By the Light of the Strawberry Moon: Sandshoeing New Mexico’s White Sands National Park

Yes! Yes, to Snowshoe Magazine’s Sandshoe 5K Challenge! And we know the perfect place: White Sands National Park in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Like all our national parks, White Sands is worth the trip. Located along US-70, this extraordinary park was the deal breaker for our decision on where to retire. Happily, we live 13 miles away and visit as often as possible. From November through March, we can sandshoe White Sands National Park (WSNP) on Saturday then snowshoe the Osha trail, located 45 minutes up-mountain from Cloudcroft, on Sunday.

sandshoeing in White Sands National Park

The authors, while on their first sandshoe adventure in WSNP. Photo: Darrel Heller

But first things first, let’s look at the challenge, which began July 1st, 2021. Our suggested distance is 5k, and our surface sand is actually gypsum. Over 5kms, we have some soft, packed sand, never any water but several high and mighty dunes. We amped up our workouts for this challenge and sandshoed, starting with a 1-mile trip and then gradually adding miles to this fun new sport.

As suggested by Snowshoe Magazine, we captured our experiences in three ways: my husband Darrel took lots of pictures, and I talked about what we were seeing, doing, and experiencing into a voice recorder on my phone. I use Samsung Voice Recorder, a free app. Just type voice recorder into your app store and choose what’s best for you.

dunes with hikers in distance under clouds and sun

Gorgeous, steep dunes are on the Backcountry Camping trail. Photo: Darrel Heller

White Sands Sandshoe Trail Overview

My husband Darrel and I are avid hikers and well acquainted with the Alkali Flats Trail, a singularly unique, dunes galore, five-miler at White Sands. We make an effort to hike this trail on the night of the full moon at least six times per year, May through October. We encourage everyone to try out this trail or one of several others when the moon is full.

The Playa trail, an easy 0.5-mile loop, includes outdoor exhibits and diagrams that showcase what the area looked like 10,000 years ago, including the gigantic animals that once roamed here.

Interdune Boardwalk is a 0.4-mile trail that is wheelchair accessible. The 10 exhibits along the way tell of the tenacity of wildlife living in this harsh environment now.

Dune Life Nature Trail, 1mile, and Backcountry Camping Trail, 2 miles, both include steep dunes along the way.

First-time visitors to WSNP are advised to consult with rangers at the visitor center before heading out as conditions are wildly different than other hiking situations. However, those who do will be rewarded with a thoroughly enchanting New Mexico true experience.

Read More: Cloudcroft, New Mexico: Snowshoe Gem of the Southwest

Darrel & Baron are taking a break on the Dune Life Nature Trail. Photo: Darrel Heller

Our Incomparable Full Moon

2021 brings us a full moon on May 26, The Flower Moon, June 24th, the Strawberry Moon, July 23, the Bucks Moon, August 22, the Sturgeon Moon, September 20, the Harvest Moon, and October 20, the Hunters Moon.

These full moons are so named by ancient cultures the world over, based on the behavior of crops and plants, wildlife and weather during that month. Colonial Americans likely adopted the names above from their Native American names. For instance, Strawberry Moon comes from the Algonquin reference to a short harvesting season when strawberries produce. Likewise, the September Moon, Harvest, refers to the last full moon before seasons change, a time for final harvesting of crops.

We get going on the Alkali trail early, before sunset, which heightens the beauty and drama of our outing. In this way, we’re treated to an awesome view of the sun as it slowly sinks behind the San Andreas Mountains, igniting the sky.  A flaming sunset blazes across the mountaintops, resting in a final glow upon the dunes.

moon rising over sand at White Sands National Park

Witness the moonrise at White Sands National Park is truly magical. Photo: Darrel Heller

We’re careful not to step off the trail as our dunes are not sand but a rare form of crystallized gypsum that dates back about 250 million years ago to an ancient shallow sea. This gypsum is rare because it would normally have dissolved and washed down to the ocean. But here in the Chihuahuan desert, our dune field is in a basin, which traps the mineral as water evaporates, leaving sparkling gypsum blocks and spikes of crystal.

