White Sands National Park: What You Need to Know

Disclosure:  In order to keep providing you with free content, this post may contain affiliate links.  If you make a booking or purchase through one of these links, we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.  So, a HUGE thank you to you if you click one of these links.

WHITE SANDS NATIONAL PARK: BASIC INFORMATION

What is White Sands?

White Sands is a national park in southern New Mexico.  

A massive pocket of shimmering white sands sits between two mountain ranges in the Tularosa Basin:

  • San Andres Mountains
  • Sacramento Mountains  

The entire dune field spans 275 square miles.  The national park preserves over half of this natural wonder in the Chihuahuan Desert.

When flying into El Paso, we could see the glistening white sands from the sky.  She beckoned to us.  We had to see her firsthand!

How is this sand different?

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

Most beach sands are made of quartz.  These sands are made of gypsum

Unlike your typical beach sands, gypsum does not absorb heat.  It feels cool and comfortable to the touch 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 and no ocean.  You will not hear crashing waves.  You will not 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.

Less mess

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 much easier.

Fees and passes

The park entrance fee is $25 per car.  The pass is good for 7 days, starting at date of purchase.

You may want to consider an America the Beautiful park pass for $80.  This annual pass is good for 1 year, starting at date of purchase.  It is valid at all our national parks.

Operating hours and seasons

White Sands National Park is open daily year-round except for Christmas Day.  

Hours vary throughout the year.  The park always opens at 7:00 am.  The closing time changes based on season.  Note that the park is in the Mountain time zone.

Check the website for current information.

White Sands National Park Visitor Center
White Sands National Park Visitor Center

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 a great educational video 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.

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

Dunes Drive

There is no path least taken here.  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.  The first 5 miles are paved.  The last 3 miles are hard-packed sand.  So, this is a 16 mile round trip journey.

We found the hard-packed sand portion of the drive to be suitable for cars.  Just take it slow.  

In spots, it can feel like you are driving in snow.  The wind can also blow mounds of sand onto the road.  We did not have any issues though.

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 this park?

White Sands has something for everyone.  

We saw lots of couples enjoying a leisurely beach day.  Families were playing and laughing together.  People were 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

Top activities

  • 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

Trail system

There are 5 hiking trails in the park.  Each is well-marked and offers beautiful scenery.  

I really like the way the trails are marked.  They use a system with colored trail markers and symbols.  Four of the five trails are set up this way.  The boardwalk trail does not use this system, as it is not necessary.  

Whoever designed the system must be a card shark.  The symbols are those found on common 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 cannot find their car.

You can walk up and down the sand dunes freely without sticking to a trail.  It is easy to lose your way.  That is why the trails use the marker system.

The best advice is to always have the next trail 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.  It is often windy.  

Temperatures can top 100 degrees in the summer months.  The thermometer can dip below freezing at times in the winter months.  Storms can pop up suddenly.

Weather conditions may impact you more than you realize.  Sun and wind can have a dehydrating effect.  Walking in 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 tend to worry about drinking a lot of water to later find there are no restroom facilities.  This park has you covered.  There are restrooms at the park entrance, in the picnic areas and near the trailheads.

Always have a hiking buddy.  It is recommended not to hike alone.

What to bring for hiking

  • 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 and/or signal mirror

Playa Trail

The Playa Trail has green trail markers with the heart symbol.  It is 0.5 mile round trip.  We found the path to be level and easy.  

There is considerable vegetation in this area.  We discovered several holes in the ground that were clearly made by animals.  Unfortunately, we did not see the animals themselves.  

We saw various sets of tracks in the sand.  Not all of the sand is white here.  We found sizable sections of brown sand.

Dune Life Nature Trail

Dune Life Nature Trail has blue trail markers with the club symbol.  It is a 1 mile loop.  It is rated moderate.  

There are a couple steep dunes, but it is not bad.  There is quite a bit of vegetation on this trail as well.  

The area is known for spotting wildlife.  Animals, birds and reptiles all inhabit the area.  We saw several birds, a couple beetles and lots of tracks.  

The views at the top of the steep dunes will reward your climbing efforts.

Interdune Boardwalk at White Sands National Park
Interdune Boardwalk

Interdune Boardwalk

As the name implies, Interdune Boardwalk is a boardwalk.  You will feel like you are at the beach.  

There are a couple bench seats along the way and a shaded canopy as well.  It is a great chance for a leisurely stroll or a rest to enjoy the beautiful view.  

There is some vegetation here as well.  We spotted birds and several sets of tracks.  

The boardwalk is an easy, level 0.4 mile round trip walk.  It just seems odd not to find an ocean at the end of the path.

Backcountry Camping Trail

The Backcountry Camping Trail has orange trail markers with the spade symbol.  It is a moderate 2 mile round trip hike.  

In full disclosure, we did not hike this trail.  We spent time on all the trails except this one.

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

Climbing a sand dune on Alkali Flat Trail in White Sands
Climbing dunes on Alkali Flat Trail

Alkali Flat Trail

The Alkali Flat Trail is a strenuous 5 mile round trip hike.  The path has 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.  

