Best Things to Do in White Sands National Park
Located in New Mexico, White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world at 275 square miles. White Sands was a National Monument from 1933, but designated a National Park in 2019 making it the 62nd US National Park. Surrounded by the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains, the landscape of White Sands is incredible. Continue reading to learn about the best things to do in White Sands National Park, when to visit White Sands, where to stay near White Sands, and more to help you plan your trip.
About White Sands National Park
White Sands was created from an ancient sea millions of years ago, which left behind gypsum. Wind and water continued to break down the gypsum crystals until they became sand. This process continues to occur from the gypsum that comes down from the surrounding mountains. There is water located below the dunefield which provides moisture to keep the dunes from blowing away. Not many plans or animals can thrive in this climate, but those that do are unique. White Sands National Park is home to more than 800 animal species including the bleached earless lizard and the kit fox.
Best Time to Visit White Sands
The best time to visit White Sands is in the fall or spring when the weather is mild. Summers can get very hot with temperatures up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. During the winter the lows can get down to the 20s. Therefore, the best months of the year to visit are between March-May and September-November.
Hours and Entrance Fees
Hours: Dunes drive is open daily from 7 am (except for monument closure days and Christmas) and closes at 9 pm in the Summer and 8 pm in the fall. The visitor center has more limited hours and is open from 9 am to 5 or 6 pm. For the most up to date hours, access the national park service website.
Fees: White Sands National Park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle or $15 per person and the ticket is valid for 7 consecutive days. If you are planning to visit more US national parks this year, purchase an America the Beautiful National Park Pass ahead of time which allows access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites including national parks and national monuments.
How to Get to White Sands
White Sands National Park is located in southern New Mexico, 54 miles east of Las Cruces. The closest major airport is located an hour and a half away from White Sands National Park in El Paso, TX. Search for flights to El Paso on Skyscanner to find the best price. Make sure to reserve a rental car ahead of time on Discover Cars to explore White Sands National Park.
If you are doing a road trip, White Sands National Park is 3.5 hours from Albuquerque, 5 hours from Tucson, and 6.5 hours from Phoenix. White Sands is a perfect weekend getaway from Phoenix or Tucson, and a nice day trip from El Paso or Albuquerque.
Where to Stay Near White Sands
The closest town to White Sands is Alamogordo, located 20 minutes away. Alamogordo has limited food and accommodation options, so I recommend staying in Las Cruces, a city 55 minutes from White Sands. Las Cruces has more accommodation options, including cheap Airbnb options.
If you prefer to stay in a hotel, you can use Booking.com to book your hotel. If you decide to stay in Las Cruces, on Saturday mornings there is a nice farmers market in the center that is worth a visit. I recommend going to a Bite of Belgium for breakfast (get there very early) and Pastaggio’s Italian Restaurant for dinner.
Things to Know When Visiting White Sands
- The only place to fill up water is at the visitor center, so make sure to bring plenty of water with you if you are planning to hike.
- If you are hiking far from the parking, make sure to orient yourself with which direction you parked. You can do this by looking at the surrounding mountains and where the sun is.
- White Sands Missile Range is located next to White Sands. When there are missile range tests, the monument and dunes drive are closed. The visitor center does remain open during the closures. These closures can happen twice a week for 1-2 hours. You can check for scheduled closures on the national park service website.
- The closest gas station is 13 miles away from the park in Alamogordo so prepare and fill up gas ahead of your visit.
Best Things To Do in White Sands National Park
Learn About White Sands at the Visitor Center
A visit to White Sands National Park is not complete without a quick stop at the visitor center. The visitor center has an interactive exhibit where you can learn about White Sands and the plants and animals that live there. You can also walk through the native plant garden in front of the visitor center using a guide book from the visitor center to learn about the plants. If you have time to learn more, the visitor center plays a 17 minute long film called A Land in Motion every 30 minutes that talks about the gypsum dunefield and the plants, people, and animals who have lived there.
