White Sands National Park white sands and mountains

A Guide to Visiting White Sands National Park in New Mexico

When flying into El Paso, we could see the glistening white sands of New Mexico from the sky. She beckoned to us. We had to see her firsthand! It is a place you must see to believe. We will cover everything you need to know to plan your White Sands National Park visit.


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White Sands National Park: Basic Information

God’s giant sandbox offers beautiful scenery and unique recreational opportunities.

White Sands is a national park in southern New Mexico comprising a massive pocket of shimmering white sands between the San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges in the heart of the Tularosa Basin.

The world’s largest gypsum dune field spans 275 square miles, with the national park preserving over half of this natural wonder in the Chihuahuan Desert.

What is the Sand Made of?

Yes, tiny particles can make a difference. What’s inside matters.

Most beach sands contain quartz, but these sands consist of gypsum. Unlike your typical beach sand, gypsum does not absorb heat. It feels cool and comfortable, even on a scorching hot day.  

If you take off your shoes, keep an eye out for scorpions. They are hot to the touch.

A Beach Without an Ocean

It is surreal to see all this beautiful white sand with no ocean. You will not hear crashing waves or smell salt in the air. It does not matter. This place is special.  

The sea of dunes between the mountains and an infinite blue sky is breathtaking. Playing in God’s giant sandbox brings sheer joy.

A beach without an ocean does have a nice perk. There is less mess. Yes, sand still gets everywhere. It will be in your shoes and on your clothes. But, it brushes off quickly.

Fees and Passes

The park entrance fee is $25 per car, and your pass is good for seven days, starting at the date of purchase.

Consider an America the Beautiful park pass for $80. This annual pass is good for one year, starting at the date of purchase, and is valid at all our national parks.

Operating Hours and Seasons

White Sands National Park is open daily year-round except for Christmas Day. However, hours vary throughout the year. The park always opens at 7:00 am, but the closing time changes seasonally.

Note that the park is in the Mountain time zone. Visit the White Sands National Park website for current information on operating hours.

White Sands National Park Visitor Center
White Sands National Park Visitor Center. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

White Sands National Park Visitor Center

Be sure to stop at the White Sands National Park Visitor Center. It is at the very front of the park. 

The center has excellent educational videos and exhibits. We found the park rangers here to be very helpful. They answered all our questions and offered suggestions to help us maximize our time.

You will find a gift shop and restroom facilities next to the visitor center. The gift shop has quite a few souvenir options.  

 Dunes Drive

There is no path least taken here as there is only one road. If you want to see the park, you must take it.

Dunes Drive is 8 miles long through the core of rolling dunes, making your tour a 16-mile round-trip journey. The road surface is paved for the first five miles but consists of hard-packed sand for the final three.

We found the hard-packed sand portion of the drive suitable for cars. It can feel like you are driving in snow in a few spots. The wind can also blow mounds of sand onto the road. Just take it slow, and you will be fine.

Will it Be Crowded?

Lots of people were at the park during our time. Despite this, we never felt cramped for space. You are not required to stay on designated trails. So, there is plenty of room even with many visitors.

Who Will Enjoy White Sands National Park?

White Sands has something for everyone. We encountered: 

  • Couples enjoying a leisurely beach day
  • Families playing and laughing together
  • People snapping pictures of the gorgeous vistas 

A few yards away, serious hikers were huffing and puffing as they made their way up and down the dunes. The contradiction was comical at times. There is something for everyone. Let’s dig into that now.

Things To Do in White Sands National Park

YouTube video
  • Hiking
  • Sledding
  • Playing
  • Photography
  • Observing wildlife
  • Searching for animal tracks
  • Watching the sunset
  • Camping 
  • Stargazing
  • Bicycling
  • Picnicking
  • Riding horses

Let’s dig deeper in the sand and explore these activities.

Hiking in White Sands National Park

Trail System: There are five hiking trails in the park. Each is well-marked and offers beautiful scenery.

I like the way the trails are marked. The National Park Service (NPS) uses colored trail markers and symbols, making it easy to identify paths and find your way. 

Four of the five courses utilize the system. The fifth path, a boardwalk, does not need it.

Whoever designed the system must be a card shark. The symbols are those found on standard playing cards. It is simple but clever.

