White Sands National Park: A Winter Wonderland in the Chihuahuan Desert

Is this snow? No, it’s sand! But apparently it’s just as fun to slide down this white hill! White Sands National Park in New Mexico is a hidden gem at the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, in New Mexico. The dynamic dunes stretch for more than two hundred miles, and form the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

An hour past Las Cruces down US-70, we arrived at the White Sands visitors center. As we followed the meandering road into the park, the white hills around us grew taller. We stopped to take a closer look at the flowing sand, the dry playas (flat areas, lower than the rest of the dunes, where water gathers under the surface), and the mountains in the distance.

San Anderes Mountains and Sacremento Mountains are mostly responsible for the formation of new dunes. The rain water and snow melt gather in the area called Alkali Flat, which is part of the Tularosa Basin. Lake Lucero lies in its southwest corner of the area. When water evaporates (as much as 80 inches per year), the gypsum and salt particles in the soil get picked up by the wind and deposited in ever-shifting dunes, which move northeast at a rate of up to 30 feet per year.

But the history of the gypsum dunes dates way back, to the ice age. Read more about its slow and steady formation here.

The dunes seem to be barren, except for a few gnarly four-wing salt bushes. However, I was surprised to learn just how many creepy crawlies were around (almost 100 families of insects; 600 different species of invertebrates, including beetles, spiders, moths, and wasps; not to mention a good number of snakes). In addition, the park is home to forty-four species of mammals and six species of amphibians. Many critters adapted to the stark environment and became light-colored to better camouflage in the sand (I wonder how many I haven’t noticed while I was walking around!). Many of these white species can only be found here, and nowhere else on earth.

The park offers some hiking trails over the dunes, and apparently, the dunes are especially magical at sunset (tours are available). Because we had our two elderly doggies with us, we didn’t get too far, but we did enjoy the expansive views, the delight of children and adults alike sliding down the hills, and the quiet hiss of the wind working diligently on shaping the dunes.

Our next stop was the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. The locals have a hot passion for Capsicum, and have been working with peppers since the 1800s, developing new pods. “The father of the New Mexican food industry,” Fabian Garcia was a horticulturalist who created the first New Mexican pod type or long green New Mexican chile pepper. In 1921 he developed the New Mexico No. 9 which became the standard chile variety for 30 years.

We walked around downtown Las Cruces and got a taste of the artsy town. For a delicious local bite to eat, we stopped at Habanero’s Fresh Mex. The Chef delivers flavorful dishes, using what else but chiles to spice things up a bit. We fully savored the bean “Welcome Soup,” mole enchiladas (yum!), grilled soft tacos, and indulged in an apple chimichanga. We also enjoyed having the back patio to ourselves, smoke-free.

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