A man in a cowboy hat holds his phone and a bottle of champagne in a desert as the sun sets.
A stone monument with a plaque that notes the world's first explosion of a nuclear device.
A postcard from

White Sands

Photographer Matt McClain traveled to New Mexico for The Washington Post’s latest podcast “Field Trip,” a journey through the messy past and uncertain future of America’s national parks.

A few years ago while on assignment in New Mexico, I had a rare evening to myself. I was mulling over whether to go to Roswell, the small town made famous for its UFO lore, or White Sands, an expansive dunefield. I chose White Sands.

Tap photos for captions

I’ve always been a sucker for sand dunes.

It might all go back to my childhood watching the first Star Wars films. I was mesmerized when C-3PO and R2-D2 end up stranded on the dry, desolate planet of Tatooine.

So in October, I jumped at the opportunity to once again venture to a place that looks so otherworldly — especially for someone who grew up in the woods of Indiana.

A photograph showing an atomic bomb explosion hangs on a fence at the Trinity Site.

Two men stand outside of a chain-linked fenced area next to a small black-and-white photograph.

Visitors at the Trinity Site.

Remnants of a container used to hold the first tested atomic bomb.

Bob Bell uses equipment to test for radioactivity at the Trinity Site.

A man holds a measuring device to the ground.

A bunker that was used by photographers documenting the Trinity atomic bomb test.

Three portholes with views a field of grass and mountains in the background.

Military equipment at Missile Park.

Rockets and missiles point skyward.

Entering the park was exhilarating. As I traveled the two-lane road, I watched the landscape change and morph. At first, sage brush and other desert vegetation filled my view. Eventually, I saw nothing but white gypsum sand.

I felt I had left planet Earth and landed on some alien planet.

A family plays volleyball.

Trudging through the sand was a meditative experience. Occasionally, I would be thrust back into reality after seeing a visitor walk along the crest of a dune or slide down one of its sides using a sled or disc. I enjoyed the serendipity of finding scenes to photograph around each bend or dune — from a family volleyball game to a wedding.

The first night in the park set the tone for my entire trip. Visitors set up their lawn chairs in an outdoor amphitheater, waiting to witness a concert under a full moon. As the sun set, lights — timed with music — painted the dunes with streaks of blue and red.

White Sands offers a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking and picnicking.

A family plays volleyball.

Sam Gunn walks with a sliding disc.

A person walks to the top of a dune with a blue sliding disc.

It was a fitting sight for a surreal place that seemed disconnected from reality.

White Sands visitors wait to hear a concert.

People gather with folding chairs in a dune valley.

The next day, I learned about human and animal footprints from the ice age that are scattered throughout the park.

Marie Sauter, superintendent at White Sands National Park.

A woman wearing a uniform poses for a portrait.

The sun sets at White Sands.

A setting sun colors large clouds purple and orange.

Newlyweds Tina and Jon Strain, left center, walk in the dunes after their wedding ceremony.

A bride and groom with their wedding party walk across white sand at dusk.

With the right soil and sand conditions, these echoes from the past come alive.

Footprints from the ice age of a giant ground sloth.

Large footprints on cracked earth illuminated at night.

A petroglyph, believed to left by people referred to as Jornada Mogollon, at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site.

A petroglyph on stone.

Joey Padilla of the Mescalero Apache Cultural Center and Museum.

A man with glasses and gray hair poses for a portrait.

I saw at least one set of fossilized tracks made by a giant sloth, which once stood 8 feet tall. Its series of footprints covered a distance of about 20 to 30 feet across the desert floor.

My last day ended with a visit to the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945. Although not much remains at the site, it is foolish to underestimate the historic significance this desolate piece of land has on our collective history. The bomb forever changed how we wage war and interact with fellow nations.

It added an ironic twist to my trip — seeing evidence of life from thousands of years ago, to seeing how it can all come to an end. It brought into focus the fragility of life in such a beautiful place.

A missile is seen at a roadside stop overlooking the White Sands Missile Range.

A setting sun illuminates a missile pointing to the sky.
About this story

Text and photography by Matt McClain. Design and development by Katty Huertas, Frank Hulley-Jones and Garland Potts. Graphic by Tim Meko. Olivier Laurent and Julie Vitkovskaya were the lead editors. Additional editing by Christine Ashack, Matt Callahan, Mike Cirelli, Amanda Finnegan, Courtney Kan, Gwen Milder and Jamie Zega.

Episode 4 · White Sands National Park

Field Trip

Journey with Lillian Cunningham through the messy past and uncertain future of America’s most awe-inspiring places: the national parks.

Lillian climbs the dunes for a view of a park imprinted with ancient human history and the beginnings of the Atomic Age. In doing so, she tries to understand why America’s deserts have been both safeguarded and sacrificed.

60 min