Sleds And Sunsets At White Sands (And Why You Really Need to Go There)

Updated: 9 April 2017.

Like much of the rest of New Mexico, I knew little about White Sands National Monument before I visited it. I had no idea, for instance, it’s actually part of a US government missile testing range. I wasn’t aware it’s a relic from the last ice age when a vast lake covered the entire region, or that back in 2007 local residents actually campaigned to have White Sands removed from a list of tentative World Heritage sites.

I was also completely unaware it would end up being the most fun — and most beautiful — place I visited on this entire Southwest road trip.

We arrived mid-morning, at least an hour later than we should have, and with the temperature rapidly rising. What better time to wander around a desert landscape under a cloudless sky?

As it happened, on this particular day it wouldn’t have mattered how early we got there. There was a live missile firing taking place, and the gates were firmly shut until that was finished. Our little rental car had already shown that it could stand up to almost anything we threw at it, but I suspect it might have drawn the line at a Tomahawk.

White Sands - road

The entire place is an anomaly, 275 square miles of sand amidst millions of acres of tussock and tumbleweeds. From the highway we’d caught a glimpse of what lay in store, but it wasn’t until a couple of miles past the entrance that things got spectacular. The drifting grains that give the place its name surrounded us, the fine powder blowing gently over the road to accumulate on the tall white dunes stretching in every direction.

If this was elsewhere in the country, White Sands would be crawling with visitors, somewhere on the scale of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Instead, off the beaten track in New Mexico, we barely saw a soul. A solitary tour bus slouched in a parking bay, an ugly mechanical silhouette in the bright sunlight. Occasional cars passed slowly by, but for much of the time it seemed as if we had the entire place to ourselves, able to stop anywhere we liked. So, of course, that’s just what we did.

It was time to go sand sledding.

White Sands - waxing board

The process is simple:

  1. Buy a cheap plastic disc from the gift shop on the way in. Don’t forget to pick up a hunk of wax at the same time.
  2. Choose a dune with the steepest slope you can find.
  3. While sweating profusely, rub wax all over the sled, the more the better.
  4. Trudge up to the top of the dune, sled in tow. Sweat some more.
  5. Sit on the sled and shuffle over the edge, shouting loudly as you gather speed and fly towards the bottom. Make sure to tuck your legs up so you have absolutely no control over your direction.
  6. Bounce onto the flat ground at the bottom, ideally tumbling off the sled in the process.
  7. Laugh loudly, dust yourself off and repeat steps 2-6 approximately five billion times.

White Sands - climbing up
What goes up…

White Sands - sled
…must apparently come down a whole lot faster.

We slid down dunes for an hour or more before deciding we should probably do a bit of sightseeing as well. The Dune Life nature trail sounded perfect, a mile-long walk through a surprisingly vegetated area. Even though it totally doesn’t look like it, there’s apparently ground water close to the surface of White Sands, and in a few low-lying areas, straggly bushes and small trees have managed to gain a foothold.

White Sands - view 2

White Sands - grass

White Sands - tree

The walk took about an hour, which in that heat was definitely long enough. If you’re planning to do it yourself, be sure to cover yourself in sunscreen and take plenty of water — I got through a litre without even trying.

We headed home for a while after that, if for no other reason than to try to wash out half a sand dune from every bodily crevice. The fun was far from over, though — we weren’t going to leave without seeing sunset from the top of the dunes!

White Sands - shadows

If the park was quiet when we’d been there earlier in the day, it was deserted on our return. The dunes had changed colour in the evening light, from bright white to a muted golden hue.

White Sands - golden light

Climbing to the top of the largest one we could find, our footprints and the whisper of voices from a small group in the distance were the only signs of life. I set up my GoPro to take a timelapse, laid back in the cool sand and waited.

White Sands - GoPro

Over the next hour I remembered why I rarely watch television or movies — they just can’t compete with what nature does every night. The world changed every time I looked up, the dunes gently glowing all around us as clouds drifted above far-flung mountains. The sky cycled through the colours of the rainbow, then caught fire for its final act.

Even our distant neighbours drew silent, the only sound sands shifting in the gentle breeze. A deep sense of calm took over, our muted conversation drifting away in favour of quietly enjoying the moment.

White Sands - sunset

Even as the dunes darkened around us, the sun’s final rays continued to light the horizon, seemingly unwilling to let the moment end.

White Sands - final ray of light

Finally plunged into near-darkness, we stumbled back down the dunes to the car. As night settled in around us on the way back home, we remarked how easy it would have been to have skipped coming back for sunset… and how great it was that we hadn’t.

It had been a perfect day, from the hiking and adrenaline of sliding down dunes in the midday sun to the reflective peace of nightfall. White Sands is truly remarkable – why it isn’t more well-known I have no idea, but I was grateful for the unexpected tranquillity.

If you ever get the chance, go.

Just go.

We stayed in an Airbnb place in Tularosa, but both town and accommodation were pretty unexciting.

If I was going back, I’d just find a hotel in Alamogordo or Las Cruces instead.

PS: Here’s how that timelapse ended up!

5 Responses to “Sleds And Sunsets At White Sands (And Why You Really Need to Go There)

  • I knew nothing about White Sands. Now I do – awesome photos and looks like snow

  • What kind of wax works best?

    • We just used the wax they sold at the board rental place – seemed to do the job!

  • bharathi
    1 year ago

    what is the price of the sled and the wax? would you find it anywhere else that we could buy in town, walmart or amazon maybe?

    • It was 4+ years ago, so I really don’t remember what the costs were. They weren’t excessive, though, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought them. I’m sure you could get something similar from Amazon for cheaper, though if you’d rather.

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