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The Ultimate Guide to White Sands National Park — Best Things To Do, See & Enjoy!

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Amar Hussain
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Amar Hussain

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Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications incl...
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White Sands National Park is located in south-central New Mexico. The park is found at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert and rises from the Tularosa Basin.

This national park is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. It features incredible wave-like dunes of gypsum stretching over 275 square miles of the desert. Each year, over 780,000 tourists come to White Sands National Park to explore this phenomenal natural wonder.

How To Get to White Sands National Park

Where Is White Sands National Park?

White Sands National Park is located in south-central New Mexico between Alamogordo and Las Cruces. The park stretches over 145,762 acres in the Tularosa Basin, which lies between the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains.

Airports Nearest to White Sands National Park

Several airports are near White Sands National Park. El Paso International Airport, Roswell International Air Center, and Albuquerque International Sunport are the 3 most-used White Sands airports. Let’s take a look at what each of these airports has to offer travelers.

Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ)

Albuquerque International Sunport is 223 miles from White Sands National Park. Albuquerque serves over 5 million travelers annually and is called “The Gateway to the World.”

While this airport is the furthest from White Sands National Park, many people choose ABQ because of its wide variety of airline options and accessibility.

Albuquerque International Sunport offers nonstop flights to over 20 destinations across the U.S. and is served by 8 major carriers, including Southwest, American, United, and Delta.

El Paso International Airport (ELP)

El Paso International Airport is the closest airport to White Sands National Park, just 102 miles from the park entrance. The airport has many flights coming and going from some of the major U.S. cities daily and is served by popular airlines such as American, Frontier, Southwest, and United.

Roswell International Air Center (ROW)

Roswell International Air Center is 136 miles from White Sands National Park. The Roswell International Air Center hosts flights from Roswell to Dallas Fort Worth and Phoenix daily and is one of the largest commercial aviation industries in the southwest. This airport is served by American.

Driving to White Sands National Park

Driving to White Sands National Park
Image Credit: NPS

White Sands National Park is accessed off U.S. Highway 70, just 15 miles southwest of the city of Alamogordo. The National Park Service offers an abundance of information and maps to help travelers drive to White Sands. White Sands National Park is the perfect road trip experience for those who want to see all this park has to offer.

Taking the Train to White Sands National Park

For those who prefer to take a train and forget about driving, Amtrak’s El Paso station is the closest to White Sands National Park. The train station in El Paso is approximately 85 miles from the park. From there, you can rent a car or take a bus to the national park entrance.

Taking a Greyhound Bus to White Sands National Park

Another option for those who prefer not to drive, Greyhound Bus Lines can get travelers very close to White Sands National Park via the Greyhound station in Alamogordo.

Alamogordo is approximately 50 miles from the national park. Travelers will need to rent a car or utilize Uber or a ride share from this town to get to the park.

Getting Around White Sands National Park

Driving your personal vehicle is the only way to explore White Sands National Park other than walking and biking. There are no shuttle services that take visitors through the park.

Dunes Drive is a scenic 8-mile drive that starts at the visitor center and winds throughout the heart of White Sands. This road takes about 45 minutes to drive from start to finish. Still, you will want to spend extra time exploring the dunes, capturing stunning photos, and learning about the world’s largest gypsum dune field.

The main road leads to outdoor exhibits, hiking trails, restrooms, and picnic areas. The first 5 miles of this road are paved, and the last 3 miles are made of packed gypsum sand. This road can be used by cars, motorcycles, RVs, and buses. The National Park Service website offers printable and interactive maps for visitors when planning their itinerary.

What To See and Do in White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park comprises 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes that appear like sparkling snow drifts. This park has plenty of activities to offer the adventurers who visit this national park. Let’s look at the popular activities in this unique park.

Backcountry Camping

Backcountry Camping White Sands National Park
Image Credit: R. Burghart via NPS

Camping in White Sands National Park is a memorable opportunity that should be experienced at least once in a lifetime. Sleeping under the stars surrounded by glistening sands is a beautiful way to spend your time in the park.

