HIGHLIGHTS: At the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert lies a mountain ringed valley called the Tularosa Basin. Rising from the heart of this basin is one of the world’s great natural wonders – the glistening white sands of New Mexico. Here, great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert and have created the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The brilliant white dunes are ever changing: growing, cresting, then slumping, but always advancing. Slowly but relentlessly the sand, driven by strong southwest winds, covers everything in its path. Within the extremely harsh environment of the dune field, even plants and animals adapted to desert conditions struggle to survive. Only a few species of plants grow rapidly enough to survive burial by moving dunes, but several types of small animals have evolved a white coloration that camouflages them in the gypsum sand.
White Sands National Monument preserves a major portion of this gypsum dune field, along with the plants and animals that have successfully adapted to this constantly changing environment. There is no car camping at White Sands National Monument. However, the park does have primitive backcountry campsites for backpackers wishing to enjoy a night on the white sands. The backcountry campsites, located about one mile from the scenic drive, are reached from a trailhead on the drive six miles from the visitor center. The campsites are primitive with no water or toilet facilities. No ground fires are permitted at the campsite or anywhere else in the park. Backpackers must register for campsites in person (no advance registration) at the Visitor Center by one hour before sunset. The backcountry campsites are occasionally closed due to missile testing on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range. Day hikers might also try the Alkali Flat Trail which starts from the end of the Dunes Drive. It is a 4.6 mile (round-trip) backcountry trail that traverses the heart of the dunefield.