White Sands National Monument Is Now Our Newest National Park

At the height of the Great Depression and in the final days of his presidency, President Herbert Hoover declared a white sand desert in New Mexico as a national monument. In December 2019, Congress passed legislation and a bill was signed that elevated the park’s designation; it became our 62nd national park.

Located in the Tularosa Basin of the Chihuahuan Desert, White Sands is the world’s largest desert of shimmering white gypsum sand. At 228 square miles, it is roughly the size of Zion National Park. 

The differences between a national monument and a national park may be a little confusing. The president or Congress can establish a national monument to preserve a unique or outstanding feature of a site, for example, the white gypsum at White Sands. When Congress found that White Sands had “…a substantially more diverse set of nationally significant historical, archaeological, scientific, and natural resources than were known of at the time the monument was established, including a number of recent discoveries;”  they realized it deserved to be given the special designation as a national park. And only Congress can create a national park.

National monuments can be managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, or the National Park Service. However, only the National Park Service has the authority to manage a national park.

The story of White Sands National Park began millions of years ago when a vast sea covered the southwestern United States. The rise and fall of the sea, along with snowmelt and rain, deposited the gypsum sand in its current location. Twelve thousand years ago, as the Ice Age ended, the area dried up and became the desert we see today. 

Hunter and gatherers first arrived in the area about 10,000 years ago as they followed large prey such as mammoths. Since then, other cultures lived in the basin, building houses, farming, and making pottery. The Apache Indians arrived 700 years ago to hunt bison, followed in 1647 by Spanish salt miners, and in the 1880s by Anglo-American ranchers.

Today, visitors enjoy a variety of activities: sledding the sand dunes, photography, scenic drives, picnicking, hiking, and camping. Learn more and plan your trip by visiting the National Park Service’s White Sands National Park website.