog of someone smarter than I am to really get to the bottom of that.
There are a few negative Yelp reviews for White Sands, but I recommend you ignore them. I suspect Anakin is a bit biased based on some sort of past trauma and it’s probably hard for Gabriel to be objective. Personally, I’m proud to give this place a five-star review.
New Mexico, from my outsider’s perspective, is a land filled with small historic town centers that radiate into sprawling suburbs uninhibited by the desert. After you get past the strip malls, the suburbs fade into sparse single-family homes, and then ranches. Beyond, you’ll find wide-open God’s Country, then a strip-mine, then more God’s Country. That’s where White Sands National Park is. If you leave El Paso headed southbound, you’ll immediately find yourself in Juarez, Mexico, but if you head northbound for a couple hours instead through the New Mexican desert, that’s where you’ll find the 275 square miles of ever-shifting dunes we now call White Sands National Park.
The desert isn’t quite as glamorous as the forest, I’ll grant you that. For those willing to slow down, however, I promise you’ll find the desert equally as awe-inspiring. The skunkbrush is a shrub here that grows dense, deep roots so that the plant can survive, even after a dune slowly drifts out from under it. This happens often, and the skunkbrush holds the sand together in what ends up effectually serving as a pedestal on which the plant then stands. Then foxes dig into the pedestals to make their homes. Conversely, the soaptree yucca grows tall, just in case the shifting sands grow the dune taller; the plant makes an effort to make sure it doesn’t get swallowed by the shifting dunes.
White Sands has fascinating life all around!
The foxes, lizards, and mice who live here have all adapted to be a lighter color than their counterparts in the surrounding desert, where the sand is a little darker. Most of the animals are nocturnal anyway, though, because oppressive desert heat makes it hard for them to move around during the day.
Tourists are allowed to wander around here without the benefit of a trail. As anywhere, people should respect the plant life, and keep their hands and feet to themselves, but it’s a notable feature here that you needn’t restrict your hike to any trail. That said, tourists should keep landmarks within sight, because the expansiveness of the place can make it very easy to get lost, and it’s extremely difficult to judge scale without the benefit of landmarks.
The dunes make for amazing isolation, but are also easy to get lost in
Prior to modern tourists, Native Americans seem to have arrived in this area initially after the last ice age around 11,000 years ago. Much more recently, European Americans arrived in the late 1800s, soon followed by the railroad and a stream of settlers in search of manifest destiny. More recently still, the federal government did not see the immutable subtle awe of this place, and in 1945 the first atomic bomb was detonated at Trinity Site, just 100 miles north of here. In fact, on the White Sands NPS website, they’ll politely give you a schedule of when missile tests – there is still an active range just across the highway – will be and let you know that “for visitor safety, the only road into the dunefield, Dunes Drive, may be closed for periods of up to three hours during missile tests.”
Ninja kicks in the desert
All told, White Sands is a spectacular place to enjoy the beauty vested in this great nation, take a few funny pictures, and appreciate the quiet history to which this desert patiently nods.
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