White Sands National Park: The Complete Guide

White Sands National Park

TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

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White Sands National Park

Address
New Mexico, USA
Phone +1 575-479-6124

White Sands National Park in southwestern New Mexico was upgraded to a national park in 2019, but this otherworldly landscape dates back to the Ice Age. The area that was once covered under a prehistoric sea is now arid desert and the bleached sand is made up of particles of gypsum that is 30 feet deep and rises up in 60-foot dunes. It's the largest gypsum desert in the world, and the thunderous sounds of rockets at the nearby missile range only add to the alien mystery of the park.

As you enter the park, the dunes are interspersed with patches of tall grasses, but travel in a few miles and the landscape becomes nothing but pristine sand. The fact that the park features a singular road makes this one of the most accessible national parks to explore. Regardless of whether or not your GPS is working, there's really no way to get lost on the road—hiking inside the park is another story, however.

Things to Do

A sprawling expanse of white sand may sound pretty straightforward at first, but there’s a ton to see and do at White Sands. Hiking, horseback riding, scenic drives, biking, sunset strolls, garden tours, and, of course, sand sledding are all popular outings.

The visitor center 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 summer temperatures regularly reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. For these reasons, the best times of day to visit are morning and evening to mitigate the heat.

If you've only got 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.

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. Right around the full moon from April to October, sign up for a nighttime hike or take part in the monthly Full Moon Night with live music and artists.

Best Hikes & Trails

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. 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.

  • Interdune Boardwalk: This easy stretch is more of a stroll than a hike, and the entire route is a wooden boardwalk over the sand, so visitors with strollers or wheelchairs can also use it. It's less than half a mile and offers a fascinating look into this unique ecosystem.
  • Playa Trail: This half-mile trail is also an easy route, bringing hikers to the White Sand "playa," which changes throughout the day—it may be filled with water, dried up, or contain growing crystals.
  • Dune Life Nature Trail: This trail is a 1-mile loop with signage explaining all about wildlife in the park, including badgers, roadrunners, snakes, and kit foxes. Even though it's not a long hike, it's considered moderate difficulty because you do have to climb two steep dunes.
  • Backcountry Camping Trail: This 2-mile hike is a great compromise between the easier hikes and the longest one. You'll be out in the dune backcountry and away from most visitors, but make sure you're prepared to climb some dunes along the way.
  • Alkali Flat Trail: Despite what the name suggests, this strenuous hike is not flat. It's 5 miles roundtrip, stretching up and down dunes the entire way without shade. Five miles may not sound too difficult for experienced hikers, but remember that climbing in loose sand is more tiring than it sounds.
A man walking through white sands

TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

Sand Sledding

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. 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 (the best sledding dunes are between mile markers 4 and 6). Avoid roadway-adjacent dunes and vegetation when you're choosing where to sled.

If you didn't bring your own sled or wax, you can purchase both at the gift shop in the visitor center. It may sound like an activity for children, but sand sledding is the most popular thing to do at the park for all ages. So don't be shy, and make sure you have a sled in hand before you set out into the park.

Where to Camp

There are no campgrounds inside the national park, but you can find RV and tent camping options in nearby areas. Oliver Lee State Park is about 24 miles southeast of the White Sands and has campsites, while Aguirre Springs Recreation Area is about 40 miles southwest.

Experienced campers can pitch a tent inside the park, but you'll need to obtain a backcountry permit at the visitor center when they arrive. Nighttime in the park under the stars is an incomparable experience, but make sure you're aware of the risks. Temperatures can be scorching during the day or drop to be below freezing at night, and thunderstorms can appear quickly and without warning.

Where to Stay Nearby

The nearest towns with a wide range of accommodation options are Alamogordo and the larger city of Las Cruces. Both of them have affordable motel chains, bed and breakfasts, lodges, and cabins. For something a little more boutique, Las Cruces features the standout Hotel Encanto, an ornate property with architecture and design evoking Mexican haciendas 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.

How to Get There

White Sands National Park is located in southern New Mexico, about 16 miles southwest of the small city of Alamogordo and 52 miles northeast of the larger city of Las Cruces. Larger cities are also easily accessible if you have the time, with El Paso, Texas, about 96 miles 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 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. Check for the latest information on closures or call the visitor center before arriving.

Accessibility

The visitor center, gift shop, and museum are all wheelchair accessible. For exploring further in the park, visitors with mobility impairments can either drive around Dune Drive by car to see the whole park or use the wooden Interdune Boardwalk Trail, which is fully ADA-compliant. During special events like the Full Moon Night, a ramp is available for guests who need it to get into the dunes.

Other resources available include large print maps, Braille brochures, and assisted listening devices for museum exhibits.

Tips for Your Visit

  • 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. 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 Fahrenheit.
  • Check with the visitor center about ranger program availability, especially the always-popular sunset hikes, which are offered almost every night of the year. Full moon hikes are offered from April through October.
  • 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.
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How to Plan a Visit to White Sands National Park