The sand beneath me glistens almost as brightly as the stars overhead as I summit another 30-foot dune and look out over the rolling, nearly treeless landscape. It's just as I've always imagined life on the moon—and while White Sands National Monument is not the final frontier, hiking here can be an otherworldly experience. White Sands' 73,600 acres of windswept gypsum dunes, surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert and, beyond, by the San Andres and Sacramento mountains, are as desolate as nuclear winter—and eerily quiet. The silence is broken only when a jet from nearby Holloman Air Force Base thunders overhead.
You could easily spend a day riding a sled—yes, sledding—down the soft hills, basking in the sun, or wandering the park's six miles of trails. But White Sands is best at night—especially during a full moon, when the reflective sand helps illuminate the landscape and midnight hikes are bright and Nikon-worthy. The cosmic ambience, coupled with a good bottle of Patrón tequila (no Tang on this trip), makes camping surreal.
For a nearly-as-fantastic encore, head 175 miles southeast to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a 100-mile-long cave network and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Guided tours into less traveled sections are offered, but I opted for the popular self-guided walk through Carlsbad's main corridor. The paved, well-lit path descended 100 vertical feet to the Big Room, one of the largest cave rooms in the world. Despite my claustrophobic tendencies, I was relaxed enough to admire the stalagmites, stalactites, and other rock formations, which seemed to evolve with every water droplet that fell sloppily from the 200-foot ceiling.
BONUS: Practice landing the space shuttle (via a high-tech simulator) at the New Mexico Museum of Space History, in Alamogordo, between White Sands and Carlsbad.
DETAILS: Camping at White Sands (505-679-2599, www.nps.gov) is $3 per person per night; register at least an hour before sunset (no advance reservations). Admission to Carlsbad Caverns (505-785-2232, www.nps.gov) is $6 per person.