Escape to White Sands National Park in New Mexico! There’s no place quite like these amazing white sand dunes, and this visitors guide covers everything you need to know to plan the perfect trip!
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Looking to travel somewhere completely unforgettable?
New Mexico is full of amazing places that are like nothing you’ve seen before. They don’t call it the Land of Enchantment for nothing. And it doesn’t get more enchanting or unique than White Sands National Park!
As you sink your toes into these glistening white dunes, you’ll feel like you’ve entered into another world. With dunes stretching for as far as the eye can see, this place certainly feels magical.
White Sands National Park Guide
It’s time to add this amazing place to your bucket list, and I’ve got tons of info and tips to help plan your trip. Keep scrolling to read everything, or use the links below to find exactly what you need:
This beautiful National Park is home to the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. All told, the sparkling white sands cover 275 square miles of what was once a sea in the Chihuahuan Desert. Much of it is located on military bases and inaccessible to the average visitor like you and me though.
White Sands is one of 419 National Parks in the U.S. It was designated as White Sands National Monument in 1933, and on December 20, 2019, it was redesignated as a National Park.
White Sands is the perfect road trip destination. In fact, we headed there on our El Paso to Phoenix road trip. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it ended up being my favorite part of the whole vacation! (If you asked my husband though, he’d probably say it was spring training in Phoenix. And I won’t lie, that was pretty fun, too!)
The park is located on US-70 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces, New Mexico. The closest major airport is in El Paso, 85 miles away. Wherever you are traveling from, you will need a car to get there.
This stunning white sand dessert is located in the mountain-ringed Tularosa Basin. We arrived via Las Cruces, and as we crested the mountain ridge, we pulled off in a small rest area to take in the amazing view of the valley below.
It would have been hard to miss the giant missile (or is it a rocket?) at the rest stop. The area is a military stronghold, and the park is bordered on all sides by the White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base.
The area is also home to the infamous Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945. The military bases that surround the park are still very active today, and occasionally the park is closed due to missile testing (make sure to check before your visit).
If you are interested in learning more about the area’s military history, check out this book about the missile range. You can also visit the free Missile Range Museum and the Trinity Site itself (although it’s only open two days a year) nearby.
White Sands is expansive! It’s the largest National Park Service unit in New Mexico, and the dunes expand beyond the park boundaries into Holloman Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range.
I found it difficult to capture the vastness of those white sand dunes. The landscape truly does stretch as far as the eye can see. And even though there were other people there during our visit, the park is fairly remote, and it didn’t feel crowded at all.
Check out the tiny people in the photos below, and you’ll get some idea of what you’re in for!
Begin your visit at the charming Visitor Center. This historic building was built between 1936 and 1938 using local materials in a pueblo-adobe style.
Inside this building, and you’ll find the usual gifts, convenience food, water, and snacks. You can also purchase or rent sleds to use on the dunes. Doesn’t that sound fun?
A museum with interpretive exhibits and a film can also be found here, as well as bathrooms, a native plant garden, and small picnic area. And of course, it’s a great place to get info about the park.
There’s no where else in the park to purchase food and drinks, so stock up before you leave the Visitor Center. And make sure to get your National Parks Passport stamped, too!
Dunes Drive is the only road into and out of the park.
As you follow along Dunes Drive, and you’ll find a number of parking lots where you can pull off the road, get out of your car, and explore more. At the end of the drive, you’ll come to a loop where you can turn around. The round trip drive is 16-miles and takes about 45 minutes (with no stops).
Shortly after starting, you’ll be surrounded by the beautiful dunes. With the contrast between the white sands and the deep blue skies, this is one drive that’s sure to take your breath away!
It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
If you’d rather not drive, you can also explore the park on bike or horseback. It’s bring your own horse though!
When you need a snack break, pull off at one of the futuristic picnic spots … the shelters kind of fit with the landscape, don’t they?
It’s hard to believe, but this immense dunefield was once a sea. And as you explore White Sands National Park—there’s an activity here for everyone, from hiking to snow sledding—you’ll experience this unique geology first hand.
We only had a few short hours at the park, which I seriously regret. As soon as I left, I starting dreaming about my next visit!
With everything thing there is to do here, you could easily fill at least half a day or even spend the night. Don’t cut your time short like we did.
