The first exploration of the White Sands area by caucasian men was by a party of US Army officers in 1849. The Mescalero Apache were already living in the area at the time. Hispanic families started farming communities in the area at Tularosa in 1861 and at La Luz in 1863.
The idea of creating a national park here goes back at least to 1898, when a group in El Paso proposed a Mescalero National Park. Their idea was for a game hunting preserve, which conflicted with the idea of preservation held by the Department of the Interior, and their plan was not successful. In 1921-1922 Albert Bacon Fall, United States Secretary of the Interior and owner of a large ranch in Three Rivers near White Sands, promoted the idea of a national park there an "All-Year National Park" that, unlike more northerly parks, would be usable all year round. This idea ran into a number of difficulties and did not succeed. Tom Charles, an Alamogordo insurance agent and civic booster, was influenced by Fall's ideas. By emphasizing the economic benefits Charles was able to mobilize enough support to have the park created.
On 18 January, 1933, President Herbert Hoover created the White Sands National Monument, acting under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The dedication and grand opening was on April 29, 1934.
Tom Charles became the first custodian of the monument, and upon his retirement in 1939 became the first concessionaire, operating as White Sands Service Company.
The Headquarters building (also called the Visitor Center Complex) was constructed of adobe bricks as a Works Progress Administration project starting in 1936 and completed in 1938.
The Monument is completely surrounded by military installations (White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base) and has always had an uneasy relationship with the military. Errant missiles often fell on WSNM property, in some cases destroying some of the visitor areas. Overflights from Holloman disturbed the tranquility of the area.
In 1969 the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish introduced oryx into the Tularosa Basin, intending them to be hunted for sport. The oryx had no natural predators; they invaded WNSM and competed with the native species for forage.
WSNM was placed on the Tentative List of World Heritage Sites on January 22, 2008.
The state's two U.S. Senators, Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, wrote letters of support of the application. U.S. Representative Stevan Pearce declined to support the application, saying, "I would guarantee that if White Sands Monument receives this designation, that there will at some point be international pressures exerted that could stop military operations as we know them today."
The WHS application generated much controversy in Otero County, most of it taking place in meetings of the Otero County Commission. A petition with 1,200 signatures opposing the application was presented to the Commission on August 16, 2007. The Commission on August 23, 2007 passed a resolution of opposition to the application, and on October 18, 2007 passed Ordinance 07-05 that purports to make it illegal for WSNM to become a World Heritage Site. On January 24, 2008, after the Tentative List was announced, the Commission instructed the County Attorney to write a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, demanding that WSNM be taken off the list.
Gypsum is rarely found in the form of sand because it is water-soluble. Normally, rain would dissolve the gypsum and carry it to the sea. Since the Tularosa Basin has no outlet to the sea, rain that dissolves gypsum from the surrounding San Andres and Sacramento Mountains is trapped within the basin, and the rain either sinks into the ground or forms shallow pools which subsequently dry out and leave gypsum in a crystalline form, called selenite, on the surface. During the last ice age, a lake known as Lake Otero covered much of the basin. When it dried out, it left a large flat area of selenite crystals which is now the Alkali Flat. Another lake, Lake Lucero, at the southwest corner of the park, is a dry lake bed, at one of the lowest points of the basin, which occasionally fills with water.
The ground in the Alkali Flat and along Lake Lucero's shore is covered with selenite crystals which reach lengths of up to three feet (1 m). Weathering and erosion eventually breaks the crystals into sand-size grains that are carried away by the prevailing winds from the southwest, forming white dunes. The dunes constantly change shape and slowly move downwind, covering the plants in their path. Some species of plants, however, can grow rapidly enough to avoid being buried by the dunes.
From the visitor center at the entrance of the park, the Dunes Drive leads 8 miles (12 km) into the dunes. Four marked trails allow to explore the dunes by foot. During the summer, there are also Ranger-guided orientation and nature walks. The park participates in the Junior Ranger Program, with various age-group-specific activities
Unlike dunes made of quartz-based sand crystals, the gypsum does not readily convert the sun's energy into heat and thus can be walked upon safely with bare feet, even in the hottest summer months. In areas accessible by car, children frequently use the dunes for downhill sledding. Because the park lies completely within the White Sands Missile Range, both the park and U.S. Route 70 between Las Cruces, New Mexico and Alamogordo are subject to closure for safety reasons when tests are conducted on the missile range. On average, tests occur about twice a week, for a duration of one to two hours. Located on the northernmost boundaries of White Sands Missile Range, the Trinity Site can be found, where the first atom bomb was detonated.