The Best Things To Do in White Sands National Park: Visit One of the Most Unique National Parks
September 3, 2023
White Sands National Park is a magical place in the southwest corner of New Mexico. The park comprises 275 square miles of pure white dunes formed by mountains still visible in the distance.
The sand here is gypsum sand, an evaporative mineral that is commonly used as a binding agent in things like drywall and toothpaste. White Sands is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. There are a variety of activities in the park; enjoy hiking, sledding and camping in this unique corner of the Southwest USA.
Please make it a priority to Leave No Trace when exploring the outdoors. This includes leaving nothing behind, respecting wildlife, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting those around you, planning ahead and traveling on durable surfaces. For more details, read about the seven principles at lnt.org.
- White Sands is surrounded by a military base that often conducts missile testing. When they are conducting tests, the park closes. They typically let the park staff know two weeks in advance of tests, but closures can also be announced just 24 hours in advance. It is important to check for closures before visiting, you can find the status on the National Park website or their Facebook page.
- The visitor’s center is the only location in the park with running water. Make sure you fill up on water before you enter the gate as there is little shade throughout the park.
- Entry to White Sands National Park costs $25 per vehicle (the cost includes entry for seven days) or entry is included with the America the Beautiful national park pass. I highly recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful pass if you’ll be visiting multiple national parks within the year. The pass costs $80 a year so it can pay for itself quickly!
- There are often high winds at White Sands, which can cause dust storms. The windy season is between February and May. Do not hike during a windstorm and never rely on your footprints to make it back to your car.
- You might see tall metal poles as you walk out into the dunes. These are part of a study by Texas A&M to understand the movement of the dunes using LiDAR and weather stations. Be sure not to touch them.
- The White Sands are a complex and diverse ecosystem. They are home to a delicate balance of plants and animals, and in recent years there has been an increase in visitor traffic. Please leave no trace during your visit by packing out all trash and leaving as little impact as possible to preserve this incredible place. Unfortunately, I saw a lot of trash while exploring the dunes.
This is a relatively small park, so I think one day in White Sands is the perfect amount of time! Spend one day in White Sands by enjoying a hiking trail or two, sledding down the dunes and catching a sunset.
Plan your perfect White Sands National Park itinerary with these top things to do!
The visitor center at White Sands is a great place to start your trip. There is an exhibit on the natural ecosystem of the park but it was closed when I visited due to Covid-19. It’s still worth the stop though , you can talk with a ranger, purchase sleds, gifts or drinks, use the restroom and fill up water. If you don’t need a sled, water or information, you can drive directly to the gate to pay the fee and enter.
Sledding down the tall dunes of white sand is really fun! Any flat bottom snow sled should do. You can bring your own or purchase one behind the visitor center. If you purchase there, the sleds cost $20 new and can be returned for $4.
You can only return the sled while the visitor center is open but have a week to return it. The shop also sells wax that you apply to your sled, but I did not feel like it added much to the speed.
After you acquire your sled, there are many dunes that you can sled down, either right off the road or by walking out into the dunes. There is plenty of room to spread out and find your own area. Make sure you find a very steep hill in order to go quickly; the east facing dunes are steeper!
I visited in the late afternoon on a Sunday in April. I had great weather and the park wasn’t too crowded!
To explore the park, you’ll drive down Dunes Drive. This scenic drive is an 8 mile road through the park with incredible views. As you drive, you’ll enjoy the expansive beauty of the dunes, plant life and mountains in the distance.
Close to the entrance, you’ll see a variety of plant life in the sand. But the further you drive, the more untouched white sand you will see. It becomes pure white sand piles surrounding you for miles and is truly magical. After 5 miles, the pavement turns to hard packed sand. Any car can make the drive.
There are five established trails in the park of varying difficulties.
Interdune Boardwalk Trail - A 0.4 mile wheelchair accessible trail on a boardwalk that is great for seeing plants and wildlife.