There are 10 backcountry camping sites in the park that fill up quickly. These campsites are anywhere from half a mile to a mile from the trailhead parking lot. You can’t reserve campsites in advance as the sites operate on a first come, first served basis. All campsites are found in the inter-dune area between the peaks of the dunes.

When choosing to camp in the backcountry, it’s essential to be prepared for the hazards that may arise in the park. The weather changes rapidly year-round. The summer months can bring extreme heat and thunderstorms. The winter temperatures can be frigid and below freezing after sunset. Spring is typically extremely windy, which can cause whiteout conditions from the blowing sand and dust.

One final hazard that could be experienced is debris from missile tests that fall into the park. This debris is buried by sand, and it’s crucial to stay away from it and not touch it as it still may be able to detonate.

Hot Tip: GPS signals can be unreliable throughout the park, so it’s a good idea to have an alternate form of navigation, such as a map and a compass.

Bicycling

Cycling through White Sands National Park is an incredible way to experience the adventure and beauty of the park. Dunes Drive allows cyclists access to the 8-mile scenic drive through the park.

The gypsum sand is packed, so cycling is easier than you might think. Keep in mind that Dunes Drive is only partially paved, so some of that journey will be on packed sand. For this unique terrain, a mountain bike or cruiser bike with wide tires is recommended.

Dunes Drive

Driving Dunes Drive
Image Credit: NPS

Dunes Drive is a scenic 8-mile drive that takes visitors through White Sands National Park. This road offers multiple places to stop to take photos, learn about the natural and cultural history of the park, picnic, and hike.

The first 5 miles of this drive are on paved roads, but the final 3 miles are on packed gypsum sand. The route can accommodate cars, motorcycles, bicycles, buses, and recreational vehicles. The entire drive can be completed in about 45 minutes, but you will want to plan for plenty of stops to discover what White Sands has to offer.

Hiking

Hiking at White Sands National Park through the gypsum tails is one of the park’s most popular activities. The park has 5 designated trails, but visitors are welcome to make their own paths through the dunes. Safety is always a number one priority, so if you choose to forge your own path, be sure to be prepared with a form of navigation, plenty of water, and anything else you may need for a safe excursion.

Alkali Flat Trail

The Alkali Flat Trail is the most challenging hike at White Sands National Park. This trail is 5 miles round trip and takes adventurers up and down steep dunes the entire way. When hiking this trail, you can expect strong winds that completely erase footprints. Be prepared with navigation tools should you lose your way.

Backcountry Camping Trail

The Backcountry Camping Trail is 2 miles round trip that takes hikers over many steep dunes. While this trail is a moderate hike, it leads to stunning views of the dunes and vegetation in the park.

This trail also leads to the backcountry campsites for those who want to set up camp. If you aren’t planning to camp here, head out before sunset, as visibility becomes quite difficult. This trail is only for foot travel, so no bike, horse, or other vehicle is permitted.

Dune Life Nature Trail

Dune Life Nature Trail is a moderate hike that winds a mile roundtrip through the dunes. This hike requires climbing 2 steep dunes and walking on soft sand. This trail is perfect for those who want to learn about and see the plant and animal life in the park. Visitors can spot the resident kit foxes, birds, coyotes, badgers, rodents, and reptiles.

Interdune Boardwalk

Interdune Boardwalk
Image Credit: NPS

Interdune Boardwalk is less than a half-mile round trip and is considered an easy hike. This trail is an elevated boardwalk that is fully accessible for strollers, wheelchairs, and any other wheeled device.

The boardwalk trail provides incredible views of the dunefield and the Sacramento Mountains and 10 outdoor exhibits that teach about the wildlife, weather, and geologic conditions that created the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.

Playa Trail

Playa Trail is a short, family-friendly trail that takes about 30 minutes from start to finish. The path has 5 interpretive panels along the way that teach about the ever-changing landscape of the playa. An Ice Age scene at the end of the trail displays the ancient giants that once roamed the area.