Spend the Day Hiking
After a long drive from El Paso, it was so fun to kick off our shoes and start hiking the rippling dunes!
Even though it was in the 90’s the day we visited, the sand never got too hot to walk on. That’s because the sand is made of gypsum, which doesn’t convert the sun’s energy into heat (unlike more familiar quartz-based sand crystals).
I’m sure the park is busier in summer, but during our March visit, the dunes weren’t overrun with people at all. We spotted plenty of visitors in the distance, and a few close up, but it never felt crowded. It was almost as if we had the park to ourselves, although the many footprints told another story.
As we walked around the desert, the shadowy mountains in the distance added to the a beautiful scene, no matter which direction we turned.
You’ll find five hiking trails at White Sands, and each one is a little different:
- Interdune Boardwalk: This short trail, which you can see above, is 0.4 miles round trip. This trail a great place to start your visit. It’s flat, easy, wheelchair accessible, and should take you about 20 minutes.
- Playa Trail: Follow this easy trail to a playa (dry lake bed). You’ll see what the playa looks like today and how it supports the ecosystem, as well as what it looked like 10,000 years ago. You should be able to complete this easy, 0.5 mile round trip trail, in about 30 minutes.
- Dune Life Nature Trail: Follow this moderate trail on a 1 mile loop. You will be climbing two sand dunes with loose sand along the way and learning about the animals that call the dunefield home. It should take you about 1 hour.
- Backcountry Camping Trail: This moderate trails takes you on a 2 mile round trip hike. You’ll see a variety of dunes and vegetation and will climb several steep dunes with loose sand along the way. You should be able to complete this trail in about 1.5 hours.
- Alkali Flat Trail: The last trail option is a strenuous, 5 mile round trip hike. Despite the name, this trail is not flat, and you will be hiking up and down dunes the entire time. This trail follows the edge of a former lake. It should take you about 3 hours.
Tips for Hiking in the White Sand Desert
With the desert setting and sand everywhere, these aren’t your usual hiking trails! It’s important to be prepared. Keep these things in mind before starting your hike:
- Watch out for temperature extremes. The thermometer can drop as much as 20 to 30 degrees as the sun sets. We visited in March, and it was hot when we arrived. By the time we left, it was quite chilly.
- Bring enough water and food. Once you start your hike, you won’t have access to water, and the climate is very dry. Bring a large water bottle or stock up at the Visitor Center to make sure you have enough while hiking. The National Park Service recommends at least one gallon per person per day. Pack some snacks, too.
- Be wary of the altitude. Even though you’re in a valley, the park sits at a high altitude (4,235 feet above sea level). If you’re anything like us, you’ll feel winded faster than you’re used to.
- You don’t need to stick to the trails. We didn’t have tons of time, so we couldn’t explore many trails. The cool thing about this park though, is that you don’t have stay on the trails! Most of our time was spent exploring dunes near the various parking lots.
- It’s easy to get lost. The dunes stretch as far as the eye can see, and it’s easy to get disoriented. We ended up traveling much further than we thought a number of times. If you don’t have a compass or a good sense of direction, keep the road or parking lot in sight or stay on the trails.
- Be prepared for a good workout. Although the sand is firm in some spots, in others, you’ll sink right into it. Expect your heart to start pumping as you climb the dunes!
- What to wear. Although it’s fine to run around the dunes barefoot if you’re not going far, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend hiking barefoot. For one thing our feet were freezing once the sun set! As far as clothes go, you can expect to get sandy, and should bring layers to wear if you’ll be at the park all day. See my tips for what to wear at the end of the post for more ideas.
Take a Million Pictures
White Sands is a photographer’s paradise!
There are so many great photo opportunities in this gorgeous desert. The landscape is vast and surreal, and if you are anything like me, you will take a ton of pictures.
I definitely wish I was more prepared and had brought a good camera. Unfortunately, all I had was my iPhone, but next time I will be bringing my Nikon D5300 or my Panasonic mirrorless camera … maybe both!
If you’re more than a casual photographer, keep in mind that if the sun’s out, it’s going to be very (very) bright. The light reflects off the white dunes, and there’s almost no shade to be found. Check out these tips for photographing White Sands before your visit to improve your results.
I had so much fun taking photos throughout the park, and of course, I couldn’t resist a selfie (or ten) either.
