I haven\’t had this much fun in a National Monument site in a long time. This place is a wonderful mix of awe, beauty, and playfulness. With an extra helping of belly-laughing fun. We weren’t on any scheduled agenda on our road trip; it was just a random drive with random decisions and very little planning. So I didn\’t have much awareness of what we could do while at WSNM. Well read this blog post so you are better prepared for your visit!
Since we found a lucky break in the cold February weather, we were eager to experience New Mexico’s beauty outside under the bright blue skies. And that was how we found ourselves playing in the bright white dunes of this national park.
You can visit this National Monument any time of the year. We were visiting during February, which was obviously a cooler time of year. But we were still seeing campers on site, BBQs in the parking lot, and picnics by the dunes. Kids and pets were running along the dune hills having fun and enjoying the sunshine. The sun is warm enough that kids and adults were only wearing jeans and tshirts. So don\’t wait for the high season to visit.
Avoid the park if it is windy or inclement weather. The wind will ruin your visit and make it difficult to enjoy the dunes.
On our random, rambling day-tripping plans, we luckily found a sunny, non-snowing day in late February. So we headed to WSNM while the weather was cooperating.
Below I share our experiences, observations, and tips for your visit to this amazing location! Because you should definitely visit as soon as possible.
We noticed young kids and smiling parents renting brightly colored round sleds from the shop. Hm. Sleds? I was sorely tempted to rent a sled, but I didn\’t. I mean, c\’mon! We\’re adults. We don\’t play in the sand. (Famous Last Thought …I think I have a regret now)
Kids at Heart
Ten minutes later I\’m videoing aforementioned adults trying to climb up steep dune sides and spinning their legs but hardly moving – like a cartoon character with blurred feet not moving.
Sober, mature adults were tossing themselves over dunes, trying to see who could jump farther. Attempts at sliding down the dune was captured on film, with men stuck like turtles on their backs with legs and arms in the air. We had so much fun!!
If you visit, be sure to bring the flying saucer sled, or toboggan. The guest services store rents the flying saucer sleds if you forgot to bring your own. As we drove through the park, you could see the brightly colored sleds being drug up dunes or whooshing down the dune hills.
Deep in the park we were wishing we had rented those sleds. It is actually hard to ‘slide’ on the hills. But, trust me, we tried! There was swimming in sand, jumping in sand, flying in sand, rolling in sand, and using your body as a plow sand. Sand, sand, and more sand. All of our fun activities resulted in pockets and hoods full of sand.
Sand gets everywhere
There was sand everywhere. Well, technically it is gypsum. But that doesn\’t matter. Just know that this can be ground down to fine powder and will filter through the fibers of your clothes and make its way into every crevice. There was also plenty of complaining about sand getting into places. Ya know. Places.
The dunes brought out the kid in everyone. We spent hours laughing and being silly. And those are the best hours to spend with family and friends.
Don\’t Lose Your Keys!!
Pinch of History, Sprinkling of Science
In the visitor center we learned that the brilliant white dunes are built from gypsum. Way, way back in deep history, a large region of the (now) Southwest United States was under water. The geology of this region is based on that watery history. Today\’s water and gypsum movement continues to contribute to the gypsum deposits in the basin, adding to the Great Sand Dunes. Due to this unique geological history and present-day activities, these dunes are the largest gypsum dunes in the world.
So arriving at this park in my full ignorance, I assumed that these were actual ocean-formed sands blown in from another location. Perhaps the nearby desert? But my guess was wrong, and the museum at the park helped fill out my knowledge. This unique location is far more interesting!
What does the Pleistocene have to do with it?
Did you know there are tracks of ancient mammoth and ancient camel in the park? I did not! How about giant sloths? Me neither! How cool is that?
There is even a teasing clue that mammoths and humans coexisted in the Tularosa Basin. I was very surprised to see an exhibit showing the imprints of these extinct critters, and how they are preserving them.
In the deep geological history of this region; a bunch of gypsum is left all over the place. There is a bunch of sciency-sounding explanations, the short version is this: the plentiful water-soluble gypsum is carried by rivers into the basin and deposited there. The deposits are then broken down by winds, which tosses the gypsum around until chucks become pebbles, pebbles become grains, grains become dust.
This is how you get the giant, ever-moving white dunes of this national treasure.
As you stroll the dunes, you\’ll find sections where the gypsum is clumped together, sometimes creating amazing structures and shapes.
The winds shape the mounds and keep moving the dunes in the park, resulting in a stunning collection of blindingly bright dunes. As we three adults arrived at this impressive sight, we honored the history and dignity of this amazing scenery by trying to slide down the giant hills on our butts. With dignanty.
While in the visitor center, we found a station that had stamp blocks. Since I\’m slightly obsessed with the National Park Passport stamps, I stopped to study this new collection of stamps and tried to figure out how I could stamp my book.
Instead, I found a square wooden frame containing the sand from the park and stamps of differing animal prints. The display was designed to show how the animal prints would appear in the park itself. It was actually a smart way to introduce kids and adults alike on the types of imprints you\’ll see on the dunes.