Horseback Riding

White Sands National Park welcomes guests with horses. Riding horses through the park is a unique way to experience the incredible landscape and scenery of the park. Visitors may bring their own horses or use one of the private services near the park to book a horseback excursion for the day.

Bottom Line: Riding through the dunes provides guests with a memorable experience that will last a lifetime.

Photography

White Sands National Park is a dream location for photographers. The glistening white dunes, plant life, and the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains in the background make this park an incredible subject for photographs.

Setting up your camera at sunset provides spectacular shots of the white dunes. Venturing out to the Backcountry Camping Trail or the Alkali Flat Trail is a fantastic way to photograph undisturbed dunes in their full glory.

Capturing the sands and scenery of White Sands National Park makes for incredibly artistic shots that can only be provided by nature.

Hot Tip: Check out these tips for photography at White Sands National Park from the NPS.

Sand Sledding

Sledding White Sands National Park
Image Credit: NPS

Sand sledding at White Sands National Park is an exciting way to spend a day. The gypsum dunes are as soft as snow and perfect for sledding. Visitors can bring their own plastic snow saucers or purchase a new one at the visitor center. Visitors of all ages can create lifetime memories by enjoying hours of fun on the slopes.

White Sands Visitor Center

The White Sands Visitor Center features a museum with many exhibits, an informative park film, and a gift shop. Guests can shop for souvenirs, sleds, snacks, and water while learning about the natural and cultural history of the park.

Park rangers can answer questions and offer tips and advice for your park visit. The visitor center is open 364 days a year and only closes on Christmas Day.

Annual Events at White Sands National Park

Several events are held throughout the year at White Sands National Park. From bike rides to marches and lake tours to craft events, there’s never a shortage of things to do at White Sands. Let’s explore several popular events that happen at White Sands each year.

Full Moon Bike Ride

The Full Moon Bike Ride happens twice a year, in April and October. This event is a wonderful time for friends and family to take an after-hours bike tour down Dunes Drive under the stunning night sky. Experiencing the park in this tranquil way is sure to make memories of a lifetime.

Bataan Memorial Death March

The Bataan Memorial Death March occurs each year in March to honor the World War 2 veterans who defended the Phillippine Islands. This march is held at the White Sands Missile Range. It is a challenging and honorable trek where those participating can choose between a 26.2- or 15.2-mile route.

Trinity Site Tour

The Trinity Site Tour happens on the first Saturdays in April and October each year. This site is where the world’s first atomic bomb was tested in July of 1945. This free event allows visitors to take a quarter-mile walk to ground zero, where the bomb was detonated, and they can view the markings on the ground. Historical photos are mounted on the fence surrounding the area so visitors can learn and see more about this historical event and site.

White Sands Balloon Festival

White Sands Balloon Festival
Image Credit: White Sands Balloon Festival

The White Sands Balloon Festival is held each year on the third weekend in September. This annual event features vibrant hot air balloons and live music above the glistening white sands. This event is anticipated by locals and visitors each year.

The Best Times To Visit White Sands National Park

Visiting White Sands National Park is always an incredible experience, no matter when you go. Some times are better than others, depending on the activities you are hoping to participate in. Take a look at some of the best times to visit White Sands National Park.

The Best Time To Visit White Sands National Park for Hiking

March is the best time for hiking in White Sands National Park. While the weather in this area is warm year-round, the sand can be scorching in the summer. With minimal shade available, it can make for a miserable and sometimes dangerous experience.

The temperatures in March are typically in the low 70s during the day, and there is very little rainfall. This combination of cooler temperatures and little rainfall makes the perfect time for hiking and exploring the sand dunes of White Sands National Park.

The Best Time To Visit White Sands National Park To Avoid the Crowds

Typically, the park is pretty crowded, so January is the perfect time to plan a visit if you desire a solitary experience. Fewer crowds mean you can follow your own pace and enjoy traffic-free drives down the scenic road and uninterrupted views of the gorgeous landscape.

The Best Time To Visit White Sands National Park for Camping

Backcountry camping in White Sands National Park is an incredible experience no matter when you go. The best time for camping in this national park is in June. Tent camping is the only type permitted in the park, so the weather is always a concern. June has warmer nights, usually around 65 degrees, which is perfect for snuggling up under the stars.

