To fully experience White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico, go camping among the alabaster dunes. Check out this guide for tips on snagging one of the 10 backcountry camping spots.
We’ve visited our fair share of beautiful places on our travels these last few years, but there have only been a few natural wonders that have left me in such awe that I wondered if the ground underfoot was still planet Earth. This may sound like serious exaggeration, but looking out to see the sculpted dunes of sparkling white gypsum at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico is otherworldly. And part of this may be because I haven’t spent a lot of time around snow, but keep in mind that you’ll likely be under the bright, shining sun with temps rising above 100°F in the middle of a summer day.
As of December 2019, White Sands is no longer a National Monument, but a National Park! It’s the 62nd National Park in the United States.
You can hike, sled, and even go horseback riding through these sand dunes, but the best way to experience White Sands is by pitching a tent and staying overnight in one of the 10 backcountry camping spots. The true magic happens at sunrise and sunset when the soft golden light makes the gypsum crystal glow and it’s so quiet and still you feel like the only person around. Since the weather can be a bit extreme and there are only a few spots, we’ve put together all our tips to help you make the most of camping in White Sands National Park in New Mexico.
Where is White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is located in southern New Mexico. Unless you are road tripping through, the closest airport is in El Paso, Texas, which is about an hour and a half away. If you need to book a hotel before or after you camp, Las Cruces, New Mexico is only an hour away and has a few good hotel options.
About the Area
It seems weird for hundreds of miles of sand to be in the middle of the desert, but this area used to be under water over 250 million years ago. After the Permian Sea dried up and disappeared, the gypsum seabed eventually broke down into smaller particles. Gypsum is a mineral that technically dissolves in water, but since the area is so dry, bright white hills of tiny crystals formed. White Sands are the world’s largest gypsum dune field, by far.
The dune fields cover about 275 square miles, and 115 square miles are located within White Sands National Park. The rest of the dunes are military land, often used for missile testing (don’t worry, the park closes down when there’s a scheduled missile launch).
Weather in White Sands National Park
Since White Sands National Park is part the Chihuahuan Desert, the temperatures vary greatly both throughout the seasons and within a single day. The most comfortable time to camp weather-wise is autumn (late September, early October) when daytime temperatures reach the 80s with light winds, and cooler evening temperatures are in the 50s. Spring (March through May) can also be a good time to camp when the temperature varies from the 70s to the 40s. However, strong windstorms are somewhat common during these months.
In summer and winter, you’ll be dealing with hot and cold extremes, so you just need to be extra prepared for both. Summer days average about 95°F (35°C), but can spike as high as 110°F (38°). Evenings are comfortable in the 60s, so summer can be a great option if you only plan to be there for sunset through sunrise, and then find somewhere cooler during the heat of the day.
Winter nights can get pretty cold, usually around 23°F (-5°C), so make sure to have a sleeping bag that can handle those freezing temperatures (like this one), warm socks, and lots of layers.
We went camping in early September, and it was hot enough mid-day on the first day that we opted to head out of the park to get lunch. Everything cooled off by the evening, but the winds started picking up and a storm looked like it was heading our way. Fortunately, we didn’t get any rain, but the wind howled through our tent all night. The next day was grey and cloudy til mid-day, which wasn’t great for photos (everything looked boring and flat). But, it was perfect weather for sledding and playing in the dunes since no sun made it much cooler.
Tips for Camping in White Sands National Park
Camping in White Sands can be complicated for a few reasons, so here are our tips for making sure you snag a spot and have a great experience.
Getting a Campsite
1 Check the schedule for closures of White Sands National Park due to missile testing
Yes, you read that right. Missile testing. Over half of the dune field is occupied by the White Sands Missile Range. The U.S. Army started using this area as a missile testing area back in 1945, and still periodically conducts tests. When that happens, White Sands National Park and oftentimes part of Highway 70 closes down to visitors and campers.
You can check the NPS website here to see the tests and Monument closure periods that are currently scheduled. Monument staff is usually notified about two weeks ahead of time, but there can be last minute tests where the Monument is only notified 24 hours ahead of time. To get the most up-to-date information on closures (it’s not always posted online), call the Monument visitor center at (575) 479-6124. I’d recommend calling before you plan your trip, and again within 24 hours of when you plan to arrive at White Sands.
Since most of the tests are conducted in the middle of the night or in the early morning, it means there is no camping allowed on the day of the test. As there is no way to guarantee that White Sands will be open on a particular day, we decided to create a little cushion in our trip so we could also camp either the day before or after we’d originally planned. Create a backup plan with an alternate place to camp or stay in case you get stuck with a last-minute closure.
2 There are only 10 backcountry camping spots, and they’re all first-come, first served. Get there at 8 am when the visitor center opens to snag a permit.
