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What Is White Sands National Monument?

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  • Written By: Dee S.
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 17 April 2014
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White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico in the United States is the largest dune field made of gypsum in the world. While several other dune fields in other areas of the globe exist, most are made of brown quartz. The gypsum dunes cover approximately 275 square miles (712.2 square km) and nearly 40% of these dunes are located inside White Sands National Monument. The other 60% is found on land that is used exclusively by the U.S. military, making it closed to the public. Besides the white dunes, visitors can expect to see unique wildlife and plants that have adapted to the waterless conditions.

Visitors to White Sands National Monument can take a scenic 8 mile (12.9 km) drive to the dunes, called Dunes Drive. There are places to pull off the road and learn about the history and ecological features of the monument. In addition, there are places where visitors can stop and walk on the white sand dunes. The road is paved and can accommodate cars, buses, and trailers.

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Some visitors may prefer to hike along one of the four trails at White Sands National Monument. Alkali Flat Trail is the longest at 4.6 miles (7.4 km), but the trail has a multitude of scenic vistas. In addition, it takes hikers through dunes that are void of all vegetation. The trail ends at Alkali Flat or Lake Otero’s dry lake bed. During the ice ages, it was 1,600 square miles (4,143.98 square km) and covered the Tularosa Basin’s bottom.

Dune Life Nature trail is a 1-mile (1.6 km) loop that also offers visitors a chance to walk on the sand dunes. Once the trail merges onto the sand, visitors follow orange posts to direct them along their way. This trail has the most vegetation of any trail at White Sands National Monument. In addition, it has exhibits and ecological explanations posted along the trail route.

The Interdune Boardwalk is approximately 650 yards (594.4 m) long. It is an elevated boardwalk that takes visitors past a delicate interdune toward a scenic view. An even shorter walk is available by meandering through the Playa Trail. It is 500 yards (457.2 m) and takes visitors to a playa, or a depression, that sometimes fills with rainwater.

Other activities at the White Sands National Monument include taking photographs, watching the stars at night, guided tours, and picnicking. Some visitors enjoy sledding down the dunes as well. In fact, sleds can be purchased from gift shops at the park. Visitors are reminded only to sled in areas that do not have vegetation and to sled away from the road.

There is a military missile testing site near White Sands National Monument. Consequently, the main road through the park may be closed from time to time. In addition, visitors are reminded not to touch any unknown object found on the dunes, as it may be harmful to humans. Also, if a foreign object, such as a random piece of metal from a missile is found, it should be reported to a park ranger.

White Sands National Monument has a visitor center, a museum, a book store, a gift shop and restrooms. There is not a campground, but visitors can get permits to camp in primitive, backcountry camping spots. These spots are basic and do not have water nor toilets. Campfires are prohibited anywhere in the park, but pets are allowed, provided owners clean up their waste.

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