The Cheapest Time To Visit White Sands National Park

January is the cheapest month of the year to visit White Sands National Park. Prices for accommodations drop up to 30% at this time of year. Along with lower prices, you’re likely to experience lower crowds in January. Saving money and a less crowded experience make for a terrific national park trip.

Where To Stay in White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park has no lodges or hotels on park property. The only option for lodging in the park is camping at one of the backcountry camping sites.

RV and car camping are not permitted. The only campsites available in the park are on the Backcountry Camping Loop. These sites require a permit but are not reservable.

Towns Near White Sands National Park

If you can’t or don’t want to stay at a backcountry campsite in the park, the best option is to stay at one of the nearby towns. The closest cities to White Sands National Park are Alamogordo and Las Cruces. Let’s take a look at what these gateway cities can offer visitors.

Alamogordo

Alamogordo is less than 20 miles from White Sands National Park and is the most convenient lodging option. This small city has plenty of accommodations and dining options for those looking for a home base during their trip.

On top of superb accommodations and dining, Alamogordo also has several attractions to offer, including the White Sands Missile Range Museum and the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Let’s explore some of the recommended places to stay in Alamogordo.

The Holiday Inn Express & Suites Alamogordo offers close proximity to White Sands National Park and fantastic amenities. This hotel features an indoor swimming pool and hot tub, which is incredibly relaxing after a day of trekking through the park. Holiday Inn Express & Suites Alamogordo is an excellent choice for those visiting the park.

Hampton Inn Alamogordo is a popular choice for visitors to White Sands National Park due to its proximity to the park and nearby attractions and superior services and amenities. This hotel provides pet-friendly rooms, a spectacular swimming area, a fitness area, and complimentary hot breakfasts each day during your stay.

Staying at White Sands Motel is like stepping back in time. This classic motel is only 12 miles from the park and has all the amenities for a peaceful, quiet stay. Not only does this motel provide a retro atmosphere, but it also offers a complimentary continental breakfast each day.

Las Cruces

Las Cruces is 50 miles from White Sands National Park. While this option is further from the park than other towns, it is perfect for those wanting to set up a home base in a larger city. Las Cruces is an incredible city located in the Chihuahuan Desert. This city is rich in culture and history.

It features several attractions, a vast array of accommodations, and plenty of restaurants that appeal to every palate. Let’s take a look at some of the top accommodations in Las Cruces.

Hacienda de Mesilla is one of the Southwest’s premier boutique inns and features traditional rooms that provide supreme comfort and an authentic southwestern experience. Guests can choose from a variety of different suites, each offering a unique atmosphere. This hotel has many amenities, including a pool area, verandas, and an on-site restaurant.

Lundeen Inn of the Arts is a 100-year-old restored Mexican territorial inn and makes the list of Top 20 Inns in America. This facility is a beautiful mixture of Old World charm and Western hospitality. Lundeen Inn features one of the Southwest’s largest fine arts galleries. It is a perfect option for families, couples, or individuals who enjoy being immersed in art, culture, and beauty.

Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces is a New Mexico hotel that embodies Spanish and Mexican Colonial traditions. This hotel is located near a host of attractions, including the Organ Mountains and La Mesilla Historic District. Amenities at Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces include a spectacular outdoor swimming pool, fantastic verandas with stunning views, and 2 on-site restaurants offering an exquisite menu featuring dishes from around the world.

Where To Eat in White Sands National Park

No matter what you are craving, you can find exactly what you want in one of the towns near White Sands National Park. There are incredible restaurants near the park that are favorites of those traveling to and staying near White Sands. Other than picnicking and the gift shop offering quick bites and drinks, White Sands National Park has no other dining options.

Picnic Areas

Picnicking in White Sands National Park is a great way to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the park while resting up for the next part of your day.

There are 3 picnic areas in the park: Yucca, Roadrunner, and Primrose, all named after the park’s iconic plant and animal species. The picnic areas are located on Dunes Drive, approximately 6 to 7 miles from the fee station.