Keep Your Bearings: Maintaining your bearings in the desert is critical for survival. A park ranger told us that people occasionally get lost and need help finding their car.

You can walk freely up and down the dunes without sticking to a path. However, it is easy to lose your way. That is why the trails have a marker system.

The best advice is to always have the next marker in your sights before proceeding. As long as you do that, you will find your way.

Weather: Weather can change quickly in this park, and it is often windy. Temperatures can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months. The thermometer can dip below freezing at times in the winter months. Storms can also pop up suddenly.

Weather conditions may impact you more than you realize. Sun and wind can have a dehydrating effect. Walking in the sand can be exhausting, especially when climbing dunes of loose sand. Your skin can quickly burn in these conditions. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, and protect your skin from the sun.

I worry about drinking a lot of water and later need restroom facilities. This park has you covered. There are restrooms at the park entrance, picnic areas, and trailheads.

What to Bring for Hiking: Always have a hiking buddy. It is recommended not to hike alone. We suggest you bring the following items:

  • Fully charged cell phone
  • Portable phone charger
  • Water (minimum of two 32-ounce bottles per person on every trail)
  • High-energy snacks (fruits and nuts)
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Wide-brimmed hat
  • Long-sleeved shirt
  • Long pants
  • Park map
  • Compass
  • Flashlight
  • Mini first-aid kit
  • Whistle or signal mirror

Playa Trail

The Playa Trail is a level, easy 0.5-mile round-trip hike with green markers with the heart symbol. Not all of the sand is white here. You will find sizable sections of brown sand. 

There is considerable vegetation in this area. We discovered several holes in the ground that animals made. Unfortunately, we did not see the animals themselves, but we saw their tracks. 

Dune Life Nature Trail

The Dune Life Nature Trail is a moderate 1-mile loop with blue trail markers bearing the club symbol. It contains quite a bit of vegetation and a few steep dunes to climb.

Animals, birds, and reptiles all inhabit the area. We saw several birds, a couple of beetles, and many tracks. The views at the top of the steep dunes will reward your climbing efforts.

Interdune Boardwalk at White Sands National Park
Interdune Boardwalk. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Interdune Boardwalk

As the name implies, Interdune Boardwalk is a boardwalk. It is an easy, level 0.4-mile round-trip walk that makes you feel at the beach. Admittedly, it seems odd not to find an ocean at the end of the path.

The wheelchair-accessible path has a few bench seats along the way and a shaded canopy. It is an excellent chance for a stroll or a rest to enjoy the beautiful view. There is some vegetation here as well. We spotted birds and several sets of tracks.

Backcountry Camping Trail

The Backcountry Camping Trail is a 2-mile round-trip hike with orange markers bearing the spade symbol. In full disclosure, we did not hike this trail. We spent time on all the courses except this one.

There are several steep dunes of loose sand. You will find less vegetation here and beautiful views of the horizon.

Climbing a sand dune on Alkali Flat Trail in White Sands
Climbing dunes on Alkali Flat Trail. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Alkali Flat Trail

The Alkali Flat Trail is a strenuous 5-mile round-trip hike with red trail markers with the diamond symbol. This trail is a workout! It feels like you are on a StairMaster machine in quicksand. You will be trudging up and down dunes the whole way.  

Little vegetation showcases the white sands standing out against the blue sky. Each time you ascend a steep dune, you get rewarded with a beautiful view.

Sledding at White Sands National Park

Ready to sled at White Sands National Park
Ready to go sledding. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Would you like to feel like a kid again? Do yourself a favor and go sledding in White Sands. It is a blast! You will see adults and kids alike wearing wide grins.

Climbing up the dunes is a bit of work. But it is rewarding to glide down a mountain of white sand.

You can purchase a plastic saucer at the park gift shop. As of March 2022, the cost is $24.99. When done, you can return your sled for a souvenir drink koozie. Used sleds cost less. Unfortunately, they did not have any when we visited.

If feasible, bring your sled. Consider purchasing one at a local store before visiting the park. We should have thought of this ahead of time. I suspect you can find them in the Alamogordo stores for a better price.

You will need to apply a thin wax layer to the saucer’s bottom to make it down the hill. The park gift shop sells bars of wax for $2.99. For best results, apply wax before every sled run. One bar should be sufficient.

