White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum sand dune in the world, with sparkling white dunes rolling over 275 square miles. This post has everything you need to know before you go, and the best things to do in White Sands!
The sparkling white gypsum dunes of White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico stretch for miles, and almost make you question if you’re still on planet Earth. We’ve visited our fair share of beautiful places over these last few years, but there have only been a few natural wonders that have left me in such awe.
Since it recently became the 62nd National Park in the United States, there has been a huge peak in interest in White Sands. We’ve gathered all our tips for visiting White Sands National Park so you can be prepared and enjoy all this truly unique place has to offer.
About White Sands National Park
Over 250 million years ago, the area that is now White Sands used to be a body of water called the Permian Sea. When the 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. Gypsum is actually a clear crystal, but because the particles are always blowing around and bumping into each other, the scratched surfaces make it appear white. The White Sands dunes 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).
How to get to White Sands
White Sands National Park is located in southern New Mexico. The closest airport to White Sands is El Paso, Texas, which is about an hour and a half away. Albuquerque is about 3.5 hours away.
Unless you are road tripping from home, you’ll need to rent a car once you land at the airport. Check RentalCars.com to compare prices of the world’s biggest car rental services, including Hertz, Avis, and Budget.
Where to stay near White Sands National Park
Backcountry Camping in White Sands National Park
I recommend trying to camp at least one night in White Sands National Park. See our post here with everything you need to know about getting one of the ten backcountry camping spots. Camping spots cannot be reserved ahead of time; they can only be claimed on the day of in the Visitor Center on a first-come first-served basis.
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.
Hipcamp – If you haven’t heard of Hipcamp, it’s kind of like Airbnb for camping on private land. There is everything from spots to pitch a tent, to Airstreams, to cozy little cabins. There are a few spots to stay near White Sands that can be booked on Hipcamp, like this Tin Roofed Cabin for about $50 a night. If it’s your first time using HipCamp, sign up using this link to get $10 off your first stay.
Hotels Near White Sands National Park
If you’d prefer to stay in a hotel, Las Cruces, New Mexico is one of the most convenient options as it’s only about an hour away from White Sands. The Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces or the Lundeen Inn of the Arts are both unique, atmospheric options. We opted for the SpringHill Suites by Marriott Las Cruces, which we found clean and comfortable and had a good breakfast.
There are also a few cool Airbnbs in Las Cruces, like this modern loft that is made out of a shipping container. If you’re new to Airbnb, use this referral link for up to $30 off your first stay.
When to Visit White Sands
Since White Sands National Park is part the Chihuahuan Desert, the temperature varies greatly both throughout the seasons and within a single day. The most comfortable time to visit weather-wise is autumn (late September, early October) with highs in the 80s, lows in the 50s, and usually only light wind. Spring is also a great time to visit, when daytime temps usually peak in the 70s. However, windstorms can be somewhat common in the spring.
In summer and winter, you’ll be dealing with hot and cold extremes, so you 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 want to camp and enjoy the park at sunset and sunrise, and head out before the heat of the day.
What to bring with you to White Sands
While you’re in the park, you’ll want to be prepared with plenty of water and sun protection. These are the essentials you need in White Sands.
Water – plan to bring at least one gallon of water per person per day, and more if it’s hot and you’re planning on hiking. You can refill water bottles and jugs at the visitor center, but there are no refill stations once you’re in the park. We like these double-wall, vacuum insulated water bottles that keep your water cool, or these water reservoirs that are easy to refill and clean out.
Sunscreen – The white gypsum reflects the sun’s rays, so it’s extra bright in these dunes. I opt for a natural zinc sunscreen, like this one here. I usually carry around a sunscreen stick too, so it’s easy to reapply on my face throughout the day.
Sunglasses – Sunglasses are important for both sun protection, and from the sand when it gets windy.
Hat – Again, for sun protection.
Sled – If you have your own sled that works for sand, bring it! Otherwise, you can purchase one in the visitor center.
America the Beautiful park pass – Bring your park pass if you have it to cover entrance fees.
Check for closures before you go
This isn’t something you usually have to think about when planning a trip to a national park, but the White Sands Missile Range is located adjacent to the park. The park and part of highway US Highway 70 is closed during missile testing for about 3 hours. Testing is usually conducted in the middle of the night or in the early morning, so the closures usually aren’t a big issue if you’re only visiting during the day. The missile testing becomes a bigger issue if you’re planning on camping, because there is no camping on testing days.
Check the NPS website here for schedule tests and any park closures.
White Sands is also occasionally closed due to extreme weather or unsafe road conditions. Check the White Sands National Park Facebook page for updates on unexpected closures.
Entrance Fees into White Sands National Park
The entrance fee for White Sands is $25 per vehicle. Or, you can use the America the Beautiful park pass. The America the Beautiful pass is $80 for the annual pass, so worth it if you’re planning on visiting several national parks or monuments throughout the year.
