The next morning we woke up at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park to a truly magnificent morning. It was a cool, clear, perfect day in the desert — and we had a perfect view of Alamogordo, the desert, and the mountains. We were also beginning a love affair with New Mexico state parks that would continue throughout our stay: flat, well-defined campsites (a car-camper’s dream); amenities like the covered picnic table below; and inexpensive rates like we hadn’t seen since our time in the Pacific northwest.
Our stay in Alamogordo was planned to check another national park off our list: White Sands National Monument. But business needed to come before pleasure; we’d been on the road two weeks at this point and life stuff was starting to pile up. We spent the morning at Hardback Coffee Cafe answering emails, dealing with insurance, doing some banking — you know, the fun stuff. Fortunately, the staff was friendly and the coffee was awesome.
As soon as possible we headed towards the outskirts of town and White Sands National Monument. We did a quick run-through of the visitor’s center, watched the introductory video, paused for a photo op by the entrance sign, and headed into the sands.
When I’d added White Sands to our itinerary, I knew what I was expecting: miles and miles of powdery white sand as far as the eye could see. When we arrived in Alamogordo, and all I saw was pretty standard desert landscape, I began to think I’d been misled. But as we started down the road into White Sands, I quickly realized how isolated it feels. The road looked like it was covered in snow — but instead, it was frosted with powdery white sand.
We opted to do the Dunes Drive, a sixteen-mile (round trip) scenic drive from the Visitor Center into the heart of the dunes. The drive takes roughly 45 minutes to complete, plus any additional time for walking, photography, or stopping at pullouts.
Wayside exhibits at pullouts along the drive provide information about the natural history of the park — and there were even picnic shelters! (I can’t get over how much the sand looks like snow in the picture above.)
Before we arrived I wasn’t sure how much we’d be able to “interact” with the dunes. Knowing how protective the park system can be of its resources, I rather expected the ranger at the entrance to tell us to stay in our cars and keep our hands off the dunes.
Not so! Due to the resilient nature of the dunes, you’re allowed and even encouraged to play on them. In fact, the visitor’s center rents sleds, and you can climb, frolic, and play to your heart’s content.
We were eager to try out the sledding, but we ended up not being very good at it. Despite the sand being incredibly silky and slippery, we weren’t able to get up much speed down the dunes. I think we were probably just too heavy, as the kids near us seemed to be able to fly down the hills.
I did make a pretty lovely sand angel, though!
And we even left our OSL mark on the side of a shimmering gypsum sand dune!
After a couple of hours running up and down the dunes and playing in the sand, we headed back towards the campground, still marveling at the alien landscape of the dunes. If you ever get the chance to visit White Sands National Monument, do it — it’s so much fun and definitely a hands-on experience. If we go back, I’d love to try backcountry camping and check out one of the more extended hikes. And if you can plan it properly, a ranger-led full moon hike would be ah-mazing.
When we arrived back at the campground, we took a look at the map and realized that our campsite faced directly at White Sands. If we squinted, we could see the gypsum sand dunes shimmering under the sun — beckoning us west and further into New Mexico!
Campground: Oliver Lee Memorial State Park
- “Dry developed” site (easy access to plentiful water spigots)
- Cost: $10
- Pros: Flat, paved, spacious sites with covered picnic tables (quickly one of my favorite things about New Mexico state parks!). It didn’t look much as we approached the campground, but it was actually a lovely spot tucked up into the mountains with a gorgeous sunset view, plentiful desert plants, and, we could even see White Sands National Monument if we squinted! Convenient location to downtown Alamogordo. And, like all the New Mexico state parks we encountered — a terrific value.
- Cons: The worst showers we encountered on our trip. Everything was very clean, but the water was cold and emerged in a sad trickle. (#campinghack: Ryan went to Walmart, bought a basic $5 shower head, and swapped it out for the existing head. Voilà! Nicely pressurized water.)