"White Sands Cottonwood Fall"
"White Sands Cottonwood Fall" (Photo: © Craig Varjabedian)

Fine art photographer Craig Varjabedian has spent his career focusing his lens on the natural wonders of New Mexico, and in his photo book, "Into The Great White Sands," he showcases the beauty of one of the country's most surreal landscapes — White Sands National Park.

When he was putting the book together, the site was still a national monument, but it had cast its spell on him long before. It received national park status in December 2019, becoming the nation's 62nd national park, and pushing the place he knows so well into the limelight.

Located near a government missile range in the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico, White Sands National Park is the site of the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Despite its desolate appearance, this snow-like desert destination has earned the nickname "Galapagos of North America" due to its wealth of thriving animal and plant life.

"If you really want an experience — getting away from everybody — this is the place to be," Varjabedian told MNN. "It's unbelievable — I remembering being out there, all by myself, and it was so quiet I could hear my heartbeat — and not because I was walking too fast."

According to the National Park Service, the story of White Sands "began 280 million years ago when the Permian Sea covered this area and gypsum settled on the sea floor. [...] Gypsum is rarely found in sand form making the 275-square-mile dunefield a one-of-a-kind natural wonder."

When it was upgraded to a national park, the site expanded by roughly 2,000 acres, separating the site from the missile range, making it more accessible and guaranteeing a certain level of funding.

"Dune at Sunset"
"Dune at Sunset" (Photo: © Craig Varjabedian)

You can really get a sense of the mysterious grandeur of these gypsum dunes in the image above, which Varjabedian made the cover of his book.

"[This image] really speaks of the massiveness and the presence that these dunes seem to have," he explained in a 2016 interview with MNN as the book was coming together. "And the fact that [the dunes] move all the time makes them much more akin to something alive than something simply static."

The project was mostly self-funded, but during the process Varjabedian turned to fellow lovers of nature and photography to help make the book's publication a reality. He raised more than $15,000 on a Kickstarter campaign, and the book was published by University of New Mexico Press in 2018, winning the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award later that year.

You can learn more about White Sands in this video, which was created when the project was getting off the ground but gives you a sense of why this kaleidoscopic place has such a hold on Varjabedian.


The photos below are just a small sampling of the photography featured.

"Yucca sunrise"
"Yucca sunrise" (Photo: © Craig Varjabedian)

If you want to see the images in person, there’s a traveling exhibit of about 50 of the photos, with new sites being added all the time. You can also buy the book on Amazon.

The news of the park's new status was exciting for Varjabedian, who spent five years putting the book together.

"Tamarisk on Dunes"
"Tamarisk on Dunes" (Photo: © Craig Varjabedian)

"The parks service was so incredibly generous in letting me tag along with the rangers. I was able to visit places the average visitor isn’t able to visit. And what I began to see was that there was still so much to be discovered."

"There's a great line park service person told me: 'We're more than a sandbox' which I thought was perfect. The greatest thing about it? It can be almost anything you want it to be," he said, rattling off news about the wealth of ancient mammoth tracks to be found there in the same breath as a newly discovered moth species.

He hopes the book and the the park's newfound status will nudge more people to explore it and add it to their bucket list.

"White Sands Picnic Tables"
"White Sands Picnic Tables" (Photo: © Craig Varjabedian)

"People like myself, I'm looking for the quiet, I'm looking at the solitude, I'm looking for the beauty," he said.

"There's just something about this place .... It's a magical, magical place."

"Sunset Plume"
"Sunset Plume" (Photo: © Craig Varjabedian)

You can follow more of Varjabedian's work on Instagram and Facebook.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in July 2016.

"Two Yuccas"
"Two Yuccas" (Photo: © Craig Varjabedian)
"Verbena and Grasses"
"Verbena and Grasses" (Photo: © Craig Varjabedian)
"Flat Dune Sunset"
"Flat Dune Sunset" (Photo: © Craig Varjabedian)

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.