NOTE: For this article, we’re jumping in the time machine and going back to mid January. I was about to publish this post when everything happened with Dixie, so, for obvious reasons, it got shelved. But, we truly loved our visit to White Sands and I wanted to share our experiences there.
White Sands National Monument is a symphony of contradictions and one of the most compelling places we’ve visited. On the one hand, it’s like a huge playground – a child’s sandbox writ large, a place where the National Park Service encourages visitors to buy a sled and hit the dunes! On the other hand, these same fun-loving NPS folks like to lay out the myriad ways you may meet your untimely demise while visiting this Fun Zone/Death Trap. By the time you finish reading their “All the reasons you’re probably gonna die while at White Sands National Monument” webpage, you’ll find yourself regretfully reaching for a scrap of paper from the floorboard of your car on which you’ll hastily scribble down your last will and testament before beginning your long, sad, ‘march of despair’ into their ‘sandbox of doom,’ bright orange plastic sled dragging on the ground behind you.
It’s pretty weird.
First a little background: The Monument, a 275 square mile park in southern New Mexico, is comprised of the largest gypsum dune field in the world. The dune field is the result of a weird confluence of environmental factors: Gypsum, a mineral found in the mountains that surround the area, is water soluble and, typically, would be dissolved by rain waters and eventually washed out to sea. But in this particular locale, there’s nowhere for the water to go. Therefore, gypsum-filled rainwater coming down from the mountains, eventually lands in this basin and evaporates, leaving the gypsum behind. A lot of gypsum.
The National Park Service maintains a 16 mile loop road that leads visitors into a section of the dunes.
There are parking areas and marked trails along the road as well as explanatory panels about how the area came to be, wildlife that can be found in the dunes, and historic uses of the Monument (lots and lots of movies have been filmed here.)
The dunes come in all shapes: gently undulating planes….
angular pyramids with razor’s edge lines…..
tall plateaus with soft rounded edges…
And wind-carved arcs and crescents…
And, while it may be hard to tell from the photos, the majority of these dunes towered over us. Most were at least 8 or 10 feet tall. Many were closer to 20.
The winds, which are almost constant, not only shift the dunes, but leave different patterns on the sands.
There are hiking trails that lead visitors through sections of the dunes and it is vitally important that visitors pay attention to the markers. As we were following one 2.5 mile trail, chatting and enjoying the scenery, we suddenly realized we had ambled off the trail (following footprints that led to alternate routes rather than our trail’s markers). It was no big deal and an easy mistake to correct, but it was a sharp reminder of just how easy it can be to head off course.
That’s what most of the warnings are about – the dune fields are enormous, once you get away from the road and the marked trails there are no good landmarks, and the winds can quickly cover visitors’ footprints. Additionally, trudging up and over the dunes is physically taxing and the temperatures can swing wildly across the day. These factors can create a perfect storm that leaves unprepared tourists exhausted and disoriented. Making matters worse, cell signals are weak or non-existent in much of the dune field so unsuspecting visitors can quickly find themselves in trouble without access to their usual lifeline.
But the NPS is also sure to let you know about all the other ways you might meet your untimely demise. Is it summer? Well, then you’re looking at sunburn, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, dehydration, and hyponatremia (too much water, not enough sodium). Is it winter? Well, you might be subject to wind burn or you could freeze to death overnight. Is it a day that ends in “Y”? Well, then you’re looking at all of the above PLUS altitude sickness, lightning strikes, sand storms, venomous snake or spider bites, getting crushed under collapsed sand, or dying in a freak sledding accident. (As the NPS site likes to remind people: you can seriously hurt yourself sledding.)
Speaking of which, the Rangers actively encourage sledding – even selling sleds at the gift shop -and we had a blast sledding down the steep hills!
However, that reminded me of my most favorite NPS warning. You see, the Monument is entirely contained within the White Sands Missile Range – a massive area used by the U.S. Military to test all kinds of weapons (the Trinity Site – location of the first nuclear test – is about 65 miles north of the Monument.) About twice a week, roads leading to the park are closed because the military is blowing stuff up and – I’m not making this up – sometimes their missiles go off course and end up LOST within the confines of the park. So the Rangers are sure to warn visitors to watch out for anything that could be an unexploded bomb.
Have fun sledding!!!!