Yeah, literally 10 spots. And these are backcountry spots, which means you’ll be hiking to your campsite along a 2-mile loop among the gypsum dunes called the Backcountry Camping Trail.
Since these campsites cannot be reserved ahead of time, check-in at the visitor center when it opens at 9 am. We were the first ones to claim a camping spot when we arrived at 8:30 am (the visitor center used to open at 8 am). But, by the time dusk fell and everyone was pitching their tents, it looked like most of the camping spots were taken.
We went in early September when the weather is still pretty warm but not terrible. I’m sure the campsites get scarcer towards the end of the month when the weather is more pleasant, but you’ll likely have no problem getting a campsite in the middle of summer or the dead of winter.
You can only get your campsite for one day at a time, which means if you want to stay multiple nights, you’ll need to hike out from your campsite, drive the six miles back to the visitor center the next morning, and claim your spot again.
3 Choose Campsite 5 if you want to be the furthest out, which means the closest to untouched dunes
I may have groaned a little bit when Aaron wanted to pick campsite 5 – it’s in the middle of the loop, which means we had to hike our gear in and out one mile both ways. But, this also meant the dunes right next to us were untouched and totally free from footprints. Since we were planning on taking photos at both sunset and sunrise, this made it convenient to get the shots we wanted, and then have a shorter walk back to our tent.
Hiking to your Campsite
4 Be prepared to hike your gear over sand dunes
Like I just mentioned, these are backcountry campsites, which means you’ll have to hike before you can pitch your tent. All 10 campsites are located along the 2 miles Backcountry Camping Loop. Since we chose campsite 5, the furthest away from the parking lot, we had to hike our gear out about a mile.
The backcountry trail is marked with small poles sticking up every so often. Since the sand is shifting all the time, there’s not really a defined trail, you just have to look for the markers. The ones for this trail are orange with a spade on them, which you can see here.
We decided to leave our shoes in the car and go barefoot for this hike. Gypsum has a few cool properties, like the fact that it doesn’t absorb heat like typical sand. So even with bright sun and 80F+ weather, the sand wasn’t too hot on our feet. It did feel a little cool at night, but not freezing. If you don’t want to go barefoot, I’d opt for light tennis shoes or hiking sandals. Just avoid heavy hiking boots that are totally unnecessary and will make you sink into the sand.
5 Don’t hike in the heat of the day
There is absolutely no shade once you’re out in the sand dunes, so things can heat up quickly. Whether you’re hiking to your campsite or along one of the other marked trails in the park, avoid doing so during the heat of the day, especially during the warmer months. You can check a list of all of the hikes in White Sands National Park here.
6 It’s reeallly easy to get lost. You’re basically just surrounded by white hills of shifting sand, after all.
Getting lost is not only embarrassing but very dangerous. As we entered the park, the ranger at the kiosk cautioned us to pay careful attention to the markers. He said that people get lost here pretty often, and they’ll have to send someone out to go find them.
It can be extremely hot during the day with no shade (the record is 110°F), and drop more than 40°F at night. Plus high winds, rain, or lightning can be tough to deal with when you’re completely exposed to the elements.
The cell service out here is not good. We have Verizon and did not have phone service at most places in the park, though our GPS did work. As a safety precaution, drop a pin on Google maps to wherever you need to get back to, whether that’s a tent, parking lot or start of the trail.
The hikes within the park do have trail markers, but there are miles and miles of dunes you can explore with no markers at all. Don’t count on tracing your footsteps back, because winds can easily erase them in the sand. We used the mountains as a reference and tried to count how many dunes we walked over, but had our campsite marked on our GPS. You’ll get the GPS coordinates of your campsite when you check in so you don’t accidentally drop a pin in the wrong spot.
Since cell service is bad your phone battery can drain quickly, so we had our phones off or on airplane mode whenever we weren’t using them. We also brought along a backup phone battery charger since there’s no place to charge your phone in the park.
If you do get lost and need help, don’t hesitate to call 911. If you can’t call, try to text a friend who is in a reliable service spot to call 911 for you.
Things to Bring with You
7 Bring (and drink) enough water
The last place to fill up any water containers is the visitor center, so make sure you have enough with you when you enter White Sands. Bring one gallon (4 liters) of water per person per day. If it’s hot, you’ll probably drink it all, but don’t forget to hydrate even if it’s cool and you don’t feel as thirsty.
8 Pack easy, high-energy backpacking food
Since we were only staying one night, we kept things super simple and brought easy foods like jerky, protein bars, apples, and a few salty snacks. You do have to carry everything in a mile, so you want to keep it light.
If you want to grill or have a picnic, you can stop at one of the three picnic areas (Yucca, Roadrunner, and Primrose) along Dunes Drive before heading to your tent for the night.
