White Sands National Monument encompasses 145,344 acres of the largest deposit of gypsum sand in the world, where shifting sand dunes reach 60 feet high. The monument, one of the few landforms recognizable from space, has displays in its visitor center that describe how the dunes were (and are continually) formed from gypsum crystals originating at a dry lake bed called Lake Lucero, where winds and erosion break down the crystals into fine particles of sand. A 17-minute introductory video at the visitor center is very helpful if you intend to hike among the dunes. There are also a gift shop, snack bar, and bookstore.
A 16-mi round-trip car ride takes you into this eerie wonderland of gleaming white sand. You can climb to the top of the dunes for a photograph, then tumble or surf down on a sled sold at the visitor center. As you wade barefoot in the gypsum crystals you notice the sand is not hot, and there's even moisture to be felt a few inches below the surface. Gypsum
is one of the most common minerals on earth and is finer than the silica sand on beaches. A walk on the 1-mi Big Dune Trail will give you a good overview of the site; other options are the 4¾-mi Alkali Flat Trail and the 600-yard Boardwalk. The Nature Center in the Dunes museum has exhibits and other information that includes interpretive displays with depictions of animals and plant life common to the dunes, along with illustrations of how the dunes shift through time. The center usually is open during regular hours, but is staffed by volunteers (so it sometimes closes unexpectedly). Call first to make sure it's open. The picnic area has shaded tables and grills. Backpackers' campsites are available by permit, obtainable at the visitor center, but there aren't any facilities. Once a month from May to September, White Sands celebrates the full moon by remaining open until 11, allowing you to experience the dunes by lunar light. Call for information and reservations for monthly auto caravans on Saturday to Lake Lucero, the source of the gypsum sand deposit. Rangers lead tours daily at sunset, starting at the visitor center.