Anyway, when not trying to murder us in 100 different ways, the dunes were mesmerizing. We marveled at the soft, cool sand in our hands (the sand never gets hot and doesn’t stick to your skin), we basked in the utter silence that surrounded us, we gazed out on miles of undisturbed, pristine sands…
We broke out the selfie stick.
Then Kevin got bored with me taking pictures and just wandered off…..
Look at him… ambling off into the sunset with his hat, all mysterious….
There he goes….
Speaking of sunsets, White Sands is pretty great place to watch one… All afternoon, we watched the shadows grow longer and the colors of the dunes change…
As the sun dipped behind the mountains to the west, the eastern sky grew pink and yellow and the mountains turned purple. The sands in front of us were pristine, soft, and undisturbed. Once the sun was gone the temperature quickly dropped causing us to bundle up, turn back toward the car, and take one last look around. A perfect view to cap a perfect day.
Truth or Consequences
One hour north of Las Cruces is the tiny, weird, town of Truth or Consequences. While it might seem like the name of some comic book utopia for police and prosecutors, their funny name is actually the result of a radio show promotion back in the 1950’s. Formerly known as Hot Springs, New Mexico, the town took part in a radio contest and won – changing its name and cementing their status as one of the most memorably named towns in America.
Its former name, Hot Springs, was no accident. Much like Hot Springs, Arkansas, the town was famous in the 20th century for its mineral baths that reportedly brought relief to those who came to visit. The baths are still available in various forms. Some friends we know through Instagram (Hi Jaimi!!) had been there and suggested we visit River Bend Hot Springs, a hotel and spa in the town. You can visit their common area pools for $12 per person, or rent one of their private pools for an hour for $30. Given the $6.00 difference, we opted to get a private pool and it was really nice. The resort overlooks the Rio Grande and we were able to watch some of the wildlife play in the water while we soaked.
After our dip in the springs, we wandered around the town for a bit. It’s a bizarre place. There are tons of little art installations and quirky shops, but hardly anything was open and there were very very few people around.
For our friends who’ve been to Bisbee, AZ, think of Bisbee, but where everything is closed and there’s no one walking around. Weird, right?
We stopped in the visitor’s center and the volunteer there was incredibly nice. He said that most of the businesses are sole proprietorships and folks just open when they feel like it. Neat…except when there’s nowhere for visitors to go on a Saturday afternoon.
Another tiny town we visited while in the area was Hatch, New Mexico. Hatch is known for the chilies they produce. Every September, there’s a massive festival where thousands of people descend on the town to celebrate the harvest. The rest of the year is pretty quiet but there are lots of small vendors who sell various chilies and chili products. We loaded up on chili goodness and found a couple standout restaurants, namely:
The Pepper Pot…
And Sparky’s, home to the famous Hatch Chili Burger:
I could describe these dishes more, but really… do I need to???? Say it with me: “YUMMMMMMMM”
Finally, just a couple miles north of White Sands National Monument lies the life changing awesomeness that is: Pistaschioland…
Not only can you sample and buy every type of pistachio and pistachio product known to man, but you can also bask in the glory of the world’s largest pistachio.
While we didn’t have time to take their factory and farm tour, we did have time to hit their incredible sample bar…
(There’s always time to hit the sample bar.)
In addition to all the pistachio goodness, the site also offers a winery and an ice cream parlor. Really, you can make a day of it… and someday when we return to the area, we just might…
Next up, a week in Lake Havasu….
Where we stayed: Hacienda RV Resort, Las Cruces, New Mexico
Those dunes are unbelievable! Those are probably some of the most interesgly beautiful natural sites you’ve shown so far. What a great place. I love the big pistachio. It remind me of the world’s largest ball of twine :-). Huge fan of pistachios, too, so that tasting bar looked great to me!
Ya know, we had big plans when we started off for finding these awesome roadside attractions – biggest ball of twine, biggest rubber band ball, largest eraser. But somewhere, somehow, we lost our way. Lost our focus. Failed to commit. We’ve really let ourselves down, I think… I believe it’s time to re-commit to finding these utterly pointless roadside attractions… From now on, I promise, we will spend more time looking for this nonsense so we can share their pointlessness with the world. You’re welcome!!!!! 🙂
I love White Sands National Monument “angle”. Most of us (circling around the western half of the country) have been to this park before and we’ve all read each other’s feelings about the haunting, shifting shapes, our sledding adventures, our hikes and aching legs. My own included pictures of our sweet golden retriever who evidently thought they were snow drifts as she rolled and slid gracefully from top to bottom, just like she did in snow piles back east. You’re right, the sand doesn’t stick to your skin, but it does stick to every mucous membrane it comes in contact with. Her eyes were rimmed with white, her nose plugged solidly and her lips and tongue looked like she had just raided the sugar bowl. Memories. I’m so glad you didn’t die there, we’ve only just met you….errrrr…..or….we never would have met you?
haha! Proof read, I should proof read. I meant to say “I love YOUR White Sands National Monument angle.”
