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A Night Under the Stars at White Sands National Monument

By: Sara Sheehy + Save to a List

The white sand shifts underfoot as I make my way up and over a rolling dune, following a camping marker buried in the ground. I’m on my way to backcountry campsite seven in White Sands National Monument, one mile of sandy hiking from the parking area.

These dunes deceive; they aren’t sand at all, but tiny flakes of white gypsum created over thousands of years on this once oceanic landscape. I forgive the naming error, “White Gypsum National Monument” doesn’t have the same ring. It’s an hour from sunset, and I’m determined to be sitting atop a dune, camera in hand, when the sun slips over the horizon. I quicken my pace.

The ten backcountry sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis from the White Sands National Monument Visitor Center. For a modest $3, the otherworldly landscape of brilliant white dunes becomes my backyard for the night. Dogs are allowed on leash, a rare luxury in a park like this. I’ve brought mine, and he engages his four paw drive as we push up the final dune to our campsite.

I quickly set up my tent next to the marker for site seven and unload my backpack. There’s no fear of bears here, but the local kit foxes can make a mess of unsecured food. The light begins to change, softening from it’s harsh daytime reflection off the sand. I grab my camera and climb the nearest dune.

Despite baking all day in the sun, the sand underfoot is delightfully cool. I watch other campers line up to my north, settling in for the best show of the day. A few carry large plastic saucers that they use to sled down the dunes (available for $15 from the visitor center, and can be sold back for $5).

The shadows deepen around me as the dunes turn from bright white, to beige, to tints of pink, purple, and blue. The view in every direction brings something new: riders in the distance on big, rough coated horses, wispy clouds illuminated bright gold, and an endemic Bleached Earless lizard skittering past my toes.

The temperature drops quickly, forcing me back to my site as the last light seeps from the sky. I settle into my sleeping bag for warmth as the Milky Way streaks across the sky. There is little light pollution in this remote corner of southern New Mexico, and the stars shine clear and bright through the mesh of my tent.

With an alarm set for a half hour before sunrise, I fall into a deep, quiet sleep.

I have sunrise almost to myself; only one other camper has left her tent at this early hour. Dark blue shadows create lines across the dunes, throwing the wind-crafted ripples into sharp relief. As the sun crests the horizon I pack up and make my way back to the parking lot. A coyote lopes through the vegetated valley between two dunes, scooping up lizards for breakfast.

The entrance gate has opened by the time I arrive (it closes between sunset and sunrise each night) and it’s time for me to seek my own breakfast in Las Cruces, 45 minutes west. I’m left with the memory of a perfect night on the dunes, and thousands of tiny gypsum flakes sifting out of my gear for weeks to come.

How to Get There: The White Sands National Monument Visitor Center is 50 miles east of Las Cruces on Highway 70. The Visitor Center has information, a gift shop, bathrooms, and potable water.

Fees: $6 per car entry fee, plus $3 per person to tent camp at one of the ten backcountry sites. Camping is first-come, first-served. Register for a campsite at the Visitor Center.

What To Pack: In addition to a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad, you’ll need to pack in food, water, and toiletries. Pack out all trash, including toilet paper and pet waste.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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