Escape to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico! There’s no place quite like these amazing white sand dunes, and this visitors guide has everything you need to plan a trip!
This post contains affiliate links.
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 Monument!
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.
Getting Started —>> Before you jump into all the info I’m sharing below, watch this video for a quick overview of White Sands! Then, keep reading for tons of info and tips. In a hurry? Skip to the end, where I’ve rounded up all the most important info in one spot.
White Sands National Monument
This beautiful National Monument is home to the world’s largest gypsum dune field. All told, the sparkling white sands cover 275 square miles in the Chihuahuan Desert, although much of it is located on military bases and inaccessible to the average visitor (i.e., you and me). It was designated as a National Monument in 1933.
White Sands is the perfect road trip destination. In fact, we headed there on our El Paso to Phoenix road trip. And it ended up being my favorite part of the whole vacation!
The Monument is located on US-70 between Alamogordo and Las Crusces, New Mexico. Wherever you are traveling from, you will need a car to get to this National Monument, and the closest major airport is in El Paso, 85 miles away.
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. This area is a military strong hold, and the Monument is bordered on all sides by the White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base.
Besides the wonderful sand dunes, this area is home to the 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 Monument is closed due to missile testing (make sure to check before your visit).
If you are interested in learning more about this military history, check out this book about the missile range. You can also visit the nearby Missile Range Museum (it’s free), or the Trinity site itself, although it’s only open two days a year.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from our visit, but the Monument ended up being the highlight of our road trip … although, I think if you asked my husband, he’d say it was seeing the Brewers’ spring training in Phoenix. I won’t lie, that was pretty fun, too!
By the way, White Sands is a National Monument, not a National Park. If you’re interested in the differences between the two, read more here.
National Park or not, some of the U.S.’ best treasures can be found in its National Monuments, and White Sands is no exception. This land is expansive! I found it difficult to capture the vastness of those white sand dunes. The landscape truly does stretch as far as you can see.
Check out the tiny people in the photos though, and you’ll get some idea of what you’re in for!
Start 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 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 Monument.
Getting Around on Dunes Drive
There is one road into and out of the Monument … Dunes Drive.
Follow along Dunes Drive, and you’ll find a number of parking lots where you can pull off 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).
As you drive through the Monument, you’ll soon be surrounded by the beautiful dunes. With the contrast between the white sands and the deep blue skies, this is one road that will 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 BYOH, or bring your own horse, though).
When you need a snack break, pull of at one of the futuristic picnic spots … the shelters kind of fit with the landscape, don’t they?
Things to Do at White Sands
It’s hard to believe, but this immense dunefield was once a sea. And as you explore White Sands National Monument—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. When can I go back?
With everything thing there is to do here, you could easily fill at least half a day or longer. Don’t cut your time short like we did.
Hiking at White Sands National Monument
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 gypsum doesn’t convert the sun’s energy into heat (unlike more familiar quartz-based sand crystals).
I’m sure it’s 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.
And the shadowy mountains in the distance made for a beautiful scene from every direction we turned.
Hiking Trails at White Sands National Monument
Hiking is definitely one of the best things to do in this white sand dessert. You’ll find five hiking trails at the Monument, and each one is a little different:
- Interdune Boardwalk: This short trail, which you can see above, is 0.4 miles round trip. The 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 dune fields 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.
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 to stick to the trails!
Most of our time was spent exploring dunes near the various parking lots. We ended up traveling much further than we thought a number of times though … it’s easy to get lost here (something to keep in mind).
The sand is firm in some spots. And in others, you’ll sink right into it. Be prepared for a good workout!
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend hiking barefoot …. for one thing our feet were freezing once the sun set. It should be fine though, if like us, you aren’t going too far. See my tips for what to wear at the end of the post for shoe ideas.
Tips for Hiking in the White Sand Desert
Keep in mind that you’re going to be hiking through a dessert, and temperature extremes can come with that. In fact, the thermometer can drop as much as 20 to 30 degrees as the sun sets!
We visited White Sands in March, and it was hot when we arrived. By the time we left, it was quite chilly.
Once you start your hike, you won’t have access to water. So stock up at the Visitor Center, and make sure to bring plenty on your hike. The National Park Service recommends at least one gallon per person per day. Pack some snacks, too.
Keep in mind too, that even though you’re in a valley, the Monument 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.
Of course, we couldn’t resist a selfie (or ten).
There are so many great photo opportunities in this gorgeous place. If you are anything like me, you will take a ton of pictures.
I definitely wish I had brought my DSLR camera and not just my iPhone … next time!
Sand Sledding at White Sands
One super cool thing you can do on the sand dunes? Go sledding!
Bring your own sled or purchase one in the Visitor Center. Waxed plastic saucers work best, but apparently, it takes a little practice to get going. (Read the park’s sledding tips before you head out.)
We didn’t do any dune sledding this time, and I totally regret it. If and when I return, you can bet I’ll be hitting those dunes with my sled!
Camping in the White Sands Desert
If you’re feeling adventurous, turn your day trip to White Sands National Monument into a sleepover!
The Monument 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.
Sunset at White Sands Monument
Make sure to plan your trip around a sunrise or sunset … or both!
We were planning to drive to Tucson after our visit, and it’s a haul from here. So we definitely didn’t plan on staying at the Monument 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! 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.
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?
I couldn’t stop taking pictures. It was just so beautiful.
I’ve never been anywhere quite like it, and I can’t wait to return one day … have I mentioned that, yet?
The setting sun reflected across the valley, too, turning the mountains a striking red color.
And although it doesn’t look it, that moon 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. 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.
Planning Your Visit to White Sands National Monument
I hope you enjoyed reading about this one-of-a-kind National Monument! Use the following tips to help plan your visit:
- Location: 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 Monument, 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!
- Hours: The Monument 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 their website to avoid visiting during a military closure.
- Fees: A fee of $5 will be charged for adults as you enter the park. Kids under 15 are free.
- Park Facilities: The Monument 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 here. 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, and exhibits.
- Best Time to Visit: Summer gets very hot here, and there’s no shade on the dunes. The best time to visit White Sands National Monument is in fall, winter, and spring, when the weather is cooler. If you do visit in summer, go early or late in the day. And stay late … we loved visiting the park in the afternoon as the sun was setting. The sunset was breathtaking!
- Camping: The parks 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 … always a bonus when trying to save money on a trip!
- 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 by covering 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.
- Choosing the right clothes. Wear clothes 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).
- Protecting your feet. We went barefoot, but we didn’t have time to go far. If you’re planning a longer hike, I’d recommend wearing more supportive / protective shoes. The sand makes an uneven hiking surface and varies from sink-your-feet-in to firmly packed. 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.
- Safety: When preparing for a safe visit to the white sands desert, you should keep a few things in mind:
- Be prepared! Bring plenty of water and food. You’re visiting a dessert … avoiding dehydration should be a serious concern. The park service recommends one gallon of water per person per day.
- Protect yourself from the sun, because 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 parking lots 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, it’s important to stop wandering and stay in one spot until help arrives.
- Keep an eye out for unexploded ordinance! As mentioned earlier, the park is surrounded by a missile range. Do not touch any strange objects you find; instead, make a note of their location and report them.
- Learn More: Visit the Monument’s website to learn more about this amazing place’s history and geology, and to find other visitor information.
Have you been to White Sands National Park? What was your favorite part?