Movies Aren't the Only Reason Why White Sands National Park Is Unlike Anywhere Else
You've probably seen White Sands National Park, even if you've never been there.
With dunes towering over 60 feet, this New Mexico park is the largest gypsum dune on Earth. The shifting sand moving to the whim of the wind and the silhouette of the San Andres Mountains enhance the feeling that this unique ecosystem belongs in another world. Or another time.
Since the 1950s, the white dunes have been featured as the backdrop for over 20 feature films, 17 TV shows and documentaries, and nine music videos. Sci-fi, Westerns and apocalyptic films particularly love the terrain, which is as beautiful as it is harsh.
To satiate your curiosity, we'll tell you about the movies filmed at White Sands National Park — but the park's Hollywood stint is not even its most exciting feature.
Was 'Star Wars' Filmed at White Sands National Park?
In 1995, the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece about White Sands (which was then a national monument). The article claims that "Star Wars" (retroactively titled "Stars Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope") had been filmed here. We're sorry to report that this was a mistake by the newspaper and that the real desert stand-in was California's Death Valley.
More than 25 years later, people still think that White Sand Dunes was featured in the iconic movie that launched one of the most famous movie franchises in history. While it wasn't Luke Skywalker's home, the park does have some very impressive movie credits to its name.
Most Famous Films Set in White Sands National Park
The first movie to bring White Sands to the big screen was "King Solomon's Mine," released in 1950.
By far the most famous films set here are "Transformers" and "Transformers II" directed by Michael Bay and starring Shia Labeouf and Megan Fox.
Denzel Washington's post-apocalyptic movie "Book of Eli" also took advantage of the vast dunes to build its dystopian world.
The Desert Was Not Harmed in the Making of This Battle Scene
There's Been Other Great Films Set Here
Unsurprisingly, the white dunes are very popular with Western films and have served as the desert for "Hang 'Em High," "Bite the Bullett" and "Young Guns."
Other films include the Jack Black and Michael Cera comedy "Year One"; the underrated dark comedy "The Men Who Stare at Goats" witht George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Ewan McGregor; and Samuel L. Jackson's "White Sands."
Musicians Also Love the Park for Their Videos
Filmmakers aren't the only ones who have realized the visual potential of the dramatic landscape of White Sands.
The desert's first music video was for the 1993 song "Under the Same Sun" by the Scorpions, where it is featured along with other landscapes. Other musicians quickly followed suit.
You'll recognize the park in Boyz II Men's "Water Runs Dry," Puff Daddy's "Best Friend," Sara Evans' "I Could Not Ask For More" and Martina McBride's "How Far."
Most recently, it can be seen in the opening scene of the mind-bending video for Lady Gaga's "911."
But despite having hosted some very famous actors and musicians, the dunes are also used for a much scarier and darker purpose.
White Sands Was the World's First Nuclear Testing Site
In the midst of World War II, superpowers like the United States and Russia were in a race to develop the first nuclear weapon. To do this, weapons had to be tested in isolated areas where no civilian could get hurt.
The U.S. military chose what is now known as White Sands Missile Range to test the first nuclear missile. Code-named Trinity, the weapon was detonated on July 16, 1945, less than two months before the historic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Testing has never stopped. According to the White Sands Missile Range website, the site "continues as the premier military test range in America," having conducted over 42,000 rocket and missile tests.
But don't let this stop you from visiting the national park. Though the protected natural area is within the larger missile range, the part that is open to the public is never used for weapons testing.
The active range is fenced in and highly secured, so there's no chance of you going in by mistake or getting close to the area with high levels of radiation.
Giant Sloths Used to Roam Here
Long before humans used this white desert to shoot extraterrestrial films or explode bombs, we used it to hunt mega-fauna.
In the National Geographic book "100 Great American Parks," author Stephanie Pearson claims that White Sands has the "largest concentration of Ice Age mega-fauna fossilized footprints in the world." The footprints in question detail an effort of over one hundred humans to hunt a "razor-clawed giant sloth about eight feet in height."
When you're enjoying the vastness of the desert but suffering as the wind violently whips you with sand, just be grateful you're not dealing with giant beasts with dangerous claws.
White Sands Continues to Have an Impressive Biodiversity
Many people think of the desert as a place void of life, but this couldn't be farther from the truth, especially at White Sands National Park.
Pearson explains that the desert is part of the "most biodiverse [desert ecosystem] in the Western Hemisphere." There are more than 20 species living in the desert, including birds, reptiles and mammals. Most are difficult to see, as they have learned to keep out of sight and make little noise.
The most elusive species, however, may be an invasive one. Because sometimes governments act as if they're in "The Simpsons," New Mexico decided to bring in African Oryx to the park in the 1960s to entice hunters, according to Pearson. Of course, the plan backfired when the species negatively affected the delicate environment.
Though they are now banned, some have survived and once in a blue moon, someone manages to catch a glimpse of the rare animal.
Certain Species Have Adapted to the Color of the Sand
Evolution is a fascinating process and can happen much quicker than we think, as evidenced by some of the species that live within the dunes and plains of this white desert.
The dunes themselves are only about 10,000 years old, forming around the same time as the Agricultural Revolution was happening. In evolutionary terms, that's not very long, but it's proven long enough for some animals to become paler than their non-desertic counterparts in order to survive.
As cute as they are fascinating, these species include the bleached earless lizard, the knit fox, the pallid bats and the apache pocket mouse. What's even more fascinating about the latter is that it can go an entire lifetime without drinking water, gathering it from the seeds it eats.
The "sand" of these dunes is unique. According to Las Cruces News, instead of being composed of silica, like most inland sand, the sand at White Sands is almost pure gypsum, which is why it has the peculiar color that has forced species to adapt.
"Gypsum is actually a clear substance; the dunes appear white like snow because the gypsum grains are constantly banging into each other. The scratches then reflect the sun’s rays making them appear white...
Also, unlike silica sand, gypsum doesn’t absorb heat from the sun. So even on the hottest day of the year, the dunes are cool and comfortable to walk on."
The Park Is Beautiful After It Rains
Getting dry feet wet is not always the most pleasant experience, but it's worth it to see the flat parts of the desert turn into reflecting lakes.
After the rain, some parts of the dunes can be flooded. When this happens, the landscape becomes even more surreal, as the line between the sky and the Earth blurs. Bring waterproof shoes and walk into the water, which is usually never deep. You'll feel as if you're in a sci-fi movie of your own.
The Las Cruces News explains that "gypsum is different from many other rocks because it is readily soluble. That means it will dissolve in water, just like sugar or salt. When rain falls on the mountains, the layers of gypsum start to dissolve, and the gypsum runs down the mountains as fast as the water can carry it...
Since the Tularosa Basin and the dunes are fully enclosed, there is no outlet to water of any kind, so the gypsum stays in the monument."
But It's at Its Best During Sunrise or Sunset
Regardless of when you visit White Sands National Park, plan to stay until sunset. Not only will you have a higher chance of seeing some fauna, but you'll also get to see the sand turn blue or pink as the colors of the sunset are reflected in its white canvas.
The "sand" of these dunes is unique. According to Las Cruces News, instead of being composed of silica, like most inland sand, the sand at White Sands is almost pure gypsum.
Primitive camping is allowed in the park. If you're up for an adventure, stay the night in the desert (just make sure that you pack some warm clothes) and rise early to see the sunrise over the dunes.