9 Wear sun gear, including sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses
The bright sun is intensified by the reflection off the snow-white sand. Make sure you have a hat and sunglasses, even for the little ones. We had to pick up a cheap pair of shades for Hudson in the gift shop because he’s always ditching his, but we love these bendable sunglasses by Vans.
And of course, never forget the sunscreen! While you’re not anywhere near the ocean, we still prefer to avoid the chemicals and use mineral-based sunscreens. You can find a list of our favorite sunscreens here.
10 Bring your backpacking tent and gear
If you have a light backpacking tent, use it! Again, you’re going to be lugging all your stuff over at least a mile of soft white dunes, so pack smart. Here is a list of gear you’ll need:
- Backpacking Backpack: The easiest way to carry everything is in a backpacking backpack. You can check out great options at REI here.
- Backpacking Tent: REI has an awesome backpacking bundle for about $200 that includes a 2-person tent, sleeping bag, and mat. You can get away with non-backpacking gear for this since the hike out really isn’t that long, but it’ll definitely be a lot easier with lighter gear. We’ve been using this Coleman Sundome 4-Person Tent which works well and is very affordable, but it would be nice to have something a bit lighter.
- Sleeping Bag: The type of sleeping bag you’ll need depends on when you go. We brought our Coleman mummy sleeping bags that are meant to go down to 0°F, and Hudson has a smaller kids version.
- Mat: I originally thought we’d be pitching our tent on the soft sand, so a mat sounded kind of extra, but campsites are actually in the valleys of the dunes. These valleys are hard-packed, so it was at least as hard (if not harder) than sleeping on dirt. You can get an insulated sleeping pad to use in all seasons, or opt for an uninsulated pad that’s cheaper but only covers 3 seasons.
- Flashlights/Headlamps: The beauty about backcountry camping is that you can actually see the stars! But that also means it’s pitch black too, so bring a flashlight (I’m a fan of these little Maglite flashflights), or a headlamp. These Black Diamond headlamps have a red night vision option which is great.
11 Don’t forget your sled
One of the funnest things to do in White Sands National Park is to go sand sledding, so don’t forget to bring your sled with you when you head out to your tent. After you get that perfect shot of the untouched sand dunes, grab your sled and go for a ride! You can buy a sled at the visitors center: $10 for used ($3 buyback) or $20 for new ($5 buyback). We bought the $2 wax, but I don’t think it made much of a difference. It seemed like the best way to go faster was to slide down the same spot a few times to create a smooth track.
At the Campsite
12 Be ready for the winds
Once you’ve hiked to the campsite and you’re ready to set up your tent, be prepared for the wind. Strong windstorms are common March through May, but it can be windy any day of the year. When we visited in September, it was calm during the day, but the winds started picking up in the early evening and came with pretty strong force during the night.
Make sure you have stakes and a mallet to secure your tent. You’ll be setting up camp on the hard valley floor and there are no rocks around, so you’ll need a mallet to get your stakes into the crusty earth.
13 Follow the Leave No Trace principles and Dispose of Waste Properly
These white dunes are pristine; let’s keep them that way! The Leave No Trace principles provide a set of guidelines on how to dispose of waste, which you can read here. The closest bathrooms to the campsites are back at the parking lot, so use them before you hike out to your campsite. If you don’t want to hike back out to the toilets, then purchase a human waste disposal bag (WAG bag) and pack everything out so we can all leave this place as beautiful as we found it.
14 Get the America the Beautiful Pass
The entrance fee to White Sands National Park is $5 per person, but this is covered for everyone in your car with the America the Beautiful National Park Pass. The National Park Pass is $80 per year. It’s well worth it if you’re planning on visiting a few national parks during the year, especially the more popular ones like Yosemite or Zion that have a $30 entrance fee. The camping fee for White Sands is only $3 per person per night for anyone 16 years and old, or $1.50 per night for anyone 15 or younger.
15 Other places to camp or stay if you don’t get a campsite
Since you have to deal with closures due to missile testing or just random bad weather on top of the fact that there are only ten first-come, first-served campsites in White Sands National Park, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan in case you don’t get a campsite. Here are a few options for camping near White Sands National Park:
Lake Holloman: Free camping about 5 minutes outside of the entrance of White Sands.
Oliver Lee Memorial State Park: This state park is about 30 minutes away from White Sands and costs $12 per night to camp.
Las Cruces: If you don’t want to camp, Las Cruces is the closest city with a decent number of options. It’s about an hour southwest of the entrance of White Sands and has a few unique and atmospheric options, like the Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces or the Lundeen Inn of the Arts. We stayed in Las Cruces on the last night of our road trip since we were flying out of El Paso, and stayed at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott Las Cruces, which we found clean and comfortable.
We hope you have a wonderful time camping in White Sands National Park! If you have any questions, please drop us a comment below. Explore responsibly and practice leave no trace principles so that we can preserve the natural beauty of this place for all to enjoy.