I never knew sand could be so white. It is blinding looking at the fields of white gypsum that stretch in every direction. It looks like snow, it feels like clay, it floats like sand. It’s a bit of a crazy experience.
There are fields like this in a lot of places, but none that rival White Sands in New Mexico. For those interested in visiting and exploring, read along for how to do so.
About White Sands National Park
Established as a National Monument in 1933, White Sands protects the largest field of gypsum “sand” in the world. It’s literally a sea of white in the otherwise start desert landscape. The park became a National Park in 2019 making it one of the newest parks in the country.
The park covers 145,762 acres of land in Southern New Mexico in the Chihuahuan desert which is one the largest in North America. The high winds take the gypsum and continuously breaks it down in the sand we see today.
The park is also one of the younger areas of the park, only thousands of years old compared to millions on some of the surrounding land. One of the most amazing aspects though is the ability to witness evolution as natural selection has caused lizards, moths, and other animals to develop lighter characteristics to blend into the sand.
The park see about 600,000 visitors a year, and oddly it still feels more like a National Monument than Park. There’s a smaller area of the land that’s been developed for visitors, but there’s still quite a bit to do and explore.
How Long to Spend in White Sands NP
In my opinion 1 – 2 days is plenty to explore White Sand National Park. Given that the park has a limited number of roads and opportunities to explore it does limit the amount of things to do in the former national monument.
If you plan to spend more than a day, the best way to experience the park is by backcountry camping on the dunes. This is the only way to stay overnight in the National Park. You’ll need a permit for backcountry camping in White Sands.
You can certainly see most of the hiking trails, go sledding, and explore much of the park within one day. If you stay later in the evening you may be able to catch a sunset hike or even some stargazing.
Things to Do in White Sands National Park
There’s quite a lot to do in White Sands National Park. You should also check out our other posts on things to do within White Sands. However, below are some of the great things to do in the park.
There’s actually several hiking trails to explore within the park. There’s one from short hikes and boardwalk hikes. As well as longer ones in the rear of the park that you can certainly get lost and explore some of the bigger dunes.
Hiking is one of the best things to do in National Parks and White Sands is no exception. You won’t find the crazy hikes in some other parks but you’ll still get the chance to explore and get lost.
This was one of my least favorite things in the park. I don’t know, it didn’t move as well on the white sands as it did on other sand parks. Still, it’s one of the most popular things to do in the park and if you have kids they’ll probably love it.
If you want to sled, be sure to check out the Dunes in the rear of the park near Alkali Flats. There are also some big hills at the dune life hike as well.
There are sleds for sale at the gift shop attached to the visitor center. I found the sleds to be a bit flimsy (probably also cause I’m larger and weight a decent amount). You can also possibly get sleds within some of the nearby towns at Walmart or Target.
Sunset and other Ranger Programs
There are nightly sunset walks through the dunes that are Ranger Led. There is a sign within the park that denotes the starting point of the Ranger Led tours. These generally meet a bit before sunset for walks. You should check sunset on your phone app as well as with the visitor center to be sure of timing and if the programs are occurring.
There are also other talks and ranger led walks throughout the park. The visitor center will have the current calendar of activities within the park.
One of the most unique things you can do in the park is camping on the sand dunes. There are opportunities to do camp on the dunes overnight along primitive campsites in the dunes. You need to be sure to stay within designated areas and not venture into off-limits area (there are parts of the dunes in White Sands Missile Range).
You can find out more information about backcountry camping on the official White Sands Site.
There are occasional closures for camping due to the sensitive nature of the landscape as well.
If you are hear in the winter, or if you have the opportunity to backcountry camp. There’s a lot of opportunity to stargaze in the park. Actually, because there’s basically no one else camping, you can really get some dark skies here.
Stargazing in western parks is a beautiful opportunity. I’ve see so many stars, satellites and planets. It’s really incredible and we recommend downloading a great stargazing app to help you on your way too.
Where to Stay
The best places to find hotels are either in nearby Alamogordo or in Las Cruces. In both areas there are plenty of hotel options. Las Cruces is definitely the larger of the towns and has more options.
- Alamogordo, Holiday Inn Express: Clean Good Option in close to the park
- Alamogordo, Home2: Not as centrally located as above, but also a clean, great option.
- Las Cruces, Springhill Suites: Not Centrally located, but close drive to many places. Odd Looking outside, but nice rooms.
- Las Cruces, La Quinta: Clean Option that is generally good priced as well. Sadly none of the hotels in town are in walking areas.
The only camping in the park is via backcountry camping. There are no drive up car/RV camp sites within the park. Actually it’s mostly a day-use only National Park. This is definitely disappointing, as most other National Parks have camping. You can however find some camping in the nearby area as well.
There is one visitor center for the park located right outside the entrance to the park. You’ll need to pass the visitor center before entering the park.
Address: 19955 US-70, Alamogordo, NM 88310
- Private Vehicle: $25
- Per Person: $15 (usually on foot/bike)
- Motorcycle: $20
- White Sands Annual Pass: $45
The park also accepts the Annual America the Beautiful pass $80. We recommend this if you plan to visit multiple parks. As there’s a few in the area, it’s one of the best ways to explore.
White Sands National Park is generally opened year round daily from 7:00 am – 8:00 pm.
The park does occasionally close in the winter if the park roads are not safe for driving.
Also given the proximity to White Sands Missile Range, the park may also close during times of missile tests. Actually this also means that certain areas of the White Sands are not accessible as they are part of the missile range.
When available there are backcountry camping opportunities in the park. This is generally the only way to stay in the park late in the evening. There is no car/RV camping in the park. There are evening programs otherwise though around sunset.
National Park Passport Stamp
There is a National Park Pass Stamp for White Sands located in the bookstore/gift shop of the visitor center. There are actually two gift shops in the visitor center, so be sure to visit the one where the ranger information is as well.
Website: Official NPS Website
The park is located on US-70 and adjacent to the larger White Sands Missile Range. Because of this, it’s not as conveniently located to many major areas as some of the other parks. The closest town to the park is Alamogordo which is actually pretty close to the entrance.
Distance to Park
- Alamogordo: 16 miles (20 minutes)
- Las Cruces: 52 miles (50 minutes)
- El Paso: 103 miles (90 minutes)
- Carlsbad NM: 162 miles (3 hours)
- Carlsbad Caverns NP: 181 miles (3.5 hours)
- Guadalupe Mountains NP: 192 miles (3 hours)
- Albuquerque: 225 miles (3.5 hours)
The park is not really close to many places. The nearest airport to the park is El Paso (ELP) which is about 103 miles (90 minutes) from the park.
You can sometimes get some pretty cheap tickets to El Paso. I found some great deals myself from Denver.
Tips & FAQs
- Bring Sunglasses: Not only is it blindingly bright with the light off the sand. But the wind in the area also means that you want to protect your eyes.
- Bring Water: It’s hot and the desert. You’ll want to make sure to pack water with you.
- Have a device: And make sure it’s charged or also be sure to know which way you went. I found marking the parking area on google maps before the Alkali hike helped. It’s weirdly easy to get turned around in the desert here and it all looks the same.
- Pay attention to Signs: The park does extend far, but its also possible to get dangerously close to the Missile Range. It is off-limits for a good reason.
- If you arrive late: See if you can buy someone else’s sled who’s leaving. They overcharge you in the gift shop and someone’s gonna be ok selling you a sled above getting back like $5 for theirs.