We returned home via New Mexico from Big Bend National Park so that we could visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park and White Sands National Monument. After looking at a few photos, I was hooked on visiting White Sands. I dreamed of rippling white dunes against a bright blue sky. I’d never seen a sand dune before, never mind one made entirely of gypsum.
Expect the Unexpected: Sledding at White Sands National Monument
As I wrote about earlier, I’ve rarely been so entirely unprepared and underinformed about vacation destinations before. You can imagine my shock then when I saw people renting sleds at the visitor’s center. Sleds? What? As I learned that day, sledding is apparently one of the most popular—if not the most popular—activities at White Sand National Monument. The sand dunes are as white as snow-covered hills, and someone must have once thought, “Now, I have a brilliant idea!”
That person was right. I watched countless families race down the dunes, thwack into each other or the ground, and generally laugh and squeal the day away. They used wax on the bottom of their sled to increase their speeds. When they needed a break to refuel, they sat at picnic areas and noshed before venturing back up the slopes for more sledding.
For me, though, the popularity of the destination was a challenge and a drawback. I hadn’t expected to be surrounded by people. Instead, I had expected pristine white sand dunes with ripples formed by winds racing along the surface. I hadn’t expected Katie to write her name 20 feet tall with her feet in the otherwise picturesque dunes. In fact, I didn’t see any picturesque dunes free of the stomping of feet until we had walked about a third of the way along the Alkali Flat trail. The sight was worth the up and down trek through the dunes.
Alkali Flat Trail at White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument has several smaller trails, but its premier hiking trail is Alkali Flat. Alkali Flat is about a five mile hike through the undulating dunes. It’s neither flat nor much of a quintessential trail. Due to the winds and shifting sands, hikers follow signposts instead of a path.
The trail has no shade, and the hike can be difficult and draining because you are hiking on soft sand. Climbing up a dune with soft footing is physically tiring. As much as I disliked climbing up the dunes, I did really enjoy going down the dunes. I felt a little like I was on the moon with reduced gravity and gigantic, bounding steps.
I’m so glad that we did this hike. It’s iconic, unique, and completely alien to any other hike we’ve done in the past. At the same time, however, I would not feel much of a desire to ever do the hike again. By the time we were two third of the way through the hike, we both felt just about done.
The Backpacking Loop at White Sands National Monument
When I first looked up White Sands National Monument, apparently missing the information about sledding, I was looking to determine whether you could camp in the park. We’d need another night somewhere before returning home, and I thought camping on the dunes would be an enjoyable experience.
Unfortunately, the popularity of White Sands meant that this was likely the least remote backcountry experience we’ve ever had. I felt that I had more privacy even at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the Bright Angel Campground where campgrounds are adjacent. There, at least, we had some trees for privacy, and no one was sledding on the hill by my campground and peering down into my site with morbid curiosity. (Who camps on a dune, anyway? They quite justifiably wondered.)
The backcountry loop is about two miles long, and we never left behind the sight or sounds of people. This made usual backcountry activities, like going to the bathroom, more than a little challenging. Like, really challenging.
Another major challenge was that the gypsum dunes also retain moisture. Even after a day under a baking sun, the white sands were still cold to the touch by the time the sun sank deep into the Western horizon. By morning, we were freezing. My husband was convinced he was about to get frostbite because he felt like he’d been sleeping on a sheet of ice. (He exaggerated, but he was cold regardless). It was one of the coldest mornings I can remember ever camping before. Luckily, we were only that mile from the car!
I’m so glad that we visited White Sands National Monument. If we were ever driving through New Mexico with a carful of squirrely children, we would absolutely stop off here to rent some sleds, do a couple of the shorter hikes, and let them burn off some energy. It’s a great place for a family to visit and have a picnic. The park is much less appealing to anyone interested in backcountry camping and remote landscapes. Still, I’m glad we’ve gone. I did, after all, get some pictures of pristine dunes. I only had to walk 2.5 miles to take one.