Travel Destination :: White Sands National Monument
Idyllic, Awe-Inspiring, Breathtaking, Speechless, Silence, Mind-Boggling, Overwhelming, Wondrous – all appropriate words for The white sand dunes of Southern New Mexico.
Rising unexpectedly out of the otherwise drab brown Chihuahuan Desert, the white dunes are the largest of their kind anywhere in the world. Yes, White Sands National Monument is huge. The gypsum sand dunes derive from Lake Lucero near the base of the Organ Mountains. Rainfall drains from the mountains into the lake. When the water evaporates the gypsum forms, dries, then blows to create the dunes.
Constant winds blow off the Organs shift the sands day to day so the dunes are ever changing. You’ll never find two the same nor will the sand dunes ever stay the same.
The sand at White Sands National Monument is almost pure gypsum. Gypsum is different from many other rocks because it is readily soluble. That means it will dissolve in water, just like sugar or salt. When rain falls on the mountains, the layers of gypsum start to dissolve, and the gypsum runs down the mountains as fast as the water can carry it. You may wonder why there aren’t gypsum sand dunes on the other sides of the mountains. The rain certainly washes gypsum down there too. Why is it only in the Tularosa Basin that the gypsum forms sand dunes?
The Tularosa basin has no rivers running out of it. There is no way for water entering it to get out. There are large rivers to the east and west of the basin that carry rainwater to the Gulf of Mexico, but all the rainwater that falls inside the basin stays here. It collects at the lowest spot on the basin floor. This spot is called Lake Lucero, and it’s located at the southwest corner of the dune field.
It is here at Lake Lucero that the sand dunes begin to form. Lake Lucero is a playa or seasonal lake. Water only collects there during the rainy season, and the rest of the year is it dry. Even when the lake has water, it is only about 12 inches deep, so it is not a place you could go fishing, or swimming. As the water begins to evaporate, the gypsum that is in the water begins to form a crust on the lake bed. Some of the gypsums form beautiful crystals called selenite.
Selenite crystals are very soft. You can scratch them with your fingernail. They are so soft that it doesn’t take very long before the wind and rain begin to break them apart into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces. Soon they become so small that the wind can pick them up and carry them for short distances. When the pieces get to be this size, between 1/400 to 1/12 of an inch, they are called sand.
There are many things that help to build the gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument. The mountains supply the gypsum. The rain washes the gypsum into the basin. The shape of the basin keeps the gypsum from running into the sea, and the wind breaks up the gypsum crystals into sand grains.
Prepare yourself. White Sands moves its visitors touching deep into your soul if you let them. This is a place where all cares go away, crunching sand beneath your feet rumbles like engines and each breath you take is refreshingly noticeable.
Add White Sands National Monument to your travel destination list now. This extraordinary landscape is neither near nor on the way to your next adventure. Make it so.
White Sands is open year round, though the hours change with the seasons.
I write extensively about White Sands National Monument throughout the blog as it is one of my favourite landscapes in the world. A huge thrill for me was Taking Flight Over White Sands which you might enjoy.
Map Showing Location of White Sands National Monument