It is odd to go sledding without snow and without being bundled up in thick winter gear. Your sled runs likely will be slower than those in snow. But, it is a great time. We even saw a woman sledding with her dog in her lap. 

Pro Tip: Head for the back of the park for the best sledding dunes. The last two miles of Dunes Drive have less vegetation, yielding more spots for clean runs.

Playing in the Sand

Playing at White Sands National Park
Playing in the sand. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

The simple pleasures in life are the best.

Walking barefoot in the cool, soft sand feels so good. It just gives you a sense of calm.

We saw many young kids excitedly digging in the sand. It will be the biggest sandbox they have ever seen so bring a pail and shovel! Adults are welcome to join in.

Dogs are allowed but must be on a leash. Every dog we saw seemed to love the sand. Tails were wagging every step of the way.

Photo Opportunities

Say Cheese! It is such a beautiful place you will want to take pictures. The scene is picturesque, with dazzling white sand, sprawling blue skies, and mountains in the distance. Cheese!

Observing Wildlife

There are many types of critters in this desert habitat. Most tend to be nocturnal so sightings can be a challenge. Your best bet is to stay close to the visitor center and on the hiking trails in the first half of the park. More vegetation in this area means food and shelter for animals.

Common Birds of White Sands National Park

  • Cactus wren
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Loggerhead shrike
  • Western kingbird
  • Horned lark
  • Greater Roadrunner
  • Chihuahuan raven
  • Swaison’s hawk
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Northern harrier

We spotted wrens and mockingbirds. Observing a roadrunner in the wild is a dream of mine. I asked a ranger about improving our odds of a sighting. She laughed, indicating she had only seen two in the past five months, and those were outside of Starbucks. 

Roadrunners are in the park, but they are not easily spotted. I will not give up on my quest. We will go back to the southwestern U.S. and try again.

Common Reptiles of White Sands National Park

  • Bleached earless lizard
  • Common side-blotched lizard
  • Desert box turtle
  • Long-nosed leopard lizard
  • Little white whiptail
  • Prairie rattlesnake
  • Sonoran gopher snake
  • Southwestern fence lizard
  • Western coachwhip
  • Western diamondback rattlesnake

Common Mammals of White Sands National Park

  • American badger
  • Apache pocket mouse
  • Black-tailed jackrabbit
  • Bobcat
  • Coyote
  • Desert cottontail
  • Kit fox
  • Merriam’s kangaroo rat
  • Pocket gopher
  • Porcupine

Scorpions

Last but not least, we need to acknowledge that scorpions live in White Sands. Scorpions in this area have mild venom. Their sting is painful but not dangerous to humans.

Searching for Wildlife Tracks

In addition to observing wildlife, you can search for their tracks. The sand captures perfect imprints until the wind blows away the evidence. 

 Spotting various tracks throughout the park can be a fun challenge. We detected many sets of tracks during our visit. I tried to make Scooby and Shaggy proud. You can find more information about common tracks here.

Watching the Sunset

Each day about an hour before sunset, the park offers a stroll led by a ranger. You can learn about the park and end your day with a spectacular panoramic view. Be sure to verify the time and location with a ranger at the visitor center.

Backcountry Camping

Camping is one of the more popular things to do at White Sands. Sleeping under the stars in this wide-open world is such a treat. There is little to no light pollution, and you can watch the Milky Way come to life before your eyes.

Unfortunately, backcountry camping is currently closed. The park is rehabilitating the campsites, and a target date still needs to be provided. Monitor the White Sands National Park website for updates as you plan your trip.

Stargazing

Camping in the park would provide plenty of stargazing opportunities. Since that is not an option, you still have two alternatives for observing the night sky.

Full Moon Nights

Park closing times are extended for each full moon night from May through October. It is a great chance to stay later in the park as the moon illuminates the dunes. 

Since most desert animals are nocturnal, your chances of spotting wildlife will be better. It also allows you to stargaze. Watching the black sky light up with millions of white stars brings pure joy.

Moonlight Hikes

The park offers moonlight hikes near but not on the same night as a full moon from March through November. You can hike the dunes beneath the moon’s glow and hear the desert come to life as the nocturnal animals emerge from their hiding places.

