After spending a day in Roswell, we had a spare day before heading to Carlsbad. We decided to drive two hours to the White Sands National Monument, and I'm so, so glad we did. White Sands is like nothing else I've ever seen, or will ever see again. Located in the Tularosa Basin in between Las Cruces and Alamogordo, New Mexico, White Sands is 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes, the largest such dunefield in the world.
WSNM is controlled by the National Park Service and you drive through the park in a big loop. You can stop along the way and explore the dunes, and I was surprised at how much freedom we had. We stopped at a few different points in the park, but all of the dunes start to look the same after a while. There are bathrooms at every stop, and cute little picnic shelters that somehow manage to look both vintage and futuristic.
I had read that you're allowed to sled on the dunes, and they conveniently sell sleds (and buy back used ones) at the gift shop. I bought two, and we all took turns on the dunes. The funniest thing about the sledding is that as you're hovering over the edge of a massive dune, it looks terrifying—I kept imagining this scene from Christmas Vacation. But once you start going, the sand turns out to be a less-than-ideal sledding surface and you descend relatively slowly. I even bought wax and applied it liberally but it was a bit anti-climactic—although that didn't stop me from wiping out in slow motion, as I do in most athletic situations.
We arrived at White Sands at about noon, which is probably the very worst time to be there—it was hot. Luckily for a family of tourist-hating tourists, this also meant that the park felt almost empty, which was worth the dehydration and potential sun-stroke. Speaking of which, White Sands is very much a desert—the first one I've ever experienced—and the signs reminding you to make sure you have water are not to be taken lightly. During our visit we noticed no less than four ambulances tending to people who presumably became overheated, and I can't imagine what it's like in July or August.
The sand feels like beach sand, but finer, and cool to the touch. The whole area also had a vaguely chemical smell that I imagine comes from the gypsum, used to make plaster of Paris and fertilizers. It's so strange to be surrounded by so much sand but not an ocean, and the mountains in the background only added to the surreal moonscape. I imagine that White Sands is as close as I'll ever come to feeling as if I've landed on another planet, without leaving the US.