There is an exhilaration that comes from doing something child-like. That feeling dominates my morning as I slide down sand dunes on a sled that reminds me of a trash can top. Lean forward to start the momentum downward, then lean backward to stay on. Fail, and fall off into the soft sand, spinning onto my side. Smile and laugh uncontrollably. Repeat.
I share my spot with only insects and the occasional lizard darting from shade to shade. From the top of my sliding dune – picking the right one takes some time and practice; you’ll need the right angle, a good landing spot free of prickly plants, and a reasonably accessible area to climb back to the top – the vista is pure white, shining brightly in the desert sun. It is blinding, yet beautiful, and almost distracts me from the task at hand: sledding like a child, rather than a 41 year old adult. I go again. Wheeeee!!!
White Sands National Park is aptly named. Lying in the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico, the dune field is large enough to be seen from space, nearly 150,000 acres. It is the largest gypsum sand dune field in the world, and by a factor of more than ten.
Millions of years ago, this area was covered by shallow seas. As those receded or dried up, they left behind large deposits of gypsum. Exposure to the elements slowly ground the soft mineral into sand… pure white sand. The result is this, more than 275 square miles of sand dunes, about half of which lies in the boundaries of the park. (It turns out is is hard to build a national park with boundaries enclosing a dune field like this, as some of the dunes can “migrate” up to thirty feet per year, especially those on the northwestern end of the field!)
There is only a single road into the park, and the pavement ends a few miles in, although even the unpaved portion is easy for my old Corolla to handle. There are a few marked stops: a nature trail over the dunes, an ADA accessible boardwalk, a trail to the supposed best place to sled. However, other small parking areas are also available, and trekking over the dunes can be done from anywhere. (Just be careful not to get lost as the terrain makes it pretty hard to distinguish where one came from.) It is at one of these unmarked turnouts that I find my sledding dune.
Sleds can be purchased in the visitors center at the entrance to the park. With a wax stick to smooth out the bottom (definitely helpful) it will run you about $30 to purchase a few hours of fun. I give my sled to a family of five when I am done; paying it forward is always the best policy.
In addition to the white sand dunes, White Sands National Park is also notable for its anthropological and archaeological significance. Footprints found here date back nearly 23,000 years, turning theories of human migration on their heads by thousands of years. (Prior estimates put human arrival in the area at 13-16,000 years ago.) The area is also home to research on “quick” evolution, with species of lizard rapidly – in evolutionary terms – becoming white to match the dunes. More than 45 species are endemic, living only here.
Visit early in the day if possible. The heat can be oppressive in summer months, and water will be at a premium. Make a couple of stops before finding your sledding dune of choice. The nature trail is lovely, and as well marked as a “trail” over sand can be. For easier access into the dune field, make sure to stop at the Interdune Boardwalk. The boardwalk is short – building something like this on top of shifting sands isn’t easy – but it is flat, with the National Park Service’s ever-present quality signage and exhibits. Frequent benches help for those with mobility issues.
But the highlight is the sledding. After several runs, I try in vain to wipe the sand from my arms – it sticks to my sunscreened skin – and empty what feels like its own dune out of my shoes. I gaze fondly back at the shining whiteness of the dunes, regain my composure and adulthood, and head back to my home base for this trip in El Paso, about ninety minutes away. White Sands National Park is an incredible place for its uniqueness, its scientific discoveries, and for its remarkable ability to make middle-aged writers feel like little kids for a day.
For another take on White Sands, click here to read Christian’s article.
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