A Year Round Winter Landscape: White Sands National Monument

Standing atop a rocky hill enjoying an expansive view, we ponder a whitish haze hemming the San Andres mountain range like a ruffled petticoat. Posted maps outline the view and mountain peaks while explaining the geological history of the Tularosa Basin in southern New Mexico. The cloudy haze we discover is from White Sands National Monument, 30 miles to the southwest.

The next morning my mother and I awake before dawn eager to catch the Super Moon setting over a shimmering sea of white gypsum. Approaching the entrance to White Sands, the surrounding desert landscape does not impress. The native grasses and small scrub brush-covered hills conceal nearly 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes. The only evidence is in the glimmering fog suspended above.

Super Moon setting over White Sands, New Mexico.

As the sun begins to rise, the gypsum haze changes to dusty rose and lilac. The moon sinks deeper into an icy landscape. We step onto the crunchy surface and pull our jackets closed against a wintery chill that has caught our breath and not from the cold air, but rather, the snowy white scene that unfolds to the horizon.

And so the trail begins into the ever-shifting sand dunes reaching to the horizon.


Hiking into a vast landscape where trails are not clearly defined.


White Sand’s National Monument is the world’s largest gypsum dune field created over 250 million years ago. During this time all of the Earth’s landmasses were one colossal supercontinent and the shallow Permian Sea covered the southwestern portion of the United States. Gypsum and other minerals were deposited on the seafloor through a series of rising and falling sea levels.

As the Earth’s tectonic plates shifted and collided over millions of years, the gypsum seafloor lifted forming mountains. Eventually, the continual shifting of the Earth's plates pulled the western San Andres range (below) from the eastern Sacramento Mountains, and the Tularosa Basin was formed 30 million years ago.

San Andres Mountain Range

During the last Ice Age, beginning 24,000 years ago, snow and rain flowed down the mountains carrying gypsum deposits. The water also created a lake. After the Ice Age, the climate became warm and dry evaporating the lake and as the wind carried silt and clay from the ground's surface, gypsum crystals were exposed. The large crystals were eroded into sand by freezing and thawing snows. The regional southwest winds move the gypsum grains inches at a time to the northeast creating the billowing white haze and undulating snow-white sand dunes.

White Sands National Monument from a 30-mile distance.

Snow white dunes close up.

 White Sands National Monument is open daily. Hours vary due to road closures and missile testing. Click here for more information. Do not miss nearby Three Rivers Petroglyphs, where you can view hundreds of ancient rock carvings along a short trail. You can also enjoy the elevated view of the billowing white haze of White Sands National Monument. Both White Sands and Three Rivers are easily accessible by automobile. All ages and abilities can walk the terrain. Learn more by clicking here .

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