White Sands National Park – Camping, Hiking & Best Tips

Petr Novák

White Sands National Park, located in the southeastern part of the state of New Mexico, is defined by its seemingly infinite white sand dunes. Covering an area of 274 mi2, the dunes reach up to 59 ft high and 30 ft deep in some places. The white color comes from the gypsum grains – there’s no larger desert of this mineral anywhere else in the world.

White Sands National Park | © Ed Siasoco (aka SC Fiasco)

Table of Contents
  1. White Sands National Park: Information
  2. What to See and Do in White Sands National Park
  3. When to Visit White Sands National Park
  4. Entrance Fees for White Sands National Park
  5. Traveling to White Sands National Park
  6. Accommodation in White Sands National Park
  7. Preparations and Recommendations for Visiting White Sands National Park
  8. Photos of White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park: Information

White Sands became a national monument on January 18, 1933, by the authority of President Herbert Hoover. Efforts to protect this unique wilderness began in the early 1900s, but it was businessman Tom Charles who pushed them forward. Recognizing the potential for tourism revenue, he championed the cause for the sand dunes’ protection and the designation of a national park.

Achieving national park status was a difficult process even then, so he settled for a national monument. At that time, White Sands was already completely surrounded by a missile range and the USA Army’s Holloman Air Force Base, with which the local government had a strained relationship. White Sands National Park was not designated until December 20, 2019, and welcomed 782,469 visitors in 2021.

The landscape of White Sands National Park is marked by gypsum dunes originating from Lake Lucero and the Alkali Plateau. These two areas resulted from the slow drying up of a Pleistocene lake rich in minerals. At the bottom of the drying lake, golden-yellow gypsum crystals were moved to the surface by erosion, transforming into white “sand”. In reality, this “sand” is fine, crushed gypsum that resembles snow.

The lowest point in the park is Lake Lucero, at 3,888 ft above sea level, while the highest point, unnamed, sits at 4,117 ft.

Around 800 species of animals inhabit the park, including many that are mostly nocturnal like the American mud toad. The park is home to reptiles such as the green rattlesnake, the western rattlesnake, San Martin’s viper, and various iguanas. Birds that can be spotted include the cactus wren, the American wren, and the white-breasted buzzard.

Though you might not see many mammals, you’ll likely notice their tracks. Inhabitants include prairie coyotes, desert rabbits, and Merriam’s tarantulas.

The desert climate also dictates the park’s plant life. Succulents, such as Cylindropuntia imbricate, Dasylirion wheeleri, and Echinocereus triglochidiatus, are most prevalent.

What to See and Do in White Sands National Park

Dunes Drive Scenic Byway

The most efficient way to explore the park is via the Dunes Drive scenic road, leading from the visitor center into the heart of the White Sands Dunes. This 14.91 mi round trip offers multiple parking spots where you can walk on the sand or have a break.

You can complete the drive in about 40 minutes, but allow approximately an hour for stops. The road is two-thirds paved, with the remaining one-third being packed sand, making it accessible by regular car. In exceptional circumstances, the road may close due to ongoing training exercises at the nearby missile range.

Hiking

There are five hiking trails in White Sands National Park, all humorously marked with paint and card symbols. These trails provide a great way to explore the park, though you must remain mindful of the often extreme desert weather.

Avoid hiking when temperatures exceed 86°F. Each trailhead is accessible by car.

  • Interdune Boardwalk
    An easy trail, the Interdune Boardwalk leads to a viewpoint over the dunes and the Sacramento Mountains. This 2,133 ft round trip takes about 20 minutes, with informative signs about the park’s natural history scattered along the path.
  • Playa Trail
    The green-marked trail, symbolized by a heart, is 2,625 ft total and can be completed in 30 minutes. It leads to a spot that transforms into a pond during heavy rains, known as a “playa”. Several of these exist in White Sands National Park.
  • Dune Life Nature Trail
    Marked in blue with an acorn symbol, this trail is more challenging than the previous ones. The 0.99 mi round trip requires about an hour. You’ll likely see more greenery and perhaps some of the park’s animals.
  • Backcountry Camping Trail
    The orange trail, marked by a green card symbol, is a total of 2.17 mi and takes about 1.5 hours to complete. It leads to various sand dunes and is one of the park’s most popular trails.
  • Alkali Flat Trail
    Marked in red with a bullet symbol, this 4.97 mi trail leads through endless sand dunes. It’s challenging compared to the others, and the park management recommends allocating 3 hours to complete it.

Sledding on the Dunes

Sledding is a popular pastime on the sand dunes of White Sands National Park. It requires a bit of practice, as sand doesn’t slide as easily as snow.

Waxed plastic sleds are available at the visitor center, or you can bring your own. Both kids and adults can participate, just take care to avoid the dunes that cross the road.

Other Activities

The dunes are photogenic, making them perfect for capturing memorable photos. Combine photography with a walk along one of the trails for an optimal experience. The best times to photograph the dunes are in the early morning and early evening when the sun is low on the horizon, creating beautiful shadows.

Throughout the summer and early fall, the park’s visitor center hosts regular stargazing programs every Friday. Attendance is free.

When to Visit White Sands National Park

The park is open daily except on Christmas Eve and during military training periods at the nearby base. Ensure to check its status before visiting.

