White Sands National Park, née White Sands National Monument until 2019, is a vast, glistening field of snow-white gypsum in southern New Mexico. It’s directly between the cities of Las Cruces and Alamogordo, about 100 miles north of the US-Mexico border at the northern end of North America’s largest desert – the Chihuahuan Desert.
The unusually large gypsum deposit comes from minerals carried runoff from the nearby mountains, which settled into the floor of Lake Lucero. Over the last 10,000 years, Lake Lucero slowly shrunk, leaving behind the dramatic fields of white sand visitors can enjoy today.
What makes White Sands special
During the 15 years I lived in southern New Mexico, I spent hours exploring White Sands, and it never lost its appeal. At 275 square miles, White Sands is the world’s largest gypsum dune field and there’s no place else on earth like it. Being out on the dunes looks and feels like being on another planet.
I’ve always loved how you can walk just a short distance out onto the dunes and feel complete solitude. The vast emptiness of the desert can be disorienting, but I’ve always found in it a sense of quiet calm. As you get attuned to your surroundings, small details begin to leap out at you: lone animal tracks, subtle differences in the ripples, the sound of your own steps, the way the sand shimmers in the light. It’s no wonder people often go to the desert to have spiritual experiences. It’s very centering and breathtakingly beautiful.
When to go
The best time to visit White Sands National Park is during September or October. The weather is cooler but not yet cold, the summer storms have subsided, and there are slightly fewer crowds. In addition to ideal weather, you can catch one of the full moon nights when the park stays open late if you time your visit. Those nights start in May and last through October. The twice-yearly open houses for Trinity Test Site are usually held in April and October.
Spring is the windiest time of year, and blowing sand reduces visibility and can irritate your skin and eyes. The summer is a popular choice but visitors must be mindful of the heat and sudden the potential for sudden rainstorms.
Weather and climate
White Sands has a typical desert climate – so, in a word: harsh. Summer temperatures can climb into triple digits and the landscape offers no shade whatsoever. Heatstroke is the most significant risk in this area, and it can happen alarmingly fast. Ensure every person in your party carries adequate water (one gallon per person per day, with no exceptions) and hydrates frequently, even on short hikes.
Avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day (from around noon to 3 PM), and don’t hike if temperatures are warmer than you had anticipated. Always wear adequate sun protection, including sunscreen and protective clothing.
Conversely, with little humidity to trap heat, desert temperatures plummet as soon as the sun goes down. It’s common to experience temperature swings of 30 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit between the day’s highs and lows. Winter nights can be well below freezing and December lows average a chilling 21 degrees. If you plan to camp overnight, dress in layers and be prepared for both extremes.
July and August are the rainiest months, known locally as “monsoon season.” Expect thrilling lightning displays and sudden, heavy rains during this time. Luckily, these storms usually pass quickly.
But no matter when you go, the odds are good you’ll have sunny skies for your trip, as southern New Mexico averages 290 days of sunshine per year. The region can go more than 100 days without any measurable precipitation.
How to reach White Sands
The closest airport to White Sands National Park is El Paso International Airport in neighboring Texas. You then need to drive 100 miles north to the park and will almost certainly want a car since New Mexico has minimal public transportation options. The park has a single entrance on Dunes Drive, just off US Highway 70.
White Sands National Park is next to White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), a US Army missile testing and training facility. The army shuts down Dunes Drive and public access to the dunes for visitor safety during missile tests. US Highway 70 may also be closed during missile testing. These closures usually last between one and three hours and can happen on short notice. You can find information on missile test closures on the park website.
What to do in White Sands National Park
Drive or bike Dunes Drive: Dunes Drive is the only road in White Sands. The scenic drive loops through the park past a picnic area, hiking trails, and educational exhibits, with many stops along the way to take photos or explore the dunes on foot. Mountain bikes or beach bikes are recommended for experienced cyclists who ride on Dunes Drive.
Enjoy the full moon: White Sands stays open late on nights when there’s a full moon. From May through October, visitors can stay in the park until 10 or 11 PM and enjoy a surreal nightscape lit by moonlight so bright it casts shadows. The atmosphere in White Sands becomes even more otherworldly as the moon rises over the dunes and reflects off the glowing sands. Visitors can stick to Dunes Drive or join one of the ranger-led full moon hikes. Dates and times for these special evenings vary, so check the ranger programs page for more information.
