Alkali Flat Trail
A snowfield in the middle of one of America’s hottest, driest landscapes? Not a chance: Those blindingly white drifts make up the largest gypsum dunefield in the world at 275 square miles. The national monument stretches on seemingly forever until abutting the 8,000-foot San Andres Mountains. See it on the 5-mile Alkali Flat Trail, the longest established path through the park. Follow the red markers north and west, circling the remnants of Lake Otero (buried beneath the white sand since the last Ice Age) for the whole loop. Spy the San Andres range to the west, the Sacramentos to the east, and the Tres Hermanas to the southeast, while keeping an eye out for badgers, kangaroo rats, and pocket gophers burrowing in the sand. If time allows, nab one of the 10 first-come, first-serve backcountry permits and spend the night in the dunefield (take the separate 2-mile backpacking trail, pictured): When the sun dips behind the San Andres, the light turns the sand pink and purple.
Tracks in the Sand Trail
This desert-like landscape might look barren at first glance, but hike the 1.5-mile Tracks in the Sand lollipop-loop and you’ll discover that the dunes are teeming with life (think: foxes, berry bushes, and the fastest lizard in North America). First, pass through a cluster of persimmon trees (enjoy; they fruit through October) where gray foxes scavenge. Near mile .5, pass 60-foot Jockey’s Ridge, the tallest sand dune on the Eastern Seaboard. Look for six-lined racerunner lizards darting across the dunes, and get up-close to glimpse masses of glass embedded in the sand: When lightning (common in summer here) hits the dunes, the sand melts, cooling into glass. Reach the Roanoke Sound, nestled between the Outer Banks and Roanoke Island, where herons nest year-round. In fall, see migratory swans as well as falcons passing through. Continue southeast along the coastline another .3 mile before looping back to the trailhead.
Get your heart rate up on this roller coaster of a hike and not only will you earn a bird’s-eye view over the park, but you’ll also secure one of its remotest beaches. It may seem easy on paper, but don’t let the 3.5-mile Dune Trail fool you: Scaling six dunes in a row over 2 miles makes this one of the most strenuous hikes in the Midwest, let alone the park. Begin your hike at the Dune Center and knock out the infamous 45-degree Dune Climb right away. After the 260-foot ascent, keep following the blue-tipped posts past wide views of Lake Michigan (see the lighthouse on South Manitou Island) and the park’s cottonwoods, which hit their golden prime in October. Reach the shore of Lake Michigan at mile 2, and then head .2 mile south to spy the submerged ruins of the James McBride, a 120-foot brig that shipwrecked in 1857. Retrace your steps on the return; the Dune Climb goes much faster this time around.