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Get to know New Mexico's White Sands, the country's newest national park

Melanie Radzicki McManus, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Travel News

WHITE SANDS NATIONAL PARK, N.M. -- I didn't expect to be hugged today, let alone three times. And by strangers. But that's what happened after I snagged one of the 10 coveted campsites at White Sands National Monument last October, then offered to share it with some people who just missed the cut.

None of us knew that, weeks later, White Sands would become the country's newest national park. Defense legislation signed Dec. 20 by President Donald Trump included a provision to turn this national monument into the 62nd national park, putting it among the likes of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone.

But on this fall day in southern New Mexico, national park designations weren't on any of our minds. What was: procuring a campsite. The simple gesture of sharing landed me three new besties: Meghan, a local seed collector preparing for graduate school, and Jules and Owen, artists from Austin, Texas. After their round of hugs, bracketed by heartfelt thanks, I jokingly note there is a catch to the deal. The trio must promise to rescue me if a tarantula comes creeping near my tent.

While I'm an experienced backcountry hiker, I was dismayed to learn tarantulas are abundant at White Sands. The large, furry spiders can't kill you, but they're ugly, their bite can be painful, and I know I'll freak out if I spot one near my tent.

The three readily agree to form a tarantula brigade, and we part ways with a cheery, "See you tonight!"

White Sands is home to a 176,000-acre gypsum dune field, the world's largest. More than 600,000 visitors stop in annually to admire its shifting, sparkling-white dunes, which can travel as much as 38 feet a year and are visible from space. In 2019, New Mexico's congressional delegation renewed a push to make it a national park, a prestigious designation reserved for areas with outstanding scenic features or natural phenomena, coupled with inspirational, educational and recreational value.

 

White Sands fits the bill. Its gypsum dunes are breathtaking -- and they're a bit of an anomaly, since gypsum is a soft mineral that dissolves easily in water. It's typically washed out to sea via rivers and other waterways, not left alone to be transformed into sand.

But White Sands is part of the Tularosa Basin, which has no outlet. Monument materials liken it to a tub without a drain. So over time, when gypsum-laden water washed down the surrounding mountains into the basin, the gypsum stayed put. Repeated freezing-and-thawing cycles, coupled with fierce winds, transformed the gypsum crystals into tiny grains of sand, which created the impressive dunes we see today.

The dunes' existence was threatened around 1885, when profiteers wanted to mine them. That's because gypsum is a versatile, valuable mineral used in everything from drywall to food and medicine. In fact, one monument sign claims people consume 28 pounds of gypsum in a lifetime. Thankfully, the mining proposal was thwarted by preservationists, and the area was designated a national monument in 1933.

I'd arrived at White Sands the previous evening for its full moon hike, an uber-popular event that takes place monthly from May through October. As the plump moon's bright light reflected off the snowy dunes, creating shadows despite the darkness, park ranger Brenna Rodriguez regaled our group with tales of life in the dazzling dunes, from the Apache pocket mice whose fur grew lighter over time -- camouflage courtesy of natural selection -- to the sand verbena and soaptree yucca that grew fast (verbena) and tall (yucca) to avoid being buried alive by the shifting sands.

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