Oh man, I cannot even IMAGINE how much sand you would have been dealing with with a dog…. plus, it must get all into their fur… Ugh. Dixie would track sand in just on her paws. Had she rolled around in sand all day… yikes! Not to mention what you’re talking about – ears and nose…. Oh my!!!! Too funny. Anyway, we are truly happy we did not die there either. That would have ruined our whole day.
I really enjoyed our visit to White Sands NM. Rather fascinating in a strange way. We loved the pistachios, that sample bar and bought a bottle of wine there… yum. New Mexico is a state filled with hidden gems and fun quirky places.
Agreed. What we saw of New Mexico was really interesting and we know we really only just scratched the surface. We missed a ton of stuff just in the area we were in. (I mean, we were at pistachioland and failed to try their pistachio ice cream. What kind of idiot misses pistachio ice cream when at pistachioland????) Anyway, we expect we’ll be spending a lot more time then eventually.
Years ago when I worked in Rosslyn, VA there was a restaurant next door to my office that used Hatch Chiles in their dishes because the owners were from there. It’s been on my list of places to visit ever since. Now that you survived the great sand dune experiment, I’ll add that to my list as well. ????
Yeah, we had seen the name before, but I don’t think we’d ever actually had them. They really do have a very distinct flavor. We loved them and have now picked items made with them at the grocery stores around here. It’s cool that the owners brought those flavors from home all the way to Virginia. And you should definitely check out White Sands when you get a chance. It truly is a one-of-a-kind place.
Loved your NM adventures, and they are some that we can’t wait to get back there to see and do, White Sands especially. When you get back to NM, try to make a trip up to Pie Town. It’s all pies, all the time! Now I’m sitting here on a heating pad with my hoodie up being all cold and sad wishing I was in NM having a big ol’ slice of Hatch Apple Pie.
“PIE TOWN”???? Are you freaken kidding me? How did I NOT know about this?!?!?! I am canceling all our plans and heading directly back to New Mexico. Who’s got time for national parks and museums when there’s a place called “Pie Town”????? 😉
Love White Sands!! It’s such an awesome place. The missiles through us for a loop too-lol!
Yeah, I would think more people would be weirded out by that, but most people don’t seem all that concerned. I guess they’re too busy sledding. 🙂
Wow the dunes look beautiful and when you mentioned sledding I thought we definitely needed to go and do that … and then the bombs! Hmm might have to give this a little more thought 🙂 I’m hungry just looking at the picture of the enchiladas in Hatch!
Well, I absolutely think you should go check it out. It’s really unique and fun and beautiful. But yeah, its slightly concerning for the government to be so nonchalant about possibly maiming visitors….. 🙂 And yes, everything we had at the Pepper Pot was fantastic. They really know how to make the best use of their famous local ingredient.
Oh, you guys have been having a blast! I’m so glad you broke out the time machine and took us along for your adventures (you know that’s totally fine with me, right? Considering that haven’t made it to January on our blog? :-)) This was worth waiting for! Your photos of White Sands are fantastic.
We’ve been trying to get to White Sands, but every time we’ve orbited by, the winds have been horrific. Which adds being sandblasted to death to the list of possible ways to meet our demise. We’ve sand sledded at Monahan Hills SP in Texas though, and you’re right, it is a blast! But we learned that you can’t sled when the sands are warm—the sand sticks to your sled and you can’t get up any speed. Not fun.