There are 62 shaded tables in the picnic areas available on a first come, first served basis. The park adopts the “Leave No Trace” motto and requires everyone to clean up after themselves and completely dispose of all trash and materials in the designated dumpster and recycling areas.

Hot Tip: Leaving no trace of food or trash helps to keep the park in excellent condition and respects the plants and animals who make their home in the park.

D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro

Lescombes Winery Bistro
Image Credit: D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro

D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro in Alamogordo is a family-operated restaurant that is a favorite of many who visit the White Sands area. This restaurant features incredible appetizers and entrees that pair beautifully with wines grown, produced, and bottled by the Lescombes family.

The restaurant also has live music on a regular schedule for guests to enjoy. There are locations in Alamogordo and Las Cruces, which are 2 of the most popular gateway towns to White Sands National Park.

Bottom Line: Lescombes Winery & Bistro is a fantastic choice for those wanting to experience a lovely evening out with delicious food and drink.

Fatwood Barbeque

Fatwood Barbeque is located in Alamogordo and serves top-quality smoked meats, handcrafted sandwiches, and homemade sides. The pulled pork sandwiches and brisket are customer favorites that keep guests coming back for more. Fatwood uses all-natural ingredients and fresh meat smoked daily on-site, providing guests with the ultimate dining experience and the best food imaginable.

Fatwood Barbeque caters to parties with as few as 6 guests, so if you are traveling to White Sands National Park with a small or large group, consider having one of your meals catered by this phenomenal restaurant.

Our Country Kitchen

Our Country Kitchen is located in Alamogordo, 7 miles from White Sands National Park. This old-time diner offers hundreds of traditional, home-cooked favorite American dishes and dishes with a Tex-Mex flare. Favorite menu items include biscuits and gravy, country fried chicken, and its infamous cinnamon rolls, lovingly nicknamed “sin” rolls.

Rizo’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant

Rizo’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant is the perfect choice for those who love Tex-Mex. Its freshly made tortilla chips, an assortment of salsas, and authentic fare impress food connoisseurs from all around. Rizo’s is located in Alamogordo, just 7.5 miles from White Sands National Park.

Y’alls Steakhouse

Y’alls Steakhouse is 6 miles from White Sands National Park. This is a great place to fill up on delicious steak and traditional sides. Top sirloin, bacon-wrapped center cut, fried zucchini, and mashed potato are some of the most popular dishes at Y’alls.

Waffle & Pancake Shoppe

A vacation isn’t complete without a trip to a local pancake house, and Waffle & Pancake Shoppe is the perfect place to fill up before a day of exploring the park. This restaurant is located in Alamogordo, just 6 miles from White Sands National Park.

Not only does Waffle & Pancake shop offer a great breakfast menu, but it also serves terrific dishes for lunch and dinner. Customer favorites include the famous waffles and breakfast burritos.

White Sands National Park Facts

White Sands National Park Facts
Image Credit: Raychel Sanner via Unsplash

1. It’s a New National Park

White Sands National Park was originally a national monument established in 1933. In 2019, the monument was redesignated as a national park. White Sands is one of the newest national parks in America and is the country’s 62nd national park.

2. It Features Extraordinary Sand

White Sands National Park’s sand is not made of silica, like most inland sand. The sand found in this park is almost pure gypsum. Gypsum is different from other rocks because it can dissolve in water rapidly. When it rains in the park, the gypsum will dissolve and run off the mountains as quickly as the water does. Since the Tularosa Basin and dunes aren’t near any water outlets, the gypsum stays in the park.

3. White Sands Is World Famous

White Sands National Park is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. This also includes gypsum hearth mounds that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The world’s most extensive collection of ice age fossilized footprints is also displayed in White Sands National Park.

4. White Sands Features African Oryx Galore

White Sands National Park is home to 93 African Oryx. This antelope species was introduced to the park from the Kalahari Desert. They were set free to roam between 1969 and 1977. Today, there are over 3,000 of these majestic animals. They weigh about 450 pounds and have incredible horns around 34 inches long.