There are additional fees for this ranger-guided program, and capacity is limited. Tickets become available two months ahead of the scheduled date. Those tickets must be purchased in advance, either online or over the phone. 

Picnicking

Picnic area at White Sands National Park
Picnic area at White Sands National Park. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

With gorgeous vistas, the park is a fantastic place to enjoy a peaceful picnic lunch. There are three designated picnic areas around mile markers 6 to 7 on Dunes Drive:

  • Primrose Picnic Area
  • Roadrunner Picnic Area
  • Yucca Picnic Area

These sections provide shaded tables and grills. The picnic shelters conveniently sit near dunes, perfect for family play. There are restrooms in each area as well.

Bicycling

Do you like to bike? You can ride on Dunes Drive right through the heart of the dunes. This scene feels like something you would see on a Peloton. Only you will be doing it for real.

Remember you will share a narrow, winding, sand-covered road with cars, trucks, and RVs. Rangers recommend you wear a helmet. 

Off-road biking is not permitted. Stay on the road and in parking areas only.

Mountain bikes and beach bikes with wide tires should be fine. Road bikes with skinny street tires are not suited for these road conditions.

Note you will need to bring your bike since the park does not offer bike rentals. If you enter the park on a bicycle, the entrance fee is $15 a person.

Riding Horses

Do you have a horse? If so, you can go horseback riding in the park.

You must submit a special permit at the park entrance upon arrival. The NPS recommends you complete the form before your visit. You can find more information about riding horses and the permit here. What a fantastic way to experience this unique park!

White Sands National Park
Beautiful White Sands National Park. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Planning Your Visit to White Sands National Park

  • Check the White Sands National Park website for information, current updates, and closures.
  • Watch our video for additional travel tips.
  • Use the map below to view the area.
  • Plan your activities based on our list of top things to do.
  • If you plan to take a moonlight hike, reserve your spot(s).
  • Bring plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Pack the following to protect your skin from the sun:
    • Sunscreen
    • Sunglasses
    • Wide-brimmed hat
    • Long-sleeved shirt
    • Long pants
  • Bring a camera to capture beautiful memories.

When visiting national parks, we take our Venture Pal backpack to carry necessities like those listed above. This light pack is perfect for day hikes and exploration. It has various pockets, including a waterproof wet pouch. We take it with us everywhere we go!

*** White Sands Missile Range regularly conducts missile tests. Dunes Drive will be closed during these times. Monitor the website for closures when planning your trip. The dates typically get published in advance. You can find current closure information here. ***

Where to Stay

Alamogordo is only 15 to 20 minutes from the park. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants in the area. You can also stay in Las Cruces, about an hour away.

We stayed at Hampton Inn Alamogordo, conveniently located next to U.S. Highway 70, which will take you directly to White Sands. Hampton Inn provides clean rooms, hot breakfast, and helpful service.

Attractions in Alamogordo

Are you nuts? If you like nuts, especially pistachios, you must stop at PistachioLand. It is a touristy but fun place.  

At PistachioLand, you will find:

  • World’s Largest Pistachio
  • Pistachio Tree Farm
  • McGinn’s Country Store
  • Arena Blanca Winery

They have a little bit of everything here. There are tons of souvenirs and snacks, among many other things. They even offer wine tastings and food samples. The main focus is pistachios, of course. 

You will see PistachioLand billboards all across the state of New Mexico.

Make the National Park Loop

Residents asked if we were making the loop. Yes, we are!

There are two other national parks close by. You can complete the circle, making for an excellent road trip. Each park is unique and offers something very different.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, located in Salt Flat, Texas, is about 3 hours from White Sands. There are beautiful mountains with many great hikes.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is about 3 1/4 hours from White Sands. You will find an enormous, spectacular underground world, unlike anything you have seen.

Visiting White Sands National Park

Surrounded by rolling dunes and mountain vistas, you will find joy in White Sands National Park whether you take a stroll, play in the sand, sled, or hike. Playing in God’s giant sandbox is a thrill.

Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey

Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey

Scott And Julie McConkey

After 30 years, Scott and Julie McConkey left the corporate world for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year became a second act, and they are now full-time travel bloggers!
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