Playa Trail - An easy 0.5 mile trail with outdoor exhibits along the way.
Dune Life Nature Trail - A 1 mile loop hike that goes over 2 steep dunes.
Backcountry Camping Trail - A 2 mile trail that is most used by overnight campers.
Alkali Flat Trail - The hardest hike in the park, a 5 mile trail that goes around the edge of what was Lake Otero. It goes up and down dunes the entire trail.
The sunrise and sunset are stunning at White Sands. The pure white sands reflect the colors of the sky making a beautiful sight to behold. A Sunset Stroll with a ranger is offered daily, starting an hour before sunset. The walk is about 1 mile and you’ll learn about the parks’ ecosystem on the way.
Keep in mind that the park may open after sunrise or close before sunset during certain times of year. Check the hours before you go.
White Sands is the perfect place to bring a picnic and some activities to relax and hang out for a few hours or a whole day. Along with your sled, it’s great to bring a kite to fly or a football to toss around. There are plenty of opportunities to carve out your own space to hang out among the dunes. Just be sure to keep track of all of your trash (especially in high winds) and do not leave anything behind.
There are no RV hookups in White Sands, but backcountry camping out in the dunes is normally available. Currently, camping is not allowed as a result of Covid-19. When it opens back up, note that the backcountry campsites are a mile hike out into the dunes and you must be entirely self contained.
If you are looking for somewhere to stay outside of White Sands, the nearby town of Alamogordo has a range of accommodation options right outside the park. Further outside the park, the town of Las Cruces is a wonderful place to stay.
Here are a few areas to visit near White Sands National Park if time allows.
Las Cruces is a beautiful and historic New Mexico town about an hour from White Sands. It’s a great place to visit after White Sands for food, frozen custard or other activities.
Be sure to visit the Old Mesilla square, a beautiful park surrounded by a beautiful old church and several great businesses. On the square, you can visit the Billy the Kid Gift Shop, located inside of an Old Courthouse, and shop for souvenirs.
To eat and drink at the square, visit La Posta de Mesilla for delicious Mexican food in a beautiful ambience and Double Eagle for a steakhouse. Double Eagle is also a great place for just a drink, it is known for being haunted!
Another great place to eat nearby is Andele. Andele is a huge restaurant and runs a very smooth curbside pickup. From Andele, I tried the chile relleno and cheese enchiladas. They were delicious and full of flavor!
Not far from Old Mesilla Square, Caliche’s is the perfect place for dessert. Caliche’s has been open for 25 years and has retro vibes with neon signs. They serve a variety of options of sundaes, milkshakes, custard and more. I got the strawberry shortcake caliche and it was so creamy and delicious. It had a very long line so be sure to allow some extra time, but it’s worth the wait.
If you drive between Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands, you’ll experience the scenic drive through Lincoln National Forest Lincoln is a wonderful place to camp and hike in the summer or ski in the winter. Inside the forest, you can also visit the small town of Cloudcroft. The town is 110 years old and has a variety of shops along with a history museum.
White Sands National Park is not only beautiful, but it has opporunties for fun for the whole family. Whether you spend an afternoon sledding and enjoying a picnic, or you're on a photography mission at sunrise, this park needs to be on your list.
I highly recommend combining your trip to White Sands with a visit to Carlsbad Caverns (3 hours away) and Guadalupe Mountains (3.5 hours away). If you have more time, you can also visit Big Bend National Park on this road trip.
Read my 12 day itinerary for the New Mexico and Texas national parks to plan your trip!
For More National Park Guides, check out these blogs:
- How to Spend 2 Days in Joshua Tree
- The Ultimate Utah Mighty 5 Road Trip
- How to Spend 2 Days at Rocky Mountain National Park
- A Guide to Visiting Acadia National Park in the Fall
- How to Spend 3 Days in Yellowstone
- The Best Things To Do in Hot Springs, AR
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