I won't say that we "had the roads by", because you don't have that in New Mexico. The distances are long and the dry desert landscape stretches as far as the eye can see. White Sands National Park was one of the stops on our southwest US road trip that I was most looking forward to. I had seen a lot of pictures online, but it's always a little hard to imagine a place until you stand there with the landscape at your feet. A bit like the Grand Canyon. You can tell from the pictures that it's beautiful, but it's only when you're standing there on the edge of the ravine and screaming with happiness that you REALLY understand.
White Sands National Park is no ordinary sand desert. This is something as unique as the world's largest plaster desert. Gypsum is actually a common substance in nature, but in the vast majority of places in the world, the gypsum is dissolved by rainwater and flows into the sea. But here in the "pot" in the powder-dry desert of New Mexico, the plaster remains.
White Sands NP is located at an altitude of almost 1300 meters above sea level, which gives a fairly harsh climate. In summer, daytime temperatures climb above 40 degrees. The air flutters in the sun and the dry air makes you sweat almost without it being visible. The only thing you see is the salt that forms on the skin. In winter, however, the temperature drops to minus degrees and snow is not unusual.
It's easy to think that this should be a place completely devoid of life, but it couldn't be more wrong. It is enough to look down at your feet, and you will meet the area's most common animal – the black beetles (darkling beetles). Everywhere you see traces of their little feet, and if you follow the trace, you will probably come to a black, shiny beetle standing and gnawing on a dead plant. Don't upset them, they are the skunks of the desert. If they don't like you, they'll rear up and spray you with a smelly goo.
In addition to black beetles, other insects, lizards and mice live here. We also saw a little rabbit who dared to look forward as the sun started to set.
One of the most common plants here in the Chihuahua desert is Soap Yucca. Soap Yucca is an incredibly hardy plant that thrives in the high altitude desert. Believe it or not, this plant is one of the most useful food plants here in the desert. Basically everything can be eaten and what can't be eaten can be used to weave baskets and cloth.
A big difference between a regular sand desert and a plaster desert is that the plaster does not absorb the sun's heat in the same way. Walking barefoot in a plaster desert almost feels a little cool between the toes. The plaster is also much finer grained than a normal desert and sometimes it almost feels like walking in flour. But plaster in nature works like the plaster at home when you renovate. When it rains, the top layer of plaster dissolves, when it dries again, a hard film forms. If you walk on such a membrane, it cracks under you as if you were walking on a lake of brittle ice.
Visit White Sands during the day
Visiting White Sands during the day is a completely different experience than visiting at night. We were here during the heat of summer and took the opportunity to both go here for the day and then come back again after we ate a real green chili dinner in Alamogordo.
Driving into the park in bright sunshine almost blinds you. It is so white that it is difficult to distinguish New Mexico from the freshly plowed road to Stekenjokk during the winter. The plaster blows in over the road and in some sections it is almost difficult to determine where the road really is.
We stopped at a picnic area to have our lunch before starting to explore the park. The picnic area almost looked like it was on another planet, with rows of curved tin roofs protecting from the sun. The strange thing was that we were here all by ourselves. Right next to White Sands National Park is a large military test facility for missiles. Sometimes the park is therefore closed for safety reasons. It was only to be hoped that we had not happened to go here on such a day.
White Sands has five different hiking trails. None of them are particularly long, but it is not the length of the hiking trail that is the problem. It is the temperature, the strong sun reflected in the white plaster and the altitude of the park. It is difficult to walk up and down the dunes at 1300 meters above sea level. The National Parks Services does not recommend hiking the longer trails when the temperature is above 30 degrees, so going on a long hike on this 40 degree day was not an option. The 8 kilometer Alkali flats trail should also take 3 hours to hike in good weather conditions. Says something about how hard it must be.
Under certain ideal weather conditions, gypsum and water can form crystals - so-called selenite. Selenite is a fragile crystal that you can find almost everywhere in the park, but it is most common at Lake Lucero. We found a few crystals, but the one pictured above was the largest. It is said that there are crystals that can be as big as car tires. but we only saw fragments.
However, one of the most popular activities in the park isn't hiking, it's sledding. Buy or bring your own sled, wax it on the underside and take off for the steep pads. This is childish fun for all ages, although getting on the sled as an adult was a challenge.
Sunset in the gypsum desert
The park usually closes already at 18 p.m., but you can book in on guided hikes with park rangers after closing time. We booked ourselves on an evening walk which was one of the most memorable things I have ever done. This landscape should be one of the seven wonders of the world. Don't leave here until you've hiked here in the evening!
How do I get to White Sands National Park?
White Sands is located in New Mexico, just south of Alamogordo. We were staying in Alamogordo overnight, so we could easily join the sunset hike. White Sands doesn't have an address, but you can't miss the park if you're driving on US-70. The entire landscape around the road becomes completely white.
How much is admission?
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Have you been here? What did you think of the destination?
Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.