Lyle E. Bennett designed these picnic shelters exclusively for White Sands National Park. Photograph by Tira Howard.
LIKE SILVERY METAL SAILBOATS skimming a sea of blanched dunes, the picnic shelters at White Sands National Park add to the sense of whimsy and exoticism inspired by the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
Designed by National Park Service architect Lyle E. Bennett, the park’s 60-plus curved aluminum shelters draw inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright, whose designs blended in with nature. A study in poetic contrasts, they look like wind-filled sails frozen in time—somehow ancient and new, fixed and fluid.
Unlike his backward-looking 1930s Pueblo Revival visitor center, Bennett’s hat tip to Wright struck a modern tone for his day. Yet the shelters’ simple curved forms have an organic feel, as if they have always been a part of the undulating landscape.
They certainly stand out to visitors, creating a one-of-a-kind aesthetic for a one-of-a-kind place, says Kelly Carroll, the park’s chief of interpretation. “It’s just such a unique design,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
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In addition, because the dunes are always shifting with the wind, the shelters can be moved as the sands encroach. “Nothing is stationary out here,” Carroll says.
The shelters blend form with function by shading visitors from the sun and providing a windbreak. Each is outfitted with a nearby charcoal grill.
Some picnickers skip the shelters altogether and find a spot near the dunes to park. They set up lawn chairs and pop-up tents adjacent to the dunes. Hats, thin long-sleeved shirts, sunscreen, and sunglasses can guard against the intense sunlight reflected upward from the dunes, especially in the warmer seasons.
For menu planning, keep it simple—an ice chest with hot dogs, hamburgers, fixings, and plenty of water and cold beverages. (Heads up: The park bans alcohol from February 1 through May 31.) Or skip the barbecuing and take your favorite cold sandwiches and chips. Staffers ask that you avoid bringing white disposable plates into the park. The reason? If plates blow away, they visually blend in with the pale dunes, making litter difficult to spot. Above all, bring what you need to clean up after yourself and your crew and #leavenotrace.