Go Sand Sledding
Sledding is probably the coolest and most fun thing you can do in the park!
Bring your own sled, or you can purchase or rent one in the Visitor Center. Waxed plastic saucers work best, and apparently, it takes a little practice to get going. (Read the park’s sledding tips before you head out.)
We didn’t have time to do any dune sledding, and I totally regret it. When I return, you can bet I’ll be hitting those dunes with my sled!
Spend the Night Camping at White Sands
If you’re feeling adventurous, turn your day trip into a sleepover!
The park has 10 primitive backcountry camping sites, all of which are available first-come, first-serve. Purchase an inexpensive permit at the fee station, and they will assign you a site.
You’ll need to hike at least one mile to access these camping spots, and they don’t have amenities (that means no bathrooms). If you’re not an experienced camper this might not be for you, but don’t worry, there are other campgrounds nearby.
Enjoy the Sunset
Seeing a sunrise or a sunset (or both) is another thing you must do at White Sands. In fact, you may want to time your trip around it!
We needed to drive to Tucson after our visit, and it’s a haul from the park. So we didn’t plan on staying as long as we did. But as the sun began setting, we couldn’t resist staying for what was sure to be a stunning sunset.
I’m so glad we didn’t leave, because the gorgeous sunset definitely made up for the late night drive to Tucson!
As the sun began setting, the sky turned soft shades of pink and orange, and our shadows grew longer and longer.
The sun rippled across the dunes, turning them pink and gold, too.
The vibrant colors were just so beautiful. I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
I may have reverted back to my school days a bit, but I couldn’t resist writing my name in the sand. Makes a fun pic, no?
The setting sun reflected across the valley, too, turning the mountains a striking red color. And although it doesn’t look it, that moon below was huge!
You can enjoy this beauty on your own or join a sunset stroll with a ranger. I’d love to do that next time.
By the time we left, the sand was quite cold, and my feet were freezing. I couldn’t resist stopping for just one more picture though … or maybe ten!
As the sun finally dipped below the distant mountains, we dragged ourselves back to the car. It was so hard to leave, but I know I’ll be back one day.
Other Things to Do
Wondering what else to do at the park? Here are more ideas:
- Bike Dunes Drive. Ditch the car and bike the drive instead. Just be aware that you can’t bike the trails, there’s no shoulder, and only the first five miles are paved.
- Ride your horse. It’s possible to ride a horse in the park, although they’re restricted to certain areas. You’ll also need a permit.
- Become a Junior Ranger. Traveling with kids? Make sure to stop by the Visitor Center for a special activity book. Then, once you’ve completed all the activities, return to the Visitor Center to be sworn in as a Junior Ranger. You’ll earn a patch or badge, too.
- Take a Native Plant Garden tour. During your visit, check out the Native Plant Garden located in front of the Visitor Center. Download an audio tour or or garden guide before your trip.
- Join a Ranger Program. The park offers a wide variety of programming, from Sunset Strolls to Moonlight Hikes, Meteor Watch Parties, and more.
I hope you enjoyed reading about this one-of-a-kind National Park! I’ve never been anywhere quite like it, and I can’t wait to return one day. Use the following tips to help plan your visit:
White Sands is located right off US-70 (between mile markers 199 and 200) between Las Cruces and Alamogordo in southern New Mexico. If you plan to use GPS directions, make sure to put in White Sands National Park, not just White Sands. Otherwise, you may be directed to the missile range. And suffice it to say, you won’t be getting in there!
The park is open every day of the year, except Christmas Day (December 25). Dunes Drive opens at 7:00 AM, although Visitor Center hours vary. White Sands is occasionally closed due to bad weather and missile testing. Check the website or call ahead to avoid visiting during a military closure.
You’ll be charged a fee of $25 per vehicle, $15 per person (if you’re the only one in the vehicle), or $20 per motorcycle as you enter the park. It’s also possible to purchase an annual pass for $45. Additional fees apply for camping and certain programs.