The Tularosa desert region is known for its extreme and often changeable weather. From June to August, you can expect high temperatures around 97°F in the shade. Winters are generally mild, with daytime temperatures reaching up to 57°F. However, they can plummet to 1.40°F at night.

Wind is a major climatic factor, especially from February to May. Southwesterly winds often reach gale force, causing the sand dunes to move rapidly.

Visitation to White Sands National Park is relatively consistent throughout the year, with slightly fewer visitors during the cooler months of January and February.

Average Temperatures and Visitor Numbers at White Sands National Park

Average temperatures in White Sands National Park are based on a 2017-2021 average. The data source is the National Parks Service. Visitor numbers are also provided, offering insights into the park’s popularity.

Max Temp Min Temp Precipitation Days Visitors Popularity
January 57°F 21.20°F 1.9 27 139 🟩
February 63°F 27°F 1.6 34 350 🟨🟨
March 72°F 32°F 1.3 84 848 🟧🟧🟧
April 79°F 39°F 1.3 61 816 🟨🟨
May 88°F 50°F 1.9 66 506 🟧🟧🟧
June 97°F 59°F 3.3 60 398 🟨🟨
July 97°F 64°F 7.7 70 206 🟧🟧🟧
August 93°F 63°F 8.1 48 368 🟨🟨
September 90°F 55°F 5.4 44 575 🟨🟨
October 79°F 41°F 3.1 49 495 🟨🟨
November 66°F 36°F 2.0 42 870 🟨🟨
December 57°F 21.20°F 2.6 41 933 🟨🟨

Entrance Fees for White Sands National Park

Entry to White Sands National Park is priced at $25 per car, including all passengers. Motorbikes are charged $20.00, while pedestrians are charged $15.00 per person.

Payment is collected at the Dunes Drive scenic route, located 0.31 mi past the visitor center.

If your travels across the USA include visits to multiple national parks, it’s worthwhile to consider purchasing America the Beautiful pass. For $80, you gain access to all national parks without incurring additional costs.

Traveling to White Sands National Park

The most practical means of transportation to White Sands National Park is a rental car, which can be used to travel to the park via Highway 70. The park entrance is situated 14.91 mi southwest of the town of Alamogordo.

To ease your travel planning, the commuting times from nearby towns are provided:

From / To Distance Driving Time Route
Albuquerque 224 mi 3 hours 30 minutes View Route
Dallas 598 mi 9 hours 30 minutes View Route
Big Bend National Park 420 mi 7 hours View Route
Phoenix 446 mi 6 hours 30 minutes View Route
Tucson 0.00 mi 4 hours 50 minutes View Route

Parking won’t be an issue as there are multiple spots along the scenic route where you can leave your car and proceed on foot. However, there isn’t a gas station directly within the park, so it’s advisable to fuel up beforehand.

Accommodation in White Sands National Park

🏨 Hotels

The town of Alamogordo, situated a fifteen-minute drive from the entrance gate, offers a variety of motels around the park.

National chains such as Motel 6, Budget Inn, Super 8, Quality Inn, and Holiday Inn have branches in the vicinity. Room rates start at 1,500 per night. Pay attention to the average ratings when choosing a place to stay. On Booking.com, a rating of 6.5/10 is considered satisfactory, while 8/10 or higher signifies a very good standard. It’s important to choose accommodations with at least 100 reviews, to ensure the rating is reliable over time.

For value for money, I recommend Super 8 by Wyndham in Alamogordo. With a strong rating of 8.1/10, it is conveniently located near the freeway exit and includes breakfast.

⛺ Campsites

There are no equipped campsites directly within White Sands National Park.

The nearest campground with facilities is located in Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, a half-hour drive away. Alternatively, you could head towards your next destination and stay at one of the campgrounds en route.

Preparations and Recommendations for Visiting White Sands National Park

ℹ️ Visitor Center

The White Sands Visitor Center operates every day of the year, except December 25, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Situated just off the freeway exit before the entrance gate, the orange-sand-colored building houses exhibits focusing on the park’s history and wildlife. There’s a gift shop and park rangers with whom you can converse or join in one of the organized programs.

👍 Good to Know

You will need approximately half a day to explore White Sands National Park. This will allow ample time for sightseeing by car, hiking trails, and sand surfing.

Especially during the summer months, remember to stay hydrated, wear a hat, and apply sunscreen liberally. The desert sun is very intense and can easily cause heatstroke or sunburn. It’s advisable to stock up on water and food in advance, such as from a Walmart in Alamogordo, as food options within the park are limited. In summer, plan for up to 4 liters of water per person per day.

Before your trip, download the National Park Service’s NPS app onto your phone for detailed maps and guides to the park.

Photos of White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park | © Pixabay.com

White Sands National Park | © Ben Soyka / Unsplash.com

NP White Sands | © Pixabay.com

White Sands National Park | © Pixabay.com

White Sands National Park | © Pixabay.com

White Sands National Park | © Pete Alexopoulos / Unsplash.com

White Sands National Park | © Pete Alexopoulos / Unsplash.com

US National Parks

  1. List of US National Parks
  2. America the Beautiful Annual Pass
  3. Timed-Entry Reservation for US National Parks

Travel Guides to USA National Parks

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