9 Things To Do at White Sands National Park
1 Cruise down Dune Drive
Dune Drive is the only road through the park. It’s an 8 mile scenic drive (one way) that starts and ends at the visitors center. The drive takes about 45 minutes with no stopping. It starts off paved, but turns into packed sand. Don’t worry though, you don’t need all-wheel-drive to drive this route.
There are several parking lots along this road where you can stop to hike, go sledding, or have a picnic.
You can also bike this road.
2 Go sand sledding or sand boarding
The gypsum dunes at White Sands are great for sand sledding or sand boarding. Rounds disc sleds are sold in 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.
You could also try sandboarding, though you’ll have to bring your own board. We went sandboarding on a recent trip to Baja California Sur and had an absolute blast.
Some of the steepest dunes are at the turnaround point on Dune Drive, so the furthest from the visitors center.
3 Go on a hike to see enjoy the landscape and find untouched dunes
There are five marked trails in White Sands National Park. Each hike has a different marker with both a color and a symbol (like diamonds, hearts). The most important thing is be safe, so make sure you keep your eyes out for the next marker so you don’t get lost.
Here’s a bit of information about each of the hikes in White Sands:
Interdune Boardwalk – This is a 0.4 mile walk on an elevated boardwalk over the sand. It is fully wheel chair and stroller accessible. The walk includes sign posts with educational information about the area, flora and fauna, and animals.
Playa Trail – This is a 0.5 mile roundtrip hike, and the easiest one in the park. The Playa trails is not through the dunes; it’s a low-lying area in the park that fills with water after rainstorms. It changes throughout the year. Depending on the recent weather it can be brown dirt, sprinkled with gypsum sand, or covered in rainwater.
Dune Life Nature Trail – This one mile loop on the edge of the dunes. Here you get to see the brown desert meet the glowing white gypsum sand. Many animals call this area home, so if you’re lucky you may spot kit foxes, badgers, birds, coyotes, rodents, and reptiles like lizards and snakes.
Backcountry Camping Trail – This is a 2 mile loop hike through the heart of the dunes. If you’re going to do any trail in the park, this is the one I recommend, even if you’re not camping.
Two miles doesn’t seem very far, but it feels a lot further when you’re hiking up and down steep dunes of soft sand, so make sure it’s not too hot and you have plenty of water. This trail takes about 1.5 hour to finish if you don’t plan on exploring or taking pictures.
We followed the backcountry camping trail to the middle part of the loop (campsite #5), then made our way out into the untouched dunes. We tried to make sure we could see the marker we had left a couple of dunes over. Always track where you’re going and how you plan to get back, and don’t count on following your footsteps because the wind can quickly erase them.
Alkali Flat Trail – This 5 mile round trip trail is the longest and hardest hike in White Sands National Park. This trail takes you up and over the crystal white dunes to the edge of Alkali Flat, which is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero. During the last ice age, this lake filled the Tularosa Basina and covered 1,600 square miles.
4 Go camping in White Sands
White Sands is an unforgettable place to go camping. It’s truly unique, and it’s such an amazing experience being in White Sands when you practically have the whole thing to yourself.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are only 10 backcountry camping spots, and you can only reserve them day of in the visitors center. For all our tips on camping in White Sands National Park, read this post.
5 Get there for sunrise or stay for sunset
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.
6 Photograph the dunes
White Sands is absolutely stunning, and such an amazing place to photograph. Here are a few tips for taking great photographs at Whites Sands:
1 Shoot at Sunrise or sunset – Pictures of the dunes at midday are still cool, but the white dunes against blue sky feels pretty flat. The best way to get those golden hour photos is to camp in the park. The sand sparkles in the early morning sun, and you can catch some incredible colors at both sunrise and sunset.
2 Find untouched dunes – All the dunes around Dune Drive are often covered in footprints and sled tracks. If you want untouched dunes, you’ll have to head deep. We recommend taking the backcountry camping trail and heading one or two hills over (just make sure you know how to get back to the trail markers). If you’re up for a longer hike, try Alkali flats
3 Find texture and ridges – There’s so many cool lines throughout these dunes, like the ripples from the wind or a spine at the top of a dune.
7 Have a picnic
White Sands is a fun place to have a picnic. There are 62 shaded picnic tables with grills in three different spots in the park, so after a hike or going sledding, you can cook up lunch or dinner.
8 Participate in a Park Ranger Program
White Sands has some awesome ranger programs, including a guided one-hour sunset stroll, a full moon hike, and a Perseid Meteor Shower Watching Party on August 12, 2020. For more information about the White Sands Park Ranger programs, visit the National Park website.
9 Become a Junior Ranger
Our son loves the Junior Ranger programs at National Parks and National Monuments. The activities and information included in the Junior Ranger booklets are a great way for both kids and parents to learn more about the place they’re visiting. Plus, it’s always fun to earn a new Junior Ranger badge! I love it when the park rangers add a few extras into the Junior Ranger pledge, like making the kids promising to clean their rooms and eat all their veggies.