The park has minimal facilities, except at the Visitor Center, where you’ll find bathrooms, water/drinks and convenience foods, sleds, books, gifts, and a shaded picnic area. There’s also a museum with exhibits and a film, as well as an information desk. Get your National Parks Passport stamped here, too. Once you’re ready to explore the park, you will follow Dunes Drive through the park. Along this drive, you’ll find parking areas, hiking trails, bathrooms, picnic areas with grills, and exhibits.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit White Sands National Park is in fall, winter, and spring, when the weather is cooler. Summer gets very hot here, and there’s no shade on the dunes. If you do visit in summer, go earlier or later in the day. Whenever you visit, stay late … we loved exploring the park in the afternoon as the sun was setting. The sunset was breathtaking!
What to Wear
If you’re not prepared, extreme temps and exposure to the elements have the potential to ruin your visit. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Avoiding Sunburn. The dunes are totally exposed to the elements and that, combined with the sun reflecting off the sand, can lead to bad sunburns. Protect yourself with a high SPF sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses, and cover as much skin as the temperature will allow. Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid is my fave sunscreen for the face, and I like Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch for the body. For a vegan sunscreen with less chemicals, I also love Sun Bum.
- Choosing the right clothes. Wear clothing that can be layered and removed as the temperature changes. It may be warm during the day, but temperatures can drop as much as 30 degrees as the sun sets (we definitely experienced this on our trip). And don’t wear anything too precious (athletic clothes are best) … you are going to get sand everywhere!
- Protecting your feet. We went barefoot, but we didn’t have time for much hiking. If you’re planning a longer hike, I’d recommend wearing more supportive / protective shoes. The sand (which varies from sink-your-feet-in to firmly-packed) creates an uneven hiking surface. A pair of Tevas would be ideal. In colder weather, sneakers that you don’t mind getting full of sand should suffice.
- Getting all that sand off. A towel to wipe off sand at the end of the day (it gets everywhere) would be super handy. These giant wet wipes are big enough to clean your whole body and are perfect for more serious cleaning.
When preparing for a safe visit to the white sands desert, you should keep a few things in mind:
- Bring plenty of water and food. You’re visiting a dessert, so avoiding dehydration should be a serious concern. The park service recommends one gallon of water per person per day.
- Protect yourself from the sun. You’ll be 100% exposed to the elements while exploring the dunes. (See my tips for what to wear above.)
- Be aware of and prepared for extreme weather.
- Keep an eye out for snakes, spiders, and scorpions (some of which are poisonous). Thankfully, we didn’t see any on our visit!
- Don’t get lost. With the vastness of the park, it’s easy to lose your bearings. You can avoid this by staying on marked paths, keeping the road or parking lot within eyesight, and carrying a map and compass. The park service recommends hiking in groups and carrying a fully charged cell phone so you can call 911 if needed. If you do get lost, stop wandering and stay in one spot until help arrives.
- Cell service is limited in the park and dead zones exist. If you need to contact family or friends, try texting.
- Keep an eye out for unexploded ordinance. The park is surrounded by a missile range. Do not touch any strange objects you find. Make a note of their location, then report them to a park ranger.
Learn More About the Park
Visit the park’s website to learn more about this amazing place’s history and geology, the latest park conditions, and for additional visitor information.
Wondering about camping and hotels near White Sands? There are a few camping spots in the park, as well as others nearby. Your best options for hotels are in Alamogordo or Las Cruces:
- Camping: The park has 10 primitive backcountry camping sites, which are available first-come, first-serve. You’ll need to hike at least one mile to access these spots, and they do not have bathrooms or any other amenities. You must get a camping permit at the fee station. There are other campgrounds in the area if you want something less rustic.
- Nearby Hotels: You’ll find many hotels (mostly chains) in nearby Alamogordo and Las Cruces. We generally find Holiday Inn Express to be reliable and affordable, and there’s one in Alamogordo and a couple in Las Cruces. They have a free breakfast, which is always a bonus when trying to save money on a trip!
Learn more about the area’s history at the nearby Missile Range Museum (it’s free), or the Trinity site itself (which is only open two days a year). Consider combining your visit with a trip to Carlsbad Canyons National Park. It’s only about 3.5 hours away, and there’s nothing else like it. You’ll find a number of National Forests and Wildlife Refuges in the area, as well. If you’re visiting in October, make sure to head up to Albuquerque for the International Balloon Fiesta … it’s definitely a bucket list experience! You’re also close to Roswell and Las Cruces, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, all cities worth exploring further.
Have you been to White Sands National Park? What was your favorite part?