Drive Through Dunes Drive
Continue your visit to White Sands National Park by driving the 8 mile Dunes Drive that takes you from the visitor center to the middle of the dunefield. The first 5 miles of the road are paved and the last 3 are packed gypsum sand. We had no trouble driving on this road with a sedan. Along the road there are several spots to stop and climb the sand dunes. The biggest sand dunes are located at the furthest end of the road from the visitor center.
Sled Down the Sand Dunes
Sledding is one of the best things to do in White Sands National Park. Gypsum sand packs well which makes it perfect for sledding. It’s not as fast as sledding on snow, but it can get close if you find the right sand dune and have the right sled. If it just rained recently then the sand is even more packed and sleek. The best dunes for sledding can be found at the end of Dunes Drive near the Alkali Flat Trail and the Backcountry Camping Trail.
Try to find a sand dune that many people have already sled down so you have an already packed path to use and can go faster. If you can’t find any lanes already created, form your own by sledding down the same spot several times. It is best to use waxed plastic saucers for sledding which you can rent at the visitor center or bring with you.
Hike on the Sand Dunes
One of the best things to do in White Sands National Park is hike on the sand dunes. There are 5 established trails at White Sands National Park. Each trail is marked with a different colored post. In some areas you are allowed to hike off the marked trails and create your own hiking trail which offers one of the best things to do in White Sands National Park.
The most beautiful area to hike in White Sands is at the end of Dunes Drive starting at Alkali Flat trailhead. Instead of following the marked trail you can create your own path which allows you to get away from people and enjoy this incredible place off the beaten path. If you are worried you will get lost or have trouble orientating yourself, then you can follow one of the established trails below. For a long hike I recommend wearing sneakers or hiking boots because the sand does get rough on the feet.
The Playa Trail is the first marked trail that you will see on Dunes Drive. A playa is a low area that temporarily fills with water during rainstorms. Follow the green trail markers for 0.5 miles roundtrip. Throughout the trail there are signs with information on how this area is undergoing constant change and the impact of that change.
Dune Life Nature Trail
Soon after Playa Trail you will see the Dune Life Nature Trail on your left. This is a 1 mile loop that has 2 steep sand dunes. Follow the blue trail marker and you will find information signs so you can learn more about White Sands and the animals that live here. Since this trail is at the edge of the dunefield, there is more vegetation and animals. You will most likely not see any animals during the day but look out for the tracks in the sand of kit foxes, coyotes, birds, badgers, and reptiles.
Interdune Boardwalk is a 0.4 mile roundtrip boardwalk that is fully accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. In this area you are required to stay on the boardwalk.
Backcountry Camping Trail
Backcountry Camping Trail is where you start getting into the larger sand dunes. It is 2 miles roundtrip and requires climbing over many steep dunes.
Alkali Flat Trail
Alkali Flat Trail is the hardest marked trail at White Sands. Most of the hike is a loop making up a total of 5 miles up and down large sand dunes. There is barely any vegetation here and instead you will find nice large white sand dunes and a beautiful landscape. This is the most beautiful part of the park where the sand is so white it almost looks like snow. If you want to complete this loop, make sure to follow the red trail markers as this part of the dunefield as it is easy to get lost since the dunes are very large.
Interested in exploring the Southwest more? Check out our 10 Day American Southwest Road Trip Itinerary
Take Incredible Photos
One of the highlights of visiting White Sands National Park is being able to take incredible photos of this unique landscape. For the best photos, head to the end of Dunes Drive where Alkali Flat Trail starts. Instead of following the trail, make your own path. Having a person in your photo shows the perspective of how large the sand dunes are and how vast the dunefield is. Try to wear a color that will contrast with the white so you are more easily seen. Be careful with your camera because there is often blowing sand that can scratch your lens.
Explore the Sand Dunes and Enjoy White Sands
White Sands National Park is one of the most incredible places I have ever been to. It is nice to spend time relaxing and taking in the beauty of White Sands. You can bring a blanket and have a picnic (remember to carry everything back with you), play games on the sand dunes, or just run up and down the dunes and get a great workout with beautiful views.
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