It looks like the kind of sugar-white sand you’d expect to see in the Whitsundays. But the dune fields that give New Mexico’s White Sands National Park its name are actually made of gypsum crystals, a soft sulfate mineral used in everything from chalk to plaster. Sandwiched between the Sacramento and San Andres mountain ranges, the national monument was upgraded to park status in December 2019 (the 62nd addition to the U.S. national park system). And it’s certainly one of the more unusual sights in America: 275 square miles of gently undulating mounds, white as freshly fallen snow and rippling like silk across the horizon.
If your time is limited, you can bask in the glorious scenery by cruising the eight-mile Dunes Drive; part of the road is paved and the rest is hard-packed gypsum (no 4WD necessary). But take it slower — hiking in as far as your screaming thigh muscles will take you — and your plucky resolve will be rewarded with some of the best photo ops you’ve ever seen. The tallest dunes are found off the Alkali Flat trailhead toward the end of Dunes Drive. You can chase the long shadows with your camera then swoosh down the slopes with exhilarating speed on a waxed plastic sled (rentable in the visitor center).
What To Pack
Bring water, sun protection, a scarf to cover your face, and a microfiber cloth for your camera lens. If you’re hiking in, pack a compass and a park map, too, as GPS is notoriously unreliable here.
Good To Know
Weather conditions vary wildly: One minute you’re sweating bullets in 110°F heat; the next you’re racing for cover from a downpour. And the best windows for landscape photography are the two hours after sunrise and the two hours before sunset. (To catch both, pitch a tent in one of the park’s 10 bare-bones camping sites.)
A half hour north in the dusty village of Tularosa is humble textile and souvenir shop Del Sol. Inside, you’ll find Mexican serapes in every color and pattern imaginable, along with handwoven Zapotec rugs, Peruvian folk art, horsehair pottery, medicine wheels, and cases full of handcrafted silver and turquoise jewelry.