I pressed the stamp in the sand box to see the results. I\’m a kid. I just like touching the touch-able displays.
Yet, I didn\’t expect we would find any imprints when we entered the park since it was a cold February day. I had imagined that the critters would be hibernating or had migrated south. I was wrong!
Almost every large bush on the dunes had tracks all around it. I tried to capture the tracks as best I could, but I confess that I could not see my phone screen well enough to know if I captured the tiny trails. I share my one photo – taken blindly – showing how the critter ran towards the shade and protection of the plant.
Things to Know
The dunes are built from bright white gypsum. Under the bright sun, the white dunes can create a blinding glare. This will make using screens very difficult, these include your smartphone and cameras with screens. You will find yourself squinting. Bring proper sun protection, and don’t forget that in the summer months to compensate for sunlight bouncing up from the ground. We experienced this bouncing light in February – a weak sun. Imagine July?
The park allows for camping. We did not camp during this trip, but I was listening to a park ranger explain the regulations. The gent getting his camping license was preparing for a nighttime experience, and they were discussing temperature drops. I would like to plan for camping in this amazing place the next time I visit. As I listened, I learned that they do not permit RV/Car camping, only backpackers camping. There is a designated camping location and the backpackers were expected to hike to the location and set up their tents.
Imagine what it is like sleeping amongst the dunes, under a star filled sky? Yes! I want to go camping here.
Sunset Hike (tour)
It seems that there was also a hike that was available for guests to register to attend. We were invited to join, since it was a limited count for attendance. Unfortunately I knew we wouldn’t be able to stay that late. So I made another mental note for my return visit.
Picnics and Parking
There are plenty of parking spots and picnic areas in the park. We counted three as we drove through the park exploring. While there, we saw several picnic tables protected by a large metal sails. These sails offer protection from the sun, and perhaps from the wind (if it is coming from one direction!).
Obviously on this day, there was no one rushing to populate these limited shelters. But it is good to know they are there!
We saw folks with portable BBQ grill cooking their food beside their car in the nearly-empty parking lots. I can see the perks of visiting off-season. There is open spaces and room to enjoy the park. And the kids certainly didn\’t mind playing on the dunes in February!
The dunes closest to the road may have footprints from previous visitors. But if you walk further into the dunes, you\’ll be sure to find a pristine dune. These are the dunes you will want to photograph. The wind draws delicate lines and forms in the sand. If you are lucky, you may find a dune peak that shows the dramatic shadows of the dunes and sunshine. There were also plants found all around, and several of these made for beautiful contrast photos.
Be aware that bright sunshine will make it difficult to see the screen of your phone (or digital camera). If you are planning professional photography, bring shade gear that will allow you to view through the camera clearly. If you are using your mobile phone, bring your own shade. A regular umbrella won’t be enough; be sure to bring a sun blocking umbrella to help you in the bright sunshine.
Also: don’t forget to sign your name and year of your visit in the sand! Then take that photo for your album.
There are multiple hiking trails around the park, with markers indicating where the trail is located. As you enter the park and at the beginning of every trail you’ll find a large, dynamic sign warning you to pack water before you go hiking. There are several marked trails that you can take. Take the safety warning seriously, bring water, bring your cell, and tell others where you are going and when you leave.
Don’t underestimate how quickly you can become disoriented amongst the dunes. While we were casually strolling the dunes right by the road, we would turn around and find ourselves with zero visual references of our location – other than our own foot path trail. It was shockingly quick how fast we lost visual orientation amongst the hills.
Thankfully we had a solid memory of our orientation, our own footprints, and a short distance to walk before we found the road again. But if you go deeper into the park, you should plan and prepare in case you get lost.
If the winds kicked up while we were exploring, our own trail would be blown away in the winds.
The gypsum road and some trails become hard-packed roads you can easily drive on. These are also very easy to bike on! When you first enter the park, there is an asphalt paved road. Shortly into the park, that road gives way to a hard-packed gypsum road you can drive on. You can see how plows have gone along the road and plowed the moving dunes from the road.
If these roads can tackle full sized RVs, you and your bike won\’t be a problem. I recommend trail bikes vs. speed bikes, you will need the traction if you go even a tiny bit off the road. You’ll be sharing the road with vehicle traffic, so use all regular safety measures.
Gear to Pack
- A sturdy daypack to carry your gear
- Good hiking boots and layers of clothing (SPF clothing as well)
- A larger water bottle, or more than one water bottle
- Polarized glasses designed for desert sun (above & below glare)
- A sun hat and sun protection, including lip balm
- Buff bandana, to protect against insects and wind
- Sweet and/or salty snacks
- Small first aid kit
- Lightweight flag/clothing (to wave if in distress)
- Emergency whistle – to call for aid or rescue
- Compass and mirror – use the mirror to signal for rescue
Keep in Car
- Multi-Tool or a classic Swiss Army knife
- Sand remover mitt or Sand Brush remover
- Change of socks/shoes
- Electrolyte replenishing drink and more water
Photos of our Sand Dune adventures