White Sands is a National Monument, not a National Park. Do not allow that fact to diminish its appeal. While the National Parks may seem more prominent in the sphere of outdoor adventure, I surmise that is only because we are mislabeling National Monuments as National Parks in our minds. What makes up the ranks in the long list of National Monuments? Only the likes of Jewel Cave in South Dakota, the Virgin Islands Coral Reef, and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. The truth is several of the most well known National Parks began as National Monuments such as Denali, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Saguaro, Bryce Canyon, and Carlsbad Cavern to name a few. So let’s give National Monuments their fair share of attention by focusing on White Sands. Why is the sand so white? The sand is actually gypsum. We do not usually see gypsum dunes, because gypsum is water-soluble, which means it typically drains to the sea; but here the gypsum being pulled out of the surrounding San Andres & Sacramento Mountains by rain has no outlet out of the basin. The water coming off of the mountains dries out or sinks into the ground leaving the gypsum in crystalline form, called selenite. The selenite crystals break down into sand. Unlike most sand dunes, the water here lies just below the surface, and lakes and ponds are visible, especially after rains. The gypsum dunes are constantly changing shape and moving due to the prevailing southwesterly winds. An excellent feature of gypsum that makes visiting the park much safer is that it does not get hot underfoot like other sands – bare feet are able to handle this sand even in the summer when temperatures rise above 100 degrees.
What is there to do at White Sands? There is a visitor center and gift shop at the entrance to the park that explain more about the area. Once you enter the park, the drive at White Sands is only around 8 miles from the entrance to the end of the road, but there are some stops along the way with roadside exhibits. There are also many hiking trails as options, but we did not do a single one! We started with the main event…sledding! Once we got started, we couldn’t pull ourselves away from it for a hike. Our visit was in early May, and the highs were in the upper 90s. By the time we had our fill of sledding, the many climbs back up the steep sand slope and the blistering sun had taken their toll…we were ready to call it a day. There are also picnic tables in several of the parking lots with roofs for a small break from the sun.
How to sled in White Sands: I would not miss the opportunity of sledding here, and here are some tips to make sure you are successful. We watched several different groups of people not have good results with their sledding efforts, and they left frustrated. We have also seen people barely slide down a 15 foot hill, and we knew we wanted more out of our experience. By following the park’s suggestions and putting in some serious waxing effort upfront, we had great success! If you want sledding like we had, follow these guidelines…
- First, buy a sled & a hunk of wax at the visitor center. They have a cheaper version and a heavier duty model, plus used sleds. Go with a NEW heavier duty model. We tried Walmart in Las Cruces but could not find any sleds there, and we even took a plastic lid to try, and it did not work either.
- Second, when you leave the visitor center, start waxing that newly purchased sled and don’t stop until you finally park at your destination (or your arm is exhausted). I waxed the entire time to get a really nice sheen on the bottom. It was around 15 minutes of waxing. Don’t slack here – if you want a great sled, you need to put the effort in to it!
- Pick the south face of the steepest, tallest slope you can find. Don’t go walking through the desert trying to find a great hill – park near a great one. Most people stop at the first few parking lots, resist the urge and find the right hill first. This way you will avoid getting lost in the desert, and you won’t waste your energy on trekking around when you could be sledding!
- Use the same sled path over and over again. This will help to set the sand and make it faster.
- Apply more wax after every 2 times down. You will see the scratches that the sand makes, and you want the wax to fill those for a faster ride.
- Finally, have a blast! You may end up with a few scratches and sand in every crevice of your body, but enjoy the moment!
You may even see some of the wildlife out during the day, like this bleached earless lizard that was enjoying watching us…
And a video so you can see what the sledding is like…
Fun Facts & Tips:
- People die in this park. Do not underestimate the effect of heat and the disorienting surroundings. The most recent victims were in 2015 – they were only 1 mile into the trail and their bodies were found with their water jugs empty. Dehydration causes disorientation in an already disorienting environment. We did not wander far from our truck and were sure to drink a lot of water and eat well. It is not just the sun, but the wind is also very drying and easy to underestimate. It is not just water that you should think about, high energy foods and electrolytes are equally important.
- The sleds cost $15.00/$17.00, but you can sell them back to the gift shop for $5.00 to be resold as used sleds.
- They do missile testing nearby and the park is closed at times, so be sure to check their schedule before planning your visit.
- They offer guided full moon night hikes – I would have loved to be there for a full moon!
- The America the Beautiful/Interagency Annual pass works here.
- We stayed in Las Cruces, which was about an hour drive from White Sands.