5. There’s an Active Missile Range

White Sands National Park sits on White Sands Missile Range, one of the largest military bases in the U.S. The U.S. government uses the White Sands area as a missile testing site. Park visitors will notice several warnings advising them not to touch any strange objects, which can be explosive and dangerous.

6. White Sands Has Celebrity Status

White Dunes National Park has been featured in over 40 movies and documentaries, music videos, and TV commercials. The impressive site is famous for science fiction, western, and apocalyptic films.

7. The Park Contains Adaptive Animals

Several species of insects, moths, lizards, and mice can only be seen in White Sands National Park. Thousands of years ago, these animals adapted to the White Sands environment and changed their body coloring to white.

8. The Park Has Ancient Footprints

White Sands National Park is home to the oldest fossilized footprint. It is believed to be from 21,000 to 23,000 years old.

9. There Are Tall Dunes

The tallest sand dunes in White Sands National Park are 60 feet tall. These massive mounds can be found in many areas of the park, especially on the Alkali Flat Trail.

10. The Sand Is Clear

Even though the park is called White Sands, the sand is actually a transparent substance. To the human eye, gypsum appears white. The sun refracts the gypsum crystals, and the color white is what is perceived.

11. It’s the Most Visited National Park in New Mexico

White Sands National Park holds the record for the most-visited park in the state, with over 780,000 visitors annually. From hiking to sledding and driving the scenic Dunes Drive, there is much to explore and plenty of adventure for guests to enjoy in the park.

Final Thoughts

White Sands National Park has miles of white gypsum dunes to explore and marvel at. When visiting this park, it seems like you are in a different world filled with sparkling, crystalized beauty.

White Sands National Park is a newly established national park that brings in over 780,000 tourists annually. This mesmerizing park is brimming with opportunities to explore, hike, and discover one of the treasures of the U.S.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many days should I plan to stay at White Sands National Park?

Spending a full day at White Sands National Park will offer plenty of time to explore the park, hike the trails, sled down the sandy slopes, and learn about the natural and cultural history of the park. An entry pass is good for 7 days. Most visitors say that 2 to 3 hours is ample time for exploring the park, but you might need a full day if you’re hiking the trails.

What is the weather like in White Sands National Park?

The weather in White Sands National Park varies throughout the year. It’s wise to check the National Park Service website and local weather before heading out for a day of exploring the park.

  • June through August have daytime temperatures averaging 95° and reaching as high as 110°. Evenings are cooler in the 50° to 65° range.
  • Early July until late September is the rainy season in the park. These months bring the majority of the annual precipitation. Thunderstorms are common in the late afternoons and evenings.
  • September through November have temperatures averaging in the 80s. September through November have typically sunny days with light winds.
  • December through February have daily temperatures that average 60°. Occasionally winter storms will bring rain and snow to the park during these months.
  • March through May bring average daily temperatures of 75°. The winds are very high at this time and can reach up to 50 mph. Visitors can expect sunny days with intense wind storms during these months.

What fees should I expect when visiting White Sands National Park?

Guests can expect an entry fee when visiting White Sands National Park. Individuals entering the park will pay a $15 fee per person. A $25 fee per vehicle is collected at the park entrance. A $20 fee will be collected for those visiting on a motorcycle. Other passes are available such as the America the Beautiful annual pass and the White Sands National Park annual pass.

Are pets permitted in White Sands National Park?

Pets are always welcome at White Sands National Park. The park asks that you keep your pet on a leash that is no longer than 6 feet, that they stay with you at all times, and that they are not disruptive to the guests and wildlife of the park. Pet owners must pick up after their pets to ensure that the park stays in pristine condition.

White Sands National Park has 2 designated pet walking stations, including potty pick-up bags. These areas are located outside the visitor center and near the picnic tables.

With the weather conditions, especially in the summer, pets can quickly become dehydrated. Please be sure to bring plenty of water for your pets to stay healthy. Pets are not permitted in any buildings on the park’s property.

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About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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