In Dec. 2019, the world's largest gypsum dune field got an upgrade: White Sands National Park, once a national monument, became the U.S.'s newest national park. The park, located in southwestern New Mexico, protects the southern portion of a 275-square-mile dune field in the Tularosa Basin—a field so massive and striking that it's visible from space.
It’s a surreal landscape like nothing else on Earth, where shimmering white gypsum crystals, once awash in a pre-historic sea, created mountain-sized dunes. Fittingly, periodic missile testing from nearby White Sands Missile Range provides a thunderous soundtrack.
History and Background
Long before people were sledding on the dunes or Michael Bay was filming Transformers here, the region that’s now home to White Sands was a lot wetter. The gypsum crystals first took shape millions of years ago during Pangea, when the Tularosa Basin was covered by a shallow sea that ebbed and flowed, leaving behind thicker and thicker layers of mineral gypsum in its wake. Between 70 million and 30 million years ago, when Earth’s tectonic plates were shifting, colliding, and pulling apart, mountains were formed as well as basins, including the Tularosa Basin nestled between the Sacramento Mountains and the San Andres Mountains.
After the Rio Grande River carved its way through the area, it eventually cut off the basin’s connection to the sea, leaving behind pools of water, like Lake Otero. This lake started to evaporate after the last Ice Age 40,000 to 12,000 years ago when warmer temperatures deposited dissolved gypsum into the basin via rain and snowmelt off nearby mountains. This was when sun and wind took over, drying the area into the Chihuahuan Desert as gusts broke the gypsum into smaller grains and scattered them throughout the basin into rolling wave-like dunes.
It’s a wind-swept process that still occurs, and White Sands continues to shift and grow. Today, the national park contains dunes as deep as 60 feet, with about 4.1 billion metric tons of gypsum sand filling this vast sea of sand.
How to Get There
White Sands National Park is located in southwestern New Mexico, about 16 miles southwest of the small city of Alamogordo, and 52 miles northeast of the larger city of Las Cruces, both of which offer ample lodging options. Larger cities are also easily accessible if you have the time, with El Paso about 96 miles directly south of the park, and Albuquerque 225 miles north.
Whether you’re in an RV or a car, it’s an accessible park to visit and navigate, thanks to its straightforward layout. The only way in and out of the park is via I-70 and Dunes Drive, which takes you to the visitor center and past the park entrance (there’s a fee of $25 per vehicle) into the heart of the park on a long loop road.
Keep in mind that the park occasionally closes for a few hours at a time due to missile testing at White Sands Missile Range in the northern portion of the dune field. While the visitor center and gift shop are open regardless of road closures, there are no activities available during missile tests, including hiking, sledding, or driving. Visit White Sands’ main website for up-to-date information on closures, or call the visitor center before arriving.
What to Expect
As you drive along I-70, the desert landscape belies the fact that there are massive white dunes just around the bend. Once you turn onto Dunes Drive, the visitor center features a large sign for the park, and the complex itself has plenty to do and see. The building is an illustrious example of historic Spanish pueblo adobe architecture, first constructed in the 1930s. Head inside to stock up on visitor guides, maps, snacks, and trinkets. You’ll also want to make sure you have more than enough water and sunscreen, since the landscape here is exposed to the sun and temperatures regularly reach 100 degrees F. For these reasons, the best times of day to visit are morning and evening, to mitigate the heat. The gift shop is also where to purchase sand sleds unless you’ve brought your own. They go for $18 new, or $10 used if they have any on-hand. Once you’re done for the day, you can return your sleds and get $5 back.
Heading into the park via Dunes Drive, the terrain seems to change abruptly from the arid Chihuahuan Desert to shimmering-white dunes as far as the eye can see, with distant mountains anchoring both sides. Initially, the dunes are interspersed with patches of tall grasses, but after a few miles in, the landscape becomes nothing but pristine sand, with camping areas and trails well marked on signage. The fact that the park features one singular road makes this one of the most accessible national parks to explore, regardless of whether or not your GPS is working.
