When we achieved our goal to visit every National Park in the United States in 2019, there were 61 of them. But just last month, long after we’d already arrived back home, a 62nd was added to the list.

This would have irked us a little, making our task feel incomplete, if it weren’t for the fact that we happened to pop into this place during our trip by chance! Pretty lucky. Since I never wrote about it in my chronicle of all the National Parks, I figured it deserves its own article. You can also see how it stands up to other protected areas in our ranked list of every National Park in the United States.

America’s 62nd National Park is White Sands National Park in New Mexico, upgraded from a National Monument on December 20, 2019, as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.

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Lots to Love at White Sands National Park

There are two other famous dune fields among the National Parks: Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest dune in the United States. Kobuk Valley National Park’s Great Kobuk Sand Dunes in Alaska are the only active sand dunes in the Arctic. But New Mexico’s White Sands National Park is unique in that its sand is so completely different. 

Rather than being made from traditional minerals, like the common quartz, or organic activity, like coral-based sand in the tropics, the white sand at White Sands National Park is about 98% pure gypsum. That makes White Sands the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.

Photo of White Sands National Park
The warm sunset casts pastel colors across the cool, white gypsum of White Sands National Park. Products made from this photo are available in our art shop.

Gypsum sand can be fully dissolved in water, so it’s a good thing White Sands is located in the middle of the dry New Mexican desert. But what makes White Sands a truly special place is the snow white appearance of its gypsum dunes.

Just like in Colorado, the dunes at White Sands can be a lot of fun — you can even bring a sled with you on your hike up the dune faces to ride all the way down. And sledding definitely beats more hiking. Just be careful to take a compass and map to navigate the backcountry in White Sands if you trek beyond the boardwalk trails. It can start to look eerily similar in all directions if you’re far enough out.

Visiting New Mexico’s Two National Parks

White Sands joins Carlsbad Caverns to bring the number of National Parks in New Mexico to two, although there are other NPS-owned and managed sites in the state.

Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the closest major city near White Sands National Park at a little less than an hour from the entrance. However, it’s on the other side of the park, further from Carlsbad Caverns, so if you’re planning a trip to see both, it might not be the best destination.

El Paso, Texas, borders New Mexico and serves as a great feeder city to drive to both of New Mexico’s National Parks. They’re about 3.5 hours from each other, or an average of 2 hours each from El Paso. You’ll spend less time in the car driving between El Paso and each park this way (1.5 hours to White Sands and 2.5 hours to Carlsbad Caverns).

Photo collage of Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns
Left: Guadalupe Mountains. Right: Carlsbad Caverns.

If you’re looking to cross both of New Mexico’s National Parks off your bucket list, don’t forget to plan a little extra time to visit the National Park closest to Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains. They’re only 40 minutes apart!

Remember that the weather in this region has generally comfortable daytime highs from fall through spring, with temperatures reaching above 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer (it is a desert after all). But that provides plenty of opportunities for planning a fun trip out west during any season.

— Lauren

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