A Whiteout in New Mexico: White Sands National Park

Southern New Mexico’s lonely, shrubby desert conceals White Sands National Park, located within a military missile range and wedged between the UFO crazed Roswell and the tiny town of Truth or Consequences. The park is defined so well by its name that upon arrival I had the blissful yet obvious realization that “there’s nothing here except white sand”. 

White Sands is so remote that its missile range has hosted the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb, code named Trinity, as part of The Manhattan Project as well as the landing of NASA’s Columbia space shuttle. Travellers will find nothing except a landscape of pristine white sand dunes truncated by distant mountains. It’s this nothingness that lures visitors in, for the opportunity to dot an otherwise blank canvas. 

The park has but one main road, the aptly named Dunes Drive, from which all the half-dozen trails in the park stem from. It begins at the visitors center and snakes through the dunes that at times rose higher than our vehicle. It’s a bit alarming to be wedged between two twenty foot tall dunes. I felt that a strong wind would push them right over, but people camp in the park underneath dunes twice as tall. These dunes may kick up some sand, but plop over they do not. 

With only an afternoon in the park, I wanted the hike that would get me into the heart of the dunes without too much of a slog. The Backcountry Camping Loop was the winner with a roundtrip total of two miles. Two miles on foot through a city usually clocks me in at 30-40 minutes, but on a scorching sand dune in the sun your typical pace means nothing. It’s like telling a jogger to run a five-minute mile underwater. There’s everyday-me and there’s sand-dune-me and the two can’t coexist simultaneously. I meandered on the trail stopping for photos and water breaks liberally, and we wrapped the hike up in just under two hours. 

I’d recommend the hike to the able-bodied in good shape, but would caution the infrequent hiker that the hike is completely exposed to the sun. The white sand radiates heat upward and the trail markers aren’t there to gently guide you — they’re in place to keep you from getting lost in the desert. Bring water and expect the hike to take longer than anticipated, so no starting at dusk. 

White Sands was redesignated from a National Monument to a National Park in winter of 2019. National Park status means an increased number of annual visitors, but when I visited in May of that year I passed only a small handful of park goers out hiking, making for a very Luke in Tatooine experience of just sand and a sun that seems too large for the sky. 

In the end I spent only four hours in the park and while short, I left feeling like I saw everything I wanted. The departure also made for a gorgeous sunset drive into the nearby town of Cloudcroft nestled in Lincoln National Forest. Here I checked into the adorable Dusty Boots motel, blissfully located across from Cloudcroft brewery where I had a dinner of pizza and golden ale, walked back to the motel, kicked off my hiking boots, and awoke the next morning for a drive into Taos. 

New Mexico is a state of never ending surprises. Where one can go from dunes to forest to pueblos in a matter of hours. And if you believe, spot a UFO along the way. 

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