Activities and Things to See
A sprawling expanse of white sand may sound pretty straightforward at first, but there’s a ton to see and do here at White Sands. Hiking, horseback riding, scenic drives, biking, sunset strolls, garden tours, and of course, sand sledding, are all popular outings.
Even if you’ve just got enough time to pass through the park, a loop around Dunes Drive in your car offers breathtaking vistas. Driving through terrain like this feels like driving through another planet, and it’s exceptionally beautiful if you can time your drive for sunset.
If you have more time to explore, hiking is the best way to immerse yourself in White Sands. There are five designated trails here, and each one is marked via frequent trail signs, which are essential fixtures to keep an eye on, considering how easy it would be to get aimlessly lost otherwise. Trails range from short and easy, like the wheelchair-accessible Interdune Boardwalk, to the 5-mile Alkali Flat Trail, which weaves around the dried remains of Lake Otero and up and down a series of steep dunes. No matter the duration or difficulty, hiking through sand can be strenuous—not to mention physically uncomfortable when your shoes fill with gypsum crystals. Hiking boots with ankle cover are good options here, or clip-on shoe covers that wrap around the ankle to keep out sand, dirt, and mud. Another interesting trail is the Dune Life Nature Trail closer to the park entrance. It’s a one-mile loop with signage explaining all about wildlife in the park, including badgers, roadrunners, snakes, and kit foxes.
Another star attraction here is sand sledding, and visitors can give it a whirl anywhere in the park, but there are a few factors to keep in mind. Unlike snow, sand is not naturally slippery, so it’s advised to wax sleds before hitting the dunes (wax is also available for purchase at the visitor center gift shop). Also, look for dunes that are tall and gently sloping, with an even run-off at the base so that you don’t crash into anything or slam into the ground. Avoid roadway-adjacent dunes or vegetation.
For a more informative experience, the park offers numerous ranger programs that shed a little more light on the dunes’ wilderness and terrain. One-hour sunset strolls are the most popular, offered every night of the year except Christmas. Full moon hikes are offered April through October on the night before a full moon, while the park hosts “Full Moon Nights” on the night of, with live music and artist presentations.
Where to Stay Nearby
Unless you're looking to rough it on a backcountry camping trip to White Sands, there are plenty of places to stay in nearby Alamogordo or Las Cruces. The smaller city of Alamogordo offers a wide range of affordable chain options, along with bed & breakfasts, lodges, and cabins. For something a little more boutique, Las Cruces features standouts like the Hotel Encanto, an ornate property with architecture and design indicative of Mexican colonialism and historic Southwestern style—arched doorways, lustrous tiled floors, and fresh New Mexican dishes at Garduño's Restaurant & Cantina, like braised beef empanadas, sopapilla fries, and chicken flautas with chile con queso.
For RV or tent camping, there’s Oliver Lee State Park about 24 miles southeast of the park, and Aguirre Springs Recreation Area about 40 miles southwest.
Ready to embark on your trip to White Sands National Park? Here’s a list of tips to keep in mind:
- Call the visitor center or visit White Sands’ website before you embark to make sure Dunes Drive will be open during your trip.
- Stock up on plenty of water and sunscreen, and especially in the summer months, try not to hike during midday hours. Keep in mind that there is no shade cover whatsoever in the park.
- The park advises against hiking if the temperature is above 85 degrees F.
- If you’d like to try sand sledding, bring your own or purchase one at the visitor center gift shop ($18), and don’t forget the wax. Return the sled once you’re done to get $5 back.
- Check with the visitor center about ranger program availability, especially the always-popular sunset hikes, which are offered 364 nights of the year. Full moon hikes are offered April through October.
- Watch the film "A Land in Motion" at the visitor center to learn all about the park.
- White Sands is one of the most pet-friendly national parks, and dogs are welcome on all trails in the dunes on a leash that’s no more than six-feet in length. Be sure and always clean up after your dog, and never leave them unattended inside a vehicle.