Nature Notes | White Sands National Park

White Sands: America’s Newest National Park is a Chihuahuan Desert Wonder

By Andrew Stuart

“If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God’s hands, one does not wonder so much after having lived there,” Mary Austin wrote in 1903, in The Land of Little Rain. She was among the first American writers to celebrate the beauty of the desert Southwest. Judging by visitation, appreciation for that beauty – “the pulse of a life laid bare to its sinews,” in Austin’s words – is increasing. Desert places have become global attractions.

In the Chihuahuan Desert, that includes four national parks – Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, Carlsbad Caverns and, now, White Sands in New Mexico. Located in the Tularosa Basin, near Alamogordo, it’s about 200 miles from Van Horn or Dell City. White Sands was designated a national monument in 1933 – but on Dec. 20, 2019, it became the country’s 62nd national park.

-Courtesy Photo
-Courtesy Photo

It’s one of just a few dunefields of gypsum sand in the world. But in its extent – 275 square miles – it’s unlike any other place on Earth. Walking the unbroken dunes – radiant, even blinding – is a singular experience.

Kelly Caroll is chief of interpretation.

“I think there’s some kind of otherworldliness,” Carroll said. “I think it’s not science that attracts me, although it fascinates me. It’s just the aesthetics of this place – how beautiful it is. I think it’s the silence of the place, the vast views. It is very hard to put in words, but you know it when you feel it. ”

A geologist, Carroll knows the story behind the spell of this place.

Its central player might seem unlikely, given the dunes’ apparent aridity.

“Water is the secret for the entire history of the dunefield,” Carroll said. “It was water that formed the gypsum in the first place. It’s water that erodes the gypsum down from the surrounding mountains. It’s water that collects in the lowest point in this basin, which creates the environment for the gypsum to grow in crystal form.”

The gypsum originated 270 million years ago, in the shallow sea that also produced the limestone of the Guadalupe Mountains, and the petroleum of the Permian Basin. At Lake Lucero, an ephemeral playa, the gypsum forms selenite crystals – which emerge from the lake bed in jagged, surreal shapes. Visitors can see them on ranger-led hikes. By water and wind, the crystals are reduced first to flakes and then to sand.

Then, rainwater permeates the dunes. That moisture keeps the sands from blowing away.

The result is stunning, and when White Sands was designated a national monument, the dunefield was the reason. But in recent decades, scientists have come to understand this place is wondrous – and utterly distinctive – in other ways. National park designation recognizes that fact.

“I like to say, it’s more than just a sandbox,” Carroll said. “Over that time we have really found multiple features that are extremely significant to this place – some that have to do with the dunefield, others that don’t. One example is, there’s over 10,000 years of human history.”

In the Ice Age, the Tularosa Basin was a lake, fed by glaciers. It drew animals, and humans. And the evidence is preserved at White Sands – in the largest collection of fossilized Ice Age footprints in the world.

Signs of mammoths, camels, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats. Scientists recently found sloth tracks – overlaid and surrounded by human footprints: an apparent hunt. Study of these “ghost fossils” has just begun, and could provide rich insights into the deep past.

The sands are also a showcase for evolution itself. Everything here has adapted to the distinctive environment. “Bleached” lizards and mice, white spiders and pale crickets are among the creatures that make this a “Desert Galapagos.”

Many visitors come to picnic and sled the dunes. There are backcountry campsites. On the Alkali Flat Trail, a 5-mile loop, hikers walk the heart of the sands – and experience their hypnotic power. There are extended day-use hours on full moons – when the dunes glow with moonlight.

But the grandeur of this Chihuahuan Desert place can be experienced daily.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work at different national parks,” Carroll said, “and this place has the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. Those late afternoon shadows on the dunes – the colors and the textures and the light. When people ask me, ‘What should I not miss?’ Sunset.”

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.