We love the hot springs at Riverbend in Truth or Consequences and the chile in Hatch. You are finding all the good stuff. I must see that giant pistachio…
So the gift shop sold squares of wax to use on the bottom of the sled which we used… I wonder if that would have solved your sticky sand problem? Or maybe it wouldn’t have mattered? Interesting… I feel like this is a science experiment waiting to happen! In either case, it’s a bummer that you haven’t been able to get to White Sands yet – but yes, I imagine visiting during a windstorm would not be very much fun. The southwest really does like its drama, huh? As for finding the good stuff in these places, it really is a function of following the right blogs and the right accounts on Instagram. I have no idea how anyone found these places in the past… I suppose they read books??? Sounds like a lot of effort to me…. Yay technology! 😉
As Sue mentioned, most of us have made this trip to White Sands, but your take on the Monument is the best!! Loved your humor! ou certainly made it look much nicer than what we saw. I must say that we both were rather disappointed. All the photos we had seen made it look like is was a total white out. I was very surprised by the wind blown tan areas and amount of foliage. It was not at all what we expected:(
We made this same trip you did (except T&C) on our way back west for the first time and year and half ago. Loved the pistachio and all the free samples. Sparky’s green chili burgers were awesome!!! Sure looks like you are totally embracing this life style and all the freedom it brings.
So it’s interesting – when I was researching White Sands I noticed that mixed in among the ubiquitous tall white dune pictures were pictures of the scrub brush and other foliage, so we knew there would be some of that, but we didn’t realize how much there would be. On the other hand, when we walked out on one of the longer trails, there were times where almost all of that disappeared and we were surrounded by just sand. So I think it just depends where you are in the dune field and how the winds have been arranging things in that area. It is crazy to think how much the landscape can change from one day to another in a place like that. But I definitely agree, it would be awesome if there was none of the vegetation at all…. The most awe inspiring views are those where it’s just sand as far as the eye can see.
As for embracing the lifestyle, when it comes to shoving food in our faces, we are ALWAYS up for the challenge!
By far the best post written about the White Sands Monument complimented with your great photography! I did a butt sledding there and thankfully no sand got stuck in you know where 🙂 If you find that fascinating, try to visit too, the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. I would like to read your take on it.
Had I known about the hot springs in TOC I would have taken a dip myself. We were just 7 miles north of there while camped at Elephant Butte Lake SP (another state park that you may want to stay in New Mexico on your way down south from CO.
I chose green when asked Red or Green, when in New Mexico, the red one is too hot for me.
Thanks ML! We have heard good things about both of those places – Great Sand Dunes and Elephant Butte State Park…. Actually, I think if we had it to do again, we’d definitely stay at Oliver Lee State Park when visiting Alamogordo and probably Elephant Butte for visiting TorC and Hatch. Las Cruces was fine, but it was a lot of driving…. Anyway, I do remember the pictures of you guys trying to sled without a sled. Sounds pretty risky to me! Glad you didn’t end up too miserable as a result! As it was, we had piles of sand in our shoes and socks when we got home.
Your photos are amazing! Sledding, hot springs, Hatch chiles, and pistachios! Doesn’t get much better than that.
Thank you Beth! We really enjoyed our trip to that area for the exact reasons you mentioned – it was one of those places that offered a nice mix of things to see and do, and, more importantly, to eat. ????
Hi! I’m happy you were able to take some of our recommendations for NM! We enjoyed that area and would definitely go back – we missed a lot of stops on our list and would revisit a few too. Visiting White Sands again and doing some hikes is a must!
Another great post!
Thanks and talk soon.
We are absolutely intending on returning next time we are in the area, and given all the things we didn’t get to see and do this visit, next time we’ll stay closer to the park and give ourselves more time there. While our campground was convenient for certain things, it was quite a distance away from many of the things we would want to see and do. Oh well, live and learn I guess. Thanks again for all the great suggestions!
This is the third blog in a row I’ve read on White Sands–all three giving different aspects and experiences. This is definitely on the ever-growing list!
You guys will love it. It’s a completely one-of-a-kind experience and just a ton of fun. My only suggestion is to make sure you go when the weather is decent. If it’s too warm, you will be seriously miserable (and it truly will be unsafe… like our friends at the NPS have been trying to tell everyone!)
[…] first time I’ve read about White Sands National Monument in New Mexico was from this post. There Laura described a high possibility that ones could lose their lives or severely injured […]
We may head toward New Mexico after winter 2022/2023 so this post will come in handy. Thanks
Hey Mark! That’s awesome! There’s so much to see in NM – historic, cultural, and natural. White Sands remains one of our absolute favorite places. It’s just so much fun to play in the dunes. I think you’ll really enjoy it!
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