Playing in the Gypsum Dunes
[White Sands National Park, TX, Jan 19, 2020]
By the time White Sands became a national park in December 2020, we had already made our plans for Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe. But once I realized White Sands is just 90 minutes away from El Paso, TX, which we were flying in and out of, I was sure I could squeeze it into our trip. To make room, we decided to visit Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe on the same day – totally doable unless you want to do a big hike in Guadalupe – which freed up a whole day for visiting White Sands. It also meant we’d be spending that night in El Paso rather than in Carlsbad, which actually worked better with our flight the next day.
We woke up early on Sunday and got on the road to cover the 160+ miles between Carlsbad and White Sands.
We passed Lincoln National Forest on the way, which covers more than 1 million acres in four counties in Southern New Mexico. The elevation ranges from 4,000 ft to 11,500 ft and contains five different climate zones. This explained why, by the time we reached the tiny village of Cloudcroft at almost 8,700 ft, we saw sub-alpine forests and snow on the ground. There was even a bona-fide ski resort at Cloudcroft!
Once on the other side of the forest, we started descending into the Tularosa basin and could see the white dunes of the national park in the distance.
Not surprisingly, White Sands’ signage and swag hadn’t transitioned to the national park designation yet. Every sign still read “national monument,” but we could care less – we were here!
The white dunes consist of gypsum, the same mineral that was instrumental in the creation of the caverns at Carlsbad. The dunes cover more than 275 square miles of desert to create the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. The national park preserves about 40% of the dunefield. It formed over several thousand years as rainwater from the nearby mountain settled into the Tularosa basin and formed a lake. As the climate became drier, the lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind. Wind forces gradually ground down the gypsum into the fine sand we see today. The landscape continually shifts – some dunes moving as much as 30 ft (9 meters) per year.
Dunes Drive takes visitors 8 miles into the dunes, with multiple places to stop along the way. Only part of the loop is paved; we soon encountered a dirt road covered in gypsum, which made it seem like we were in a winter wonderland!
Our first stop along the loop was the Interdune Boardwalk. This half-mile, elevated walkway features exhibits about the park’s plants and animals and offers several viewpoints.
We then continued on and decided to pull off at the far end of the loop right before it circles back around; an area called The Amphitheater. There were no other cars there, so we had the dunes to ourselves.
We loved climbing up and down the dunes and taking photos of the intricate patterns the wind had etched in the gypsum.
Some dunes were hard-packed, which made them easy to climb. The soft ones crumbled underneath our feet, making us slide down as we tried to climb.
We could see people in the distance sledding!
It was early afternoon by the time we got to El Paso. We stayed at the Doubletree by Hilton El Paso Downtown. Our room had great views of the city.
We were excited to have a lot more dining choices here. B had made a reservation for us at Anson 11, a modern bistro walking distance from the hotel. It’s located in the historic Anson Mills building, named after the US Army officer and surveyor who named and laid out the city of El Paso. His portrait still hangs in the bistro.
Opposite the Anson Mills building was San Jacinto Plaza, which was still draped in Christmas lights!
In hindsight, our night in El Paso was a great way to close out our first trip in 2020! I am so glad we managed to see White Sands after all, which marks the 25th national park I’ve visited. Only 37 more to go! 🙂