White Sands National Park celebrates a diamond anniversary.
By Iris McLister
Santa Fe New Mexican
White Sands National Park celebrates 90. Ipause at the top of a gently sloping dune at White Sands National Park, adjusting my grip on the rope handle of my red plastic sled, and try to remember the last time I careened down a hill on such a contraption. It’s been too long, I decide. Around me, as far as the eye can see, peaks and valleys of gleaming white dunes rise. They’re imposing, starkly beautiful, and, well, great for sliding. These 275 square miles in the Tularosa Basin, some 230 miles south of Santa Fe, form the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, making them something of a marvel — as though they need an accolade beyond the majestic vision I’m seeing before me. The protected lands hit the nonagenarian mark this year; President Herbert Hoover established the national monument that protected them back in 1933. But the dunes long predate the Hoover administration. The process of creating them began 250 million years ago, when the shallow sea covering what is now New Mexico receded and the Rocky Mountains rose, forming a basin where wind and rain broke the soft minerals that remained from the sea into tiny grains. These sugary, soft grains still blow in the wind, causing the park’s (blissfully easy to navigate) 16-mile loop drive to require occasional plowing and leaving ripples in the dunes’ surface. Even after careful research and seeing pictures online, I was still awestruck by my first glimpses of the dunefields. The landscape is one of unearthly beauty. Earning national park status in 2019 was a nod to its natural and historical significance, which includes housing a massive collection of fossilized human and animal footprints from the last ice age. A handful of self-guided walking paths and hiking trails get visitors off the main drive, says park superintendent Marie Frias Sauter, who’s been with the park for more than a decade. “Asking me to pick a favorite trail is like asking someone to pick their favorite child! Each is unique, and we strive to offer a variety of options for visitors of all ages and abilities to explore,” she says. She recommends the Dune Life Trail for spotting flora and fauna. Although the windswept desert might not appear to be teeming with life, the dunes are home to an assortment of lyrically named critters and plants. Consider the rubber rabbitbrush or the skunkbush sumac, or the bleached earless lizard and the Apache pocket mouse, all of which have evolved over time to mimic the white sand upon and within which they make their homes. Visitors who want to go to the source can reserve a ranger-led tour of Lake Lucero — where the material making up the dunes continues to form from evaporating gypsum-laden water. Hiking the gently sloping trail requires navigating patches of loose, rocky sand that can make finding one’s footing tricky, but most visitors manage just fine with sturdy shoes and a walking stick. “We call the lowest part of Lake Lucero the ‘bathtub drain’ because it is in the lowest point of the Tularosa Basin and can actually fill up with heavy rains. It stays pretty shallow — no deeper than a few inches — but can cover acres at times,” Sauter says. I ultimately choose the Backcountry Loop Trail, which Sauter says “is great for adventurous spirits.” It takes about an hour to traverse the 2-mile trail. I decide to sled at a relatively unpeopled part of the trail, which is prized for slopes that get more pristine the farther you walk. “Sledding has been a feature of the park for many decades now,” Sauter says, “but I’m sure the idea of sliding down the sand dunes has occurred to whoever happened across them over the centuries.” (Don’t worry if you forget to pack a sled; they are sold at the visitor center. The opportunity to sled brings out the childlike nature of many visitors.) After sledding, I unpack my lunch at the Roadrunner Picnic Area, one of three such spots at the park, where the swooping silver roofs of the shelters impart a distinctly retro vibe. “The picnic shelters are from the 1960s and were intentionally designed to mimic the beauty of the wind,” Sauter says. “We had a big rainfall a while back and some parts of the park flooded, including the picnic areas. The metal roofs were reflected in the water and looked like sailboats from a distance.” My park bucket list included catching the dunes at sunset in this little-populated neck of New Mexico. Friends offered varying advice: go to the very northeastern corner of the park for the best views, said one. Another told me to avoid an eastern vantage point at all costs. When I asked Superintendent Sauter, she made it beautifully simple: “Whatever spot you choose is the best spot to watch the sunset.” She’s right. I can’t even tell you where I was when I saw the sunset, but I know I’ll never forget the sight of the lowering sun gilding the dunes in shimmery light and filling the sky overhead with sherbet-hued striations. Iris McLister has called Santa Fe home for 25 years, and she has covered New Mexico art and history as a writer for most of that time.