White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is an American national park located in the state of New Mexico on U.S. Route 70 approximately 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Alamogordo and 52 miles (84 km) northeast of Las Cruces, in western Otero County and northeastern Doña Ana County. The park is situated at an average elevation of about 4,000 feet (1,219 m) in the Tularosa Basin and comprises the southern part of a 275 sq mi (710 km2) field of white sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals. The gypsum dunefield is the largest of its kind on Earth.
The park was originally designated White Sands National Monument on January 18, 1933 by President Herbert Hoover, and redesignated as a national park when Congress passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act on December 20, 2019. The park encompasses 145,762 acres (227.8 sq mi; 589.9 km2) protecting 115 sq mi (300 km2) of the dunefield, about 41%, while the remaining 160 sq mi (410 km2) are located to the north within White Sands Missile Range. The depth of gypsum sand across the entire field is about 30 feet (9.1 m) below the interdunal surface, while the tallest dunes are about 60 feet (18 m) high. About 4.5 billion short tons (4.1 billion metric tons) of gypsum sand fill the dunefield, which formed about 7,000–10,000 years ago. The dunes were created from exposed selenite crystals that gradually eroded into gypsum grains, and were then transported eastward by prevailing winds.
About 12,000 years ago, the land within the Tularosa Basin featured large lakes, streams, and grasslands. Ice age mammals lived by the shores of Lake Otero, one of the largest lakes in the southwest. Fossilized footprints of Columbian mammoths, ground sloths, ancient camels, dire wolves, American lions, saber-toothed cats, and Paleolithic humans have been uncovered in and around the emphemeral Lake Lucero in the western section of the park.
The inhabitants of the Tularosa Basin have included Paleo-Indians (c. 12,000 years ago), Archaic people (c. 4,000 years ago), Jornada Mogollon people (c. 200–1350), Mescalero Apaches (c. 1300–present), Spanish settlers and other European Americans who operated farms, ranches, and mines from the 19th century onward. More than 600 invertebrates, 300 plants, 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, seven amphibians, and one fish species inhabit White Sands National Park. Animal species that have a white, or off-white, coloration include three mammals, three reptiles, one amphibian, and numerous insects. At least 45 species are endemic, living only in this park, with 40 of them being moth species.
White Sands National Park is the most visited NPS site in New Mexico, with about 600,000 visitors each year. The Dunes Drive leads 8 miles (13 km) into the dunes from the visitor center. Three picnic areas are available, as well as a backcountry campground with ten sites for overnight camping in the dunefield. Five marked trails totaling 9 miles (14 km) allow visitors to explore the dunes on foot. Ranger-guided orientation and nature walks occur at various times and months throughout the year. Lake Lucero hikes are offered once a month, from November to April. Both the park and U.S. Route 70 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces are subject to closure for safety reasons when tests are conducted at White Sands Missile Range which completely surrounds the park.