Wind and weather break these crystals down, creating the largest gypsum dune field in the world, a glittering 275 square miles of purest white “sand,” quite literally like no other place on earth. Visible from outer space, NASA’s Earth Observing 1 satellite photographed this gigantic dune field (WSNP encompasses 46%). View these pictures, and explore the history and geography of this otherworldly place at NASA’s Visible Earth.

Read More: Try Your Snowshoes on Sand and Go Sandshoeing

sand trail with hikers at sunset in WSNP

The Alkali Flats trail is one of the most popular and perfect for a full moon hike. Photo: Darrel Heller

Sights near White Sands National Park

After sandshoeing or snowshoeing in White Sands National Park, feel free to check out the beautiful sights around the area.

Mesilla

There are plenty of accommodation and eatery options in Alamogordo itself and beautiful trails, parks, and the best climate. However, for this adventure, we’d recommend Mesilla, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, as your resting point.

You’ll step into another time and place in Mesilla, which is about an hour southwest of White Sands. The area was once a part of Mexico and still retains its charm, color, and culture. Mesilla Plaza, a National Historic Landmark, is much the same as 100 years ago when its resident buildings were designed to protect its people from frequent attacks.

These authentic adobe structures now house art galleries, restaurants, museums, and shopping opportunities. Allow one hour to step inside the historic Basilica San Albino Catholic Church, built in Mexico in 1852, before this territory was transferred to the US. The Basilica is one of the oldest churches in the region and still offers services.

Within minutes of the plaza, you can also visit vineyards and pecan orchards. Our favorite is Heart of the Desert Pistachios and Wines. We like Double Eagle Restaurant on the plaza, (575) 523-6700), an ornately decorated, antique rich old hacienda. If you enjoy an alcoholic beverage, do not skip the margaritas here!

Also, shop at New Mexico Vintage Market before quitting the day. Accommodations abound in Mesilla and Las Cruces, but we like to “stay in this moment back in time.” So, for that reason, we’d recommend Hacienda de Mesilla, (575) 525-4300, or Josefine’s Old Gate, (575) 888-4791, both most charming.

yellow flowers blooming in mountains under blue sky

The scenic drive features super bloom poppies along San Augustin Pass, through the Organ Mountains. Photo: Darrel Heller

Scenic Drive

On your drive from White Sands National Park to Mesilla, US-70 offers a beautiful scenic drive. On the way, you’ll pass White Sands Missile Range, a military testing area operated by the U.S Army. In fact, we’ve seen Oryx grazing on the range during our drive.

You’ll continue this best-looking approach across the Organ Mountains, through San Augustin Pass, and into Las Cruces. The Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument also offers an excellent reason to plan an extra day of hiking in the area.

Trinity Site

On July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated 60 miles north of White Sands National Park. As they say, “The rest is history.”

The detonation’s cloud rose 38,000 feet into the air, forming a crater one-half mile wide by eight feet deep. Its intense heat turned the sand into a green glass-like substance we’ve come to name trinitite, ground zero – Trinity Site. A monument was erected in 1965 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1975. For information and tours, call Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce, 1 (800) 826-0294.

We found a whole new outdoor “keeper” of a sport and another reason to visit White Sands National Monument. Hope to see you there!

orange sunset behind White Sands National Park in NM

You don’t want to miss the sunset views at WSNP while sandshoeing. Photo: Darrel Heller

What about you? Have you been sandshoeing or snowshoeing near White Sands National Park? Please share your insights in the comments below.

Read Next: Snowshoe New Mexico: Where to Go in the Land of Enchantment

About the author

Lynda and Darrel Heller

Lynda and Darrel took up snowshoeing a few years ago while vacationing in CO. They are retired in Alamogordo NM and snowshoe many winter days "up-mountain" in Cloudcroft, NM. Lynda's stories have been published in Grit, Country, Country Woman, and several birding magazines, while Darrel enjoys photography of the natural world. They focus on outdoor activities and the natural beauty and diverse wildlife they encounter in their travels.

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