An Overnight Odyssey in White Sands, New Mexico
Maybe the most unique place in the national parks.
There is a place in New Mexico that looks like a scene from 'Star Wars.' A place where on a cloudy day you can't tell where the sky ends and the landscape begins. A place that may look small on a map, but seems to go on forever once you climb to the top of the first sand dune. That place is New Mexico's White Sands National Monument.
Yosemite has Half Dome, Zion has Angels Landing and Big Bend has Emory Peak. But White Sands has nothing like this. You can hike for miles and miles, but unlike most parks there isn't necessarily "a trail." Instead, it's all about experiencing the majesty of the park. And that is probably the best part of this giant sand box; you get to forge your own path and go where you please.
The light and airy gypsum sand is like snow; the way it blows and forms hills and ridges very much imitates the white fluffy stuff. So, it goes without saying that bringing a sled (or buying one from the gift shop) is a must. Who needs cold weather when you can go tobogganing in shorts and a t-shirt?
If you arrive early, you can snag yourself one of the ten backcountry campsites discreetly tucked between various dunes about a mile's hike from the parking lot. You'll have to hike in with all of your gear, or pull it in on a sled like we did. But I would not recommend trying to find your site after the sun goes down. The dunes can be disorienting enough during the day, and finding the single post that marks your spot could be downright dangerous and impossible with only a headlamp.
One thing to note with White Sands is that it is part of a missile testing facility, which means periodic closure. These tests never close the park for more than a few hours, but it's still best to check the official Facebook or Twitter page to make sure they don't have one planned during your visit.