If you’ve ever woken up early morning after a large snow storm, you know exactly what quiet sounds like. Everything is perfectly still, and the loudest sound you hear may be caused by your own boots as you walk through the freshly fallen snow. If you recall that feeling, and that lack of sound, you might have a good idea of the quiet that can be found at White Sands National Monument.
Walking through the bright fields of gypsum sand in Southern New Mexico brought me back to those mornings in New England after a blizzard had finished. However, the gleaming white in this particular National Monument isn’t fresh snow, it’s an incredibly beautiful white sand that covers several hundred square miles. And unlike the snow, it doesn’t melt in the hot New Mexico desert.
According to the park service, the White Sands dune field covers about 275 square miles of land. It is located in the Tularosa Basin, and if you look at a topo map you’ll see clearly, the basin lies between two mountain ranges. While some moments are perfectly still and silent, other moments in the park are subjected to amazing wind storms that help move and reform the dunes.
A worthy National Monument
White Sands, located on the edge of the White Sands missile testing grounds, is an incredible sea of moving dunes that stand out from the surrounding landscape. Set between two mountain ranges, and in between Alamogordo and Las Crucess New Mexico, White Sands occupies an open plane where the dunes form. Approaching from either side, as you travel Hwy 70 you’ll note the white formations in the distance. But it’s not until you actually enter the park that you get hit with the size and scale of the place.
The White Sands Visitor Center puts you on the edge of the real dunes. Located right off of Hwy 70, the visitor center almost fools you into thinking that this place isn’t as large as you imagine. But once you drive into the dunes you quickly realize the scale of the park is much larger than you’d expected.
Getting into the dunes is an easy trip, and any vehicle will do well with the paved roads, and even on the packed sand that makes up a loop within the park. Designated pull offs are available throughout the park, and you can wander off into the dunes at your leisure.
Photographing White Sands
This National Monument offers many challenges to anyone looking to create compelling images in the park. Challenge number one is pretty straightforward. If you’re in an RV, you’re not going to be camping at White Sands. There are no RV facilities at the park, and your camping options are located a fair distance away. The closest camping options are in Alamogordo. And if you’re staying closer to Las Crucess, the drive is even a little longer.
Given the nature of the landscape, large white dunes set against a normally slate blue sky, finding the appropriate contrast and lighting for images may take some work. The best times of day are of course right after dawn, and right after dusk. But since you’re not staying right on location, things get a little more difficult.
Fortunately, you can overcome these obstacles by planning times to visit the park right after opening, and prior to its closing each day. With luck you may even be treated to cloud formations which will allow you to extend your shooting times beyond the “golden hours.”
During the course of our visit over several days we were delighted to have some really wild cloud formations roll in. Day 2 was awesome with ever changing cloud formations and dunes. By the end of the day, with blasting winds all around us, the beautiful wave patterns over took foot prints, messages in the sand, and even our own foot prints. The bulk of our images in this article are from that day!
Recreation at White Sands
There is plenty to do that will fill a day at White Sands National Monument. Just taking a drive through the park is awe inspiring, but it would be a shame if you just drove through the park.
There are plenty of pull offs through the park where you can leave your vehicle and walk into the dunes. You can hike for hours over the rolling dunes, and it won’t be as exhausting as other sand dunes you may have visited. The sand here is well packed, and it feels like wet beach sand. A few hours of hiking these dunes compared to let’s say the dunes in the Vermillion Cliffs is very different. Less sinking and sliding to be sure.
If you’re up for a back country adventure, White Sands offers that too. You can hike out on the back country trail, and you can tent in the dunes for the evening. If you’ve traveled with an RV, you’re going to need a place to leave it as there isn’t over night RV parking. But to have the opportunity to camp under the stars in the dune fields? How inspiring is that? There are only 10 spots available, and they are first come first served. And just to make the point, you’re going to need to haul a lot of water with you!
The park loop itself is only a few miles long. And while visiting I found myself wishing for my mountain bike. While you can’t go riding off into the dunes, cycling the loop at White Sands would make for an amazing day. When leaving the pavement, the dune loop is well packed and rolls in between dune after dune. The whole loop is relatively flat, making for an easy ride!
Finally, you can always stop into the visitor center and get yourself a dune saucer. While visiting the park we saw people day after day “sledding” down larger dunes. Unlike sledding down a snow covered hill, here you’ll walk away with a lot of sand to brush out of your clothes!
Camping near White Sands
As noted above, there are no facilities at White Sands for RV’ers. That’s something of a downer, but fortunately there are some really nice parks within 30 – 45 minutes of the monument. If you’re looking to be as close as possible to the monument we would suggest Alamogordo. There are many Forest Service sites in the area, a few private RV Parks, and a fantastic state park, the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park.
While there are many Forest Service sites in the Alamogordo area, we’d recommend Oliver Lee State Park first and foremost. It is geared toward RV’s including trailers, Class A’s, and most anything else you can think of. Many of the Forest Service sites are dispersed camping and require 4WD, so not a great option for most RV’ers.
In the Organ Mountains there’s a great park, if your rig is the right size. Aguirre Spring, a BLM location, is set right into the Organ Mountain Range. It’s an incredible park, and offers great hikes, cycling, and amazing photographic opportunities. It also restricts RV lengths to 23 feet due to the curvy roads in the park.
If you are active military, or a Veteran, you also have another option. There is an RV park at the Holloman Air Force Base. Full hook ups, reasonable rates, and the park is the closest you can get to White Sands.
There are of course several private RV Parks in the Alamogordo and Las Cruces areas. If you choose Las Cruces, understand you will have an hour drive into White Sands at minimum.
A Gallery of Images from White Sands
Of course during the time we visited the park many images were taken. So below is a small gallery of some of the amazing scenes at White Sands.