Sand sledding: One of the most popular activities in White Sands National Park is sand sledding. It’s exactly what it sounds like: riding down the dunes on a sled. It’s particularly popular for families with children but it’s a blast for anyone. The soft sand is usually more forgiving than hard-packed snow, and you can buy sleds at the White Sands Trading Company gift shop in the visitor’s center.
Ranger programs: Besides the full moon hikes, another popular ranger program is the Sunset Stroll. New Mexico sunsets are gorgeous, and these one-hour guided hikes are an excellent chance to see the sunset over the dunes while also learning about the unique geology and wildlife in the area.
Stargaze: If you’re lucky enough to be in the park after dark, White Sands has incredible night skies. Minimal light pollution, low atmospheric humidity, and often cloudless skies combine to create optimal conditions for stargazing.
Visit the historic Trinity Site: The Trinity Test Site is where the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945, and the military allows visitors to the site twice each year. Dates and details are usually posted on the Trinity Test Site Website: https://www.spacehalloffame.org/trinity-site-tour-reservation/
Top hikes in White Sands
The Alkali Flat Trail is the park’s most strikingly beautiful hike. Since the winds are ever-shifting, the 4.6-mile trail is marked by a series of vertical trail markers which guide hikers along the correct path. It’s the trail to take to see the park’s famous endless white sand against (usually) clear blue skies.
Take the Interdune Boardwalk for a short and easy walk over a maintained boardwalk. It’s a great chance for small children, novice hikers, or anyone with mobility difficulties to enjoy the dunes. It’s the only trail in the park accessible for wheelchairs and strollers.
The Backcountry Camping Trail is a short two-mile loop that provides access to backcountry campsites, but it is also open to day hikers. It’s a perfect shorter option for getting out onto the dunes or if it’s just one of many trails you’re doing on a New Mexico road trip.
White Sands is one of the few parks in the country where the trails are dog-friendly, so by all means, go for a hike with Fido by your side.
Visitor centers and amenities
White Sands National Park has only one visitors center, which greets visitors as they drive along Dunes Drive. It has restroom facilities, water supply, ranger information, and a small gift shop that sells water, snacks, sleds, and souvenirs. There are no gas stations or restaurants in the park and the closest are 13 miles away in Alamogordo.
Camping in White Sands
White Sands does not have any developed campgrounds or campsites inside the park and doesn’t allow overnight RV parking. The closest campground is Oliver Lee Memorial State Park (24 miles away) or the White Sands KOA in Alamogordo. You can camp in Lincoln National Forest farther to the east, or go southwest to Aguirre Spring Campground near Las Cruces.
Backcountry camping in White Sands is suspended as of April 2022, but when it’s allowed, rangers distribute passes on a first-come, first-served basis. So you’ll want to get to the visitors center early to reserve your spot, especially since there are only seven sites available.
Once you have a site, you’ll reach it via a hike on the Backcountry Trail. Backcountry sites do not have water sources or bathroom facilities. As of the last time backcountry camping was allowed, campers were not allowed to leave the park overnight, so be sure to bring anything you’ll need in terms of food and water.
Hotels in and around White Sands
Except for backcountry camping, White Sands does not offer overnight lodging. However, the nearby town of Alamogordo has many national chain hotels and small local motels available. Places to stay around White Sands National Park aren’t usually fancy, but they’re clean and affordable and provide a comfortable place to crash after a day in the park.
If you’re willing to drive a little farther into the mountains, the town of Cloudcroft is a charming little ski village with lots of cozy private cabins for rent. It’s about a 40-minute drive.
Tips for visiting
- If it’s not a full moon but you want to see one of New Mexico’s glorious sunsets or dazzling night skies at White Sands, you can apply for an Early Entry or Stay Late permit. You have to apply at least a month in advance; two or three months is better.
- Rangers recommend that you not start any hike in White Sands if the temperature is above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Use your best judgment, but assume the lack of shade and dryness are going to be more taxing than you anticipate.
- Be prepared to get sand in your shoes, your hair, your backpack – basically everywhere. Photographers may want a special case to keep sand out of their cameras.
- GPS and cell services are not always reliable in remote New Mexico areas. Download a map of the park in advance.
White Sands is a place unlike any other. It’s an invitation to quiet yourself and take a moment of stillness and tranquility beneath the incomparable New Mexico sky. You can’t help but be astonished by the profound power and beauty of the natural world when you stand in the center of the park’s gorgeous landscape.