Sand and mountains

US National Parks

White Sands

My adventure to the surreal expanse of one of America’s newest National Parks, White Sands, began with a test of endurance in El Paso, where car rental workers pitch insurance plans with the tenacity of of a high school baseball team in a championship game. Undeterred by their vehemence, I began the drive to the park, eager to discover what lay ahead.

Upon arrival, the landscape seemed to have borrowed its aesthetics from a science fiction novel. An ocean of white gypsum dunes stretched out infinitely, a stark departure from the traditional mountainous National Park tableau. When compared with other dune-dominated parks, like the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, White Sands is distinctly different. Think less of the hot, shifting sands of Colorado, and more along the lines of the cooler, sturdy dunes you’d find in Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska.

Vision of the dunes and mountains

Sharing real estate with these serene sands is the neighboring White Sands Missile Range, where the echoes of missile tests and the ghosts of a 1945 atomic bomb testing keep things intriguingly historical. Who knew a trip to the sand dunes could come with a side of pre-Cold War history?

Always comforting to see an image of an explosion before going out hiking

One of the most remarkable phenomena in the park is the dance between light and shadow on the undulating dunes. The pristine sands contour in surreal forms, casting stark, visually arresting contrasts that any photographer would treasure. One well-timed click amidst this spectacle, and you’ll capture an image that outshines any run-of-the-mill postcard, a keepsake that breathes the very essence of this stunning landscape.

Bone in the sand

Dancing lines

If you’re thinking of sneaking out a souvenir from this natural wonder, be warned! The park website sternly warns visitors of a fine up to $50,000 for attempting to abscond with the sand. It seems that despite their seeming abundance of supply, they are quite serious about this ‘no-sand’ rule. In an ironic twist, the sand had chosen to ignore this directive and stubbornly embedded itself into every crevice of my clothing. Mercifully, I was not subject to a cavity search by a Park Ranger upon my exit.

looking out at sand
Easily a pound of sand in my pants by this point.

Also noteworthy from the Park rulebook: The Park forbids the consumption of alcoholic beverages between February and May. As I navigated the dunes, I couldn’t help but ponder the oddly specific time frame. Perhaps it’s an attempt to dissuade potential Valentine’s Day shenanigans or maybe it’s their unique solution to keeping the Park from becoming the new ‘Spring Break in Cancun’. Or maybe they’re just trying to prevent the creation of impromptu sand angels under the influence. Who knows? But hey, come June, it’s evidently margaritas at dawn in the dunes!

If they remove the alcohol rule, this vista will just be filled with drunk high school kids.

Navigation within the park is an exercise in humility. In a landscape where every square foot looks the same, it’s easy to feel like you’re caught in a sand-filled version of Groundhog Day. My mantra became “I think the trail resumes over on the other side of that dune.” Thankfully, the park’s wooden marker poles reassured me that I hadn’t unwittingly ventured into a missile target spot or stumbled into a parallel universe.

Looking at dunes
Thats gotta be it over there
Over the hill
Nope next one

In a landscape where every mound of gypsum sand looks identical, it’s easy to lose oneself in the sheer, awe-inspiring beauty of White Sands. The ethereal play of light and shadow across the endless white dunes, the strange, almost alien calm, and the paradoxical toughness of the cool sand underfoot, all combine to create a spectacle of nature that’s nothing short of mesmerizing. The fascinating history, the delightfully quirky rules, and the proximity to potential nuclear disaster only add to the park’s unique allure. But it’s the raw, unspoiled grandeur of this natural marvel that truly stole my heart and I highly recommend everyone to experience this remarkable park. Because no matter how many parks you tick off your list, some places, like White Sands, have a knack for making you feel like you’ve truly discovered something extraordinary.

Bonus images:

Lines and lines
Sand and mountains
Today’s cover photo- the dunes are surrounded by mountains on both sides
Sandy road
The Park roads are (predictably) completed covered in sand.


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