Although it looks like a snowy wilderness, it is actually a veritable sea of white sand due to the wind erosion of the crystallized gypsum which is abundant in the region. The dunes of White Sands, a protected area in New Mexico, United States, represent the world’s largest gypsum sandbanks and a very unique landscape.
Located 25 kilometers (15 miles) southwest of Alamogordo in the state of New Mexico, United States, about 1,300 meters above sea level, the dunes of White Sands National Monument are composed of tiny crystallized gypsum grains eroded by the wind. The desert sits on the so-called Tularosa Basin, an area that thousands years ago was covered by the sea and that later became the current chalk white desert. But, as usual, pictures are worth a thousand words:
There are not many places in the world where conditions combine to recreate a desert completely white. Gypsum is rarely found in the form of sand because of its water soluble properties. The situation in the area, completely isolated and landlocked, allows the rains to accumulate dissolved gypsum, which aggregates in the form of selenite. The task of eroding the selenite and forming the white dunes is left to the wind.
In the southwest part of the park, a lake forms soon after every rain; it is situated in the lower part of the basin where the desert sits, providing landscapes that look surreal. The white dunes can change shape constantly making survival hard for the vegetation. However, some plant species grew quickly adapting themselves in order to avoid being buried by sand.
A visitor center is located at the entrance of the protected white sand dunes area. Four marked trails allow visitors to explore the dunes walking through the park, which can easily be done even barefoot, since chalk does not convert solar energy into heat easily. Both kids and adults will enjoy sliding down the dunes side.
The White Sands National Monument was created on January 18, 1933, by President Herbert Hoover and opened the following year. Since its creation a controversy for the military installations surrounding the park has risen. The area has been used as a test base for launching missiles and military testing for years, and the noise (and even some risk of falling missiles) have been subjects of controversy.
The best way to access the White Sands National Monument is through Route 70, although it is important to note that this route might be closed for small periods of time (usually two hours): missile tests in the military zone are usually performed twice a week, during which the road would be closed for safety reasons. Since 2008, the park has been included in a candidate list for the UNESCO World Heritage Site, for its indescribable beauty and uniqueness.