New Mexico is full of some pretty spectacular national wonders, but White Sands National Monument is one of the most beloved by both tourists and locals. This is one of the most stunning landscapes in the state, and it’s just a half and hour’s drive southwest of Alamogordo. Situated in the Tularosa Basin, a northern offshoot of the Chihuahua Desert, and surrounded by rugged mountain on all sides, White Sands National Monument is full of gleaming white gypsum sand.
These sands comprise some 275 square miles of desert, creating the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. White Sands National Monument preserves a major portion of this dunefield, along with the plants and animals that live there. The monument was established in 1933, and it is completely surrounded by military installations. This creates an interesting tension; the monument and nearby military professionals have a difficult relationship, as errant missiles would often fall on the monument. In the past, they have even destroyed visitor areas. However, an accident has not occurred in several decade.
White Sands National Monument also has an interesting relationship with the U.S. government. In January of 2008, two New Mexico Senators wrote letters of support for the site’s application to become a World Heritage Site. This, however, generated a lot of controversy in the area; if White Sands Monument receives the designation, there is likely to be outside pressure to halt the nearby military operations. Similarly, in May of 2018, another Senator introduced a bill to designate White Sands as a national park. The bill is widely supported, but several Otero County commissioners oppose the bill because it will increase area regulation.
Regardless of White Sands National Monument’s history as a point of tension, it is part of what makes New Mexico such an interesting state. Gypsum rarely occurs as sand because it is water-soluble; rain often dissolves gypsum, and rivers then carry it to the sea. However, the Tularosa Basin has no outlet to the sea, so it traps rain that dissolves gypsum. The rainwater sinks into the ground, which forms shallow pools that subsequently dry out. Over time, this process has created dunes as high as sixty feet. If you’re visiting or considering moving to the state, White Sands National Monument is a must-see natural wonder.