White Sands National Monument lies east of the city of Las Cruces, NM. You might ask – what is the difference between a national monument and a national park? I was curious, anyway! After Googling, I found that national parks are areas set apart by Congress for the use of the people of the United States generally, because of some outstanding scenic feature or natural phenomena. National monuments, on the other hand, are areas reserved by the National Government because they contain objects of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest and are typically established by presidential proclamation. So, now you know! Park or monument, it is covered by our national park annual pass, one of the best bargains on the planet!
White Sands was established to protect and preserve the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Giant deposits of gypsum in the surrounding mountains are washed down by rain and snowmelt into low spots that act as evaporation ponds, allowing the gypsum to crystallize. During the dry season, winds break down the crystals into fine powder, blowing and forming the giant field of blindingly-white dunes. Water just under the ground surface actually helps to glue the gypsum down and prevent it from just blowing completely away.
The site is only partially paved; unpaved roads into the dune section are kept open only by constant plowing. Driving through this area is surreal, giving the momentary impression of a giant snowfield. One of the favorite visitor activities is sledding down the dunes, just like down banks of snow! Photos can’t really capture the perspective of the dunes that rise over 30 feet in height. The park also offers a nature trail and a boardwalk with interpretive signage. It’s a completely unique place to visit and well worth a stop.
Farther up the road past the town of Alamogordo is the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that manages the site: “The basaltic ridge rising above the Three Rivers Valley contains over 21,000 petroglyphs, including masks, sunbursts, wildlife, handprints, and geometric designs. The number and concentration of petroglyphs make this one of the largest and most interesting rock art sites in the Southwest.” You access the petroglyphs by a half mile rugged trail up the ridge.I have never seen such a concentration of ancient rock art – it was a veritable graffiti wall of petroglyphs! I’ve included just a few examples here. Researchers never know exactly what they mean, but it is always fun to speculate and imagine life as it existed hundreds of years ago.