The White Sands National Monument is one of the most fascinating protected areas in the country. Found in southern New Mexico near the city of Las Cruces, this national monument preserves part of a 275-square-mile area that is characterized by white gypsum sand dunes. The landscape is quite surreal, especially when you consider how it contrasts with the surrounding desert terrain, and many of the plants and animals that you will encounter in this realm have adapted to cope with the environment, and how the resident plants survive against the blowing sands is confounding in and of itself.
The White Sands Dunes that can be found in southern New Mexico took millions of years to build up, and their location in the Tularosa Basin valley had everything to do with their creation. The mountains that can be found on both sides of this valley are comprised of a few major elements, and these elements include gypsum. Over time, melting snow and rainfall dissolved the water-soluble gypsum in these mountains and carried it down into the valley. Persistent winds and the heat of the desert sun evaporated the water, and the pure white gypsum crystallized. Once crystallized, the gypsum was blown into dunes by the winds. The process continues to this day, and it's interesting to note that the plants that survive in the White Sands Dunes region grow fast in order to avoid being covered by the shifting dunes.
Anyone who is traveling through southern New Mexico can visit the White Sands National Monument. Various trails at the park are marked and allow visitors to explore by foot, and you might enjoy one of the Ranger-guided walks. These walks are offered every evening of the year, weather and staff situation permitting. Even if you visit the White Sands National Monument during the peak of summer, you will be amazed at how cool the sand is. Unlike quartz-based sand, the gypsum sand does not retain heat when the sun is beating down upon it. Even on the sunniest and hottest summer day, you can comfortably walk on the dunes in your bare feet.
While there is never a bad time to view the White Sands Dunes, they are arguably most spectacular at sunrise, sunset, and when there is a full moon shining overhead. In order to experience the dunes at these times, you will have to camp at the White Sands National Monument. There are no facilities to speak of, so it's strictly backcountry camping. Should you only be visiting for the day, the Visitor Center hours vary, so checking in advance is a good ideal. Generally speaking, the White Sands National Monument is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the winter, and the hours are usually extended in the spring, summer, and fall.
There are a lot of interesting New Mexico attractions in the same area as the White Sands National Monument, so hanging out for a couple days or more in the region can prove to be very rewarding. The Las Cruces hotels provide some excellent travel bases, especially if you enjoy friendly lodging rates, and there are plenty of campgrounds with facilities in the region for those who prefer spending the night in an RV, tent, or cabin.