There is little vegetation.  The white sands really stand out against the blue sky.  Each time you peak a steep dune, you are rewarded with a beautiful view.

SLEDDING

Ready to sled at White Sands National Park
Ready to go sledding

Feel like a kid again

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 own sled.  You may want to consider purchasing one at a local store before visiting the park.  We did not think 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 layer of wax to the bottom of the saucer.  Otherwise, you will not make it very far down the hill.

The park gift shop sells bars of wax.  The cost was $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 not be as fast as those in snow.  But, it is a great time.  We even saw a woman sledding with her dog in her lap.  

Head for the back of the park for the best sledding dunes.  The last two miles of Dunes Drive has less vegetation.  This means more spots for clean runs.

PLAYING

The simple pleasures in life are the best…

Playing at White Sands National Park
Playing in the sand

Dip your toes

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

Bring a pail and shovel

We saw many young kids excitedly digging in the sand.  This will be the biggest sandbox they have ever seen!  Adults are welcome to join in.

Bring the family dog

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.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Say cheese

This 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

It’s a wild life

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.  There is more vegetation in this area.  That means a greater chance of seeing wildlife.

Ten common birds of White Sands

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

We spotted wrens and mocking birds.  I must tell you that I desperately want to see a roadrunner.  I had hoped it would happen at this park.  

I asked a ranger about improving our odds.  She laughed and said she had only seen two in the past five months.  She saw those 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.

Ten common reptiles of White Sands

  • 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

Ten common mammals of White Sands

  • 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

Footprints in the sand

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 quite a number 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

Sunset stroll

Each day about an hour before sunset, the park offers a leisurely stroll led by a ranger.  It is timed to end at sunset.  You can learn about the park and end your day with a spectacular panoramic view.

Be sure to verify time and location with a ranger at the visitor center.

CAMPING

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.  You can watch the Milky Way come to life before your eyes.

Unfortunately, backcountry camping is currently closed.  The park is rehabilitating the campsites.  There is not yet a target date of when this will return.  Be sure to monitor the White Sands National Park website for updates as you plan your trip. 

STARGAZING

Camping in the park would clearly provide plenty of opportunity for stargazing.  Since that is not an option right now, 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.  This is a great chance to stay later in the park.  

You can see the moon illuminate the dunes.  Since most of the desert animals are nocturnal, your chances of spotting wildlife will be better.  

This gives you an opportunity to stargaze.  It brings Julie and I pure joy to watch the black sky light up with millions of white stars.

Full moon nights for 2022 are:

  • May 16
  • June 14
  • July 13
  • August 12
  • September 10
  • October 10

Full moon hikes

One day before the full moon in the months of April through October, the park offers full moon hikes.  

You can hike the sand dunes beneath the glow of the moon and hear the desert come to life as the nocturnal animals emerge from their hiding places.

Note, there are additional fees for this ranger-guided program.  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.  

Full moon hikes for 2022 are:

  • April 16
  • May 15
  • June 13
  • July 12
  • August 11
  • September 9
  • October 9

PICNICKING

Picnic area at White Sands National Park
Picnic area at White Sands National Park

Picnic in the Park

The park is a wonderful place to enjoy a picnic lunch.  The beautiful setting is so peaceful.  

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.  They are conveniently located by sand dunes that are perfect for family play.  There are restrooms in each area as well.

BICYCLING

Ride the wind

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…

Just remember you will be sharing a narrow, winding, sand-covered road with cars, trucks and RVs.  It is recommended to wear a helmet.

Off-road biking is not permitted.  You must stay on the road and 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 own bike.  You cannot rent a bike in the park.  

If you enter the park on a bicycle, the entrance fee is $15 a person.

RIDING HORSES

Horseback riding

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

A special permit must be submitted at the park entrance upon arrival.  It is recommended to complete the form beforehand.  You can find more information about riding horses and the permit here.  

What a wonderful way to experience this unique park!

White Sands National Park
Beautiful White Sands National Park

PLAN YOUR ADVENTURE AT WHITE SANDS NATIONAL PARK

Where to start

  • 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 full moon hike, be sure to 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 pocket.  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 are typically 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.

We stayed at Hampton Inn Alamogordo. It is conveniently located next to U.S. Highway 70, which will take you directly to White Sands.

The room was clean.  A hot breakfast was included.  The staff was friendly and helpful.

Other attractions in Alamogordo

Are you nuts?  If you like nuts, especially pistachios, you need to stop at PistachioLand.  This 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 loop

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

There are three national parks in close proximity.  You can complete the circle too.  You will be glad you did.  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.

Check out our other national park guides:

About the author

We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.

2 thoughts on “White Sands National Park: What You Need to Know”

  1. I would absolutely LOVE to visit White Sands National Park in New Mexico and go sledding on the sand! Your video makes it look like so much fun! I’m definitely adding this one to my travel bucket list.

    Reply

Leave a Comment