Imagine walking through an endless field of dunes with white sand caressing your feet and fiery reds and oranges painting the night sky 🌅. Well, that’s what you’ll find when you visit White Sands National Park in New Mexico. If I had to describe the park in one word it would be dreamy. It gives off major main character energy.
I have now been to all the National Parks in the lower 48 and White Sands remains in my top 10! It just feels magical to watch vibrant colors light up the sky as they reflect off the sand. There are so many great photo 📸 opportunities in this fantastic park.
If you’re planning a visit to this fantastic park, then you should read my complete guide to White Sands National Park below. It includes what to do when you’re there, how to get there, and the best time to go.
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Table of Contents
Guide to White Sands National Park
What is White Sands National Park?
Located in the heart of New Mexico, White Sands encompasses the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. Gypsum is a soft mineral that makes the sand ⏳ in this location appear to be white. It’s what gives the whole park a real magical feeling and keeps the sand cool all year long.
Here, you’ll find large dunes that rise up to more than 30 feet high with unique wildlife that has adapted to their environment. The park covers more than 275 miles, but only some of that is accessible to visitors. In fact, you’ll have to do some walking if you want to see the very best of the dunes.
Things to Know About White Sands
💵 White Sands National Park costs $20 per vehicle or you can use an America the Beautiful pass.
🚗 There is one main 16 mile road that takes you through the entire park, which is only open during the day time. You can check the park site to see its open hours because it changes seasonally (usually sunrise-sunset).
🎟 If you want to stay later you must apply for a permit to be in the park when it is closed.
🐕 Unlike many other parks, pets are allowed in White Sands. It’s a great place to bring your dog to explore.
☀️ White Sands is a desert, so wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water. It’s easy to get a sunburn from the sand reflecting the sun’s rays!
🍃 Remember to follow the Leave No Trace Principles. As always, you want to leave nature looking better than you found it.
When to Go to White Sands
You can access this park year round and it is an amazing destination throughout the year. However, your experience will change with the climates. We went in the winter and had an amazing time frolicking through the dunes, because we felt like we were alone.
Different Seasons in White Sands:
- Winter– Winter in the desert means that you may get some cold days. However, the temperature is usually mild. You’ll want to pack layers, because as the sun goes down it gets very cold!
- Fall – This is a fantastic time to visit the dunes! The weather is mild in the autumn with temperatures in the 60s and 70s. Plus, the colors on the leaves change so you can view the vibrant Cottonwoods.
- Spring – If you visit in Spring, then the temperatures will be mild and you may even see desert flowers!
- Summer– Heat can be unbearable in the summer and you may not be able to walk the dunes. Although the sand will remain cool to the touch, so you do not have to worry about burning your feet. Stay vigilant and pack extra water!
How to Get to White Sands
The closest airport to White Sands is El Paso International Airport, which is about an hour‘s drive away. White Sands is relatively remote, but it’s definitely worth the extra effort to visit!
You’ll want to have a car to access the park and be able to drive throughout it. You can also turn your trip into a road trip and visit more places in the Southwest along your journey. Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains are only 3 hours away by car.
Where to Stay
White Sands is fairly remote, but there are a couple of cities you can stay that will give great access to the park. Alamogordo is a 30 minute drive from the park and has options including RV parks and hotels. We also fell in love with the Lowes grocery store in town and highly recommend you stock up there.
Las Cruces is a larger city that is about 50 minutes outside of the park. There you’ll find plenty of places to stay as well as all the amenities you need. If you’re a fellow vanlifer or nomad that is looking for a free place to stay, head to Holloman Lake Campground, which is just five minutes up the road. We saw the most stunning sunset above the lake, which was one of my favorite sunsets I have ever seen.
How to Camp in White Sands National Park
NOTE: Backcountry camping is currently closed in order to rehabilitate the area. There is no current date for it to be reopened.
White Sands allow you to camp on the dunes under the stars with no one else around. It’s one of the most unique camping experiences that you can have in the US!
In order to camp in the backcountry you will need to get a permit from the Visitor Center. You can learn more about obtaining a permit by visiting the NPS website or going to the Visitor Center.
What to Do in White Sands
Go to the Visitor Center
I always stop into every visitor center, because I love seeing the exhibits and asking park rangers for advice on seeing the park. However, this visitor center was one of my favorites. We watched a short film all about the park and how the dunes were formed. I recommend you visit the exhibit on the park’s history or watch the film to learn more about white sands.
Walk Through the Dunes
You can’t visit White Sands without walking through the dunefields. There are five different trails in the park with different skill levels and accessibility.
1) Playa Trail– is an easy half mile walk, with exhibits to learn more about the park.
2) Interdune Boardwalk– is an easy .4 mile stroll down a fully accessible boardwalk.
3) Dune Life Nature Trail– this is a moderate 1 mile hike where you have to go over two steep dunes.
4) Backcountry Trail– this is a harder 2 mile hike, because there are a variety of steep dunes throughout the walk. We really enjoyed this trail, but don’t underestimate how hard it is to walk through dunes.
5) Alkali Flat Trail– This is a hard 5 mile long trail that goes over many steep dunes. However, this was definitely our favorite trail because it had the most dramatic landscape, but we were exhausted at the end.
Sled Down the Dunes
If you’ve ever wanted to be a kid again, this is your chance! You can bring your own sled or rent one at the visitor center. They recommend that you also get wax so that you can slide through the dunes with ease.
You’re allowed to climb any dune and sled down it, so take your pick! You can wander to the highest dunes in the park to go for a ride. We chose to go sledding as we hiked, so we brought it along on our whole journey and we had a blast! It’s such a fun time an dit will really make you feel like you’e a kid again.
Watch Sunrise or Sunset
Reds, pinks, and oranges light up the sky over the dunefield most mornings and nights. You’ll want to find a great spot over the dunes to watch the sun change the sky and transform the landscape around you.
The rangers lead a sunset stroll every evening an hour before sunset so you can learn more about the park and watch the sun go down. If you’d prefer to watch on your own, then I recommend you head to the Alkali Flat section of the park and scope out a high dune to watch the natural show.
What to Pack
White Sand Dunes is a great place to wander around and explore. However, you should always be prepared with all of the essentials before you go! Below you’ll find my packing guide for White Sands.
- Comfortable Hiking Boots or Walking Shoes
- Small Pack
- First Aid Kit
- Layers including rain jacket and winter jacket
- Hat to block sun
- Sled (or Rent One)
- Parks Pass
I hope I’ve convinced you to visit White Sands National Park. It will transport you to another land. You’ll feel like you’re a star in a movie as you walk along these tall dunes. Make sure to add this park to your bucket list, because you will definitely fall in love with it!
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