White Sands: America’s newest national park
Monday, January 13, 2020
Just before Christmas 2019, White Sands National Monument in New Mexico became White Sands National Park. The official upgrade passed through Congress with little fanfare, hidden away in the small print of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.
The designation as America’s 62nd national park is, however, lauded by proponents — road trippers, desert rats and photographers — who love to roam the 275-square-mile complex of sparkling, swirling white sand dunes. They come day, night, and year-round to hike, sled, camp and photograph the world’s largest gypsum dune field. It is, in fact, so large and luminous that it can be seen from space.
Located in the Tularosa Basin of the Chihuahuan Desert, the park’s vast dunes contain an abundance of the chalky white mineral called gypsum. This is what gives the landscape its glistening appearance and, of course, led to the naming of the preserve.
Dunes began forming here about 10,000 years ago and, over the centuries, blowing winds have created a wave-like network of dreamy dunes. Visitors can drive along the eight-mile Dunes Drive to see the dunes up close — or even closer aboard a sled — available for rent at the Visitor Center.
For those who want to stay a while, there’s a picnic area, hiking, biking, horseback riding and backcountry camping. And, when the time is right, there’s an opportunity to join a full moon hike with one of the park rangers.
In addition to the striking dunes, White Sands is home to fossilized footprints that date back to the Ice Age, chronicling more than ten centuries of human existence in the sprawling 6,500-square-mile Tularosa Basin. The park is home as well to more than 800 species of plants and animals, including foxes, coyotes, bobcats, badgers and a variety of rodents.
Visitors might also see a strikingly exotic horned creature — the African oryx — introduced from the Kalahari Desert to White Sands in the late 1960s to provide a large game species for hunters (a program since discontinued). Native plant life includes cacti and desert succulents, grass and wildflowers.
President Herbert Hoover established White Sands National Monument on Jan. 18, 1933. Its redesignation as a national park recognizes more than just the area’s scenic and natural value. According to the National Park Service, national parks are chosen for their inspirational, educational and recreational values, whereas national monuments are places of historic, prehistoric or scientific interest.
White Sands National Park is located near the town of Alamogordo, 225 miles south of Albuquerque.
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