There is just something about playing in sand that brings out the kid in you, no matter your age! What if I told you that there was an enormous, National Park sized sandbox waiting for you – at White Sands New Mexico! Get your fill of all kinds of outdoor activities here at White Sands National Park, from White Sands hiking, to White Sands camping, even White Sands sledding!
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What is White Sands New Mexico?
White Sands New Mexico is the state’s second, most recently minted, National Park, comprised of hundreds of miles of stark white, gypsum sand dunes. This is in fact the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. History states that these dunefields were left behind by previously receding desert seas, most notably nearby Lake Lucero, which you can still visit today. Wind and water erosion have broken down the remaining gypsum into the finite granules you can hike and sled on today. The New Mexican wind continues to shape and shift these unique desert hills.
Know Before You Go to White Sands National Park
Location: South Central New Mexico, between Alamogordo and Las Cruces
Hours: Open daily except for Christmas Day
Fees: entrance fees for White Sands New Mexico are $25 per vehicle
Best Time of Year to Visit: Fall – Spring
Camping: there are no developed campgrounds in White Sands National Park, but you can backcountry camp.
Pets: pets are allowed at White Sands National Park. Make sure they are leashed, provided water, and never left unattended in vehicles.
- White Sands National Park has a few unique quirks when it comes to visiting. It is advised to check ahead by visiting the homepage for any designated closures, due to nearby testing at White Sands Missile Range, the largest military installation in the United States, and also the location of the first test exploded atom bomb.
- Also, special precautions need to be taken in light of the extreme temperatures that can exist here, especially in the summer, when day time highs can exceed 100 degrees! Hiking, sledding, and general exploring need to be taken with precaution in extreme temperature situations, and in fact, White Sands National Park strongly recommends not starting a hike if the temperature is 85 degrees or higher. Vice versa, desert temperatures can plummet when the sun goes down, which is important to keep in mind if you are planning an evening hike or an overnight White Sands camping experience!
- Protection against the elements comes in two crucial forms here at White Sands New Mexico: sun protection and water! Bring plenty of water for any planned hiking, sledding, or backcountry camping. Make sure to come prepared to protect against the sun, from sunscreen, to hats, to a pair of polarized sunglasses to help protect from the often extreme glare of the ivory dunes.
Insider Tip: visit White Sands National Park on one of the fee free days throughout the year!
Location of White Sands New Mexico
White Sands National Park, New Mexico, is located in the southern portion of the state, in the Tularosa Basin. The closest major city is Las Cruces, approximately one hour away. Also conveniently located only a couple hours away is another desert playground found in El Paso, as well as the the other, arguably more famous, National Park in New Mexico. Check out a full breakdown of the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and check off both New Mexico National Parks in one swoop! The cool thing about both these National Parks is that they share a connection to the same geographical region, the Chihuahuan Desert!
Want to take your National Parks tour up one more notch and include a perfect park trifecta? Just south of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, is a THIRD National Park in this region, Guadalupe Mountains National Park!
Check Off All 3 of These National Parks from Your Own National Parks Checklist!
Found in the northwestern corner of Texas, this surprisingly mountainous region is easy to add on to any visit to southern New Mexico. It also will add a surprising amount of diversity after the caves and sands of southern New Mexico, with a visit to some of the best high elevation hikes in Texas, including the state high point hike at Guadalupe Peak! No visit to this region would be complete without checking out the best of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas!
Ironically enough, just a couple hour’s drive north from White Sands New Mexico, in the mountain town of Taos, lie some of the most picturesque and majestic mountains in the Southwest, residents of this state’s famed ranges. The tallest of these resident peaks is Wheeler Peak, the state high point of New Mexico!
White Sands Hiking Trails
You may be wondering how you can hike a “trail” through sand? White Sands National Park, has taken a creative approach to trekking, by establishing trails that are uniquely labeled, color coded, and marked through the sand, so even when the wind blows and the sands shift, hikers can find their way!
Each of the White Sands hiking trails are marked by a different color and symbol. Follow these markers carefully and do not stray out of sight of the next marker, regardless of which trail you are hiking. It is very easy to get turned around in the sea of dunes. If you should lose track of the markers, STOP immediately and do not proceed, but instead turn back around!
Also, GPS is not entirely reliable in certain parts of White Sands National Park, so it is highly advised to bring an alternative form of navigation, such as a compass like this one I own from Amazon, or a MyTopo map, or both!
#1 White Sands Hiking Trail: Interdune Boardwalk Trail
This is the shortest White Sands hiking trail. The 0.4 mile long trail follows an elevated boardwalk through dunefields to scenic views of White Sands and the Sacramento mountains in the background. This is a great option for families and those looking for a shorter, fully accessible, educational trek. There are informational bulletins throughout this hike, as well as a shaded area about midway down the boardwalk. Leashed pets are allowed on the Interdune Boardwalk Trail.
Length: 0.4 miles roundtrip point to point
Pet Friendly: Yes
#2 White Sands Hiking Trail: Playa Trail
The Playa Trail is marked with green heart symbols. Only slightly longer than the Interdune Boardwalk Trail, this path traverses a vastly different geological area of the park. Playas are unique bowl formations found amongst the desert sand, produced by rainfall from storms. This is a fun trail to check out to see the differences among the seasons at White Sands National Park, because a a water filled playa in the spring may be a dried, exposed playa in the summer, but both offer a unique perspective on White Sands hiking.
Length: 0.5 miles roundtrip point to point
Rating: Easy (this is a flat, minute elevation hike)
Pet Friendly: Leashed pets are welcomed!
#3 White Sands Hiking Trail: Dune Life Nature Trail
This trail is marked by blue spade symbols. This trail gives hikers the chance to ascend two sand dunes along the route. These two dunes are considered steep by sand dune standards, upping this trail ranking to the easier side of moderate. Aside from these two dunes, the rest of the Dune Life Nature Trail is considered easy. It is also an ideal trail for observing signs of life, hence the name. Animal tracks, and actual wildlife including foxes, badgers, birds, and reptiles, can be spotted here, as well as several hauntingly decaying trees.
Length: 1 mile roundtrip loop
Rating: Moderate, due to having to hike up several steep sand dunes
Pet Friendly: Yes, if leashed
#4 White Sands Hiking Trail: Backcountry Camping Trail
This is the trail that leads to the 10 designated backcountry campsites. It is marked with orange spade symbols. It is a 1 mile hike in to the sites, so 2 miles roundtrip. You do not have to be backcountry camping to enjoy this trail, it is open to day hikers. There are several dunes to ascend along this trail.
Length: 2 mile roundtrip point to point
Pet Friendly: Yes for leashed pets
#5 White Sands Hiking Trail: Alkali Flat Trail
The ironic thing about the most strenuous White Sands hiking trail, is that it is not at all flat, so do not be misled! For hikers looking for the most challenge here at White Sands, this is the trail that will give you the most bang for your buck! This trail, marked by red diamond symbols, is more than double the length of the second longest trail here at White Sands National Park.
Hikers will ascend and descend multiple dunes along the entirety of this hike. It is considered a strenuous, challenging hike, with no shade! Bring plenty of water!
Length: 5 miles roundtrip
Pet Friendly: No
You can check out the complete trail report on the Alkali Trail HERE!
Additional White Sands Hiking Options
White Sands New Mexico also offers ranger led walks, if you are looking for a guided hike with more of an educational spin to it here at White Sands.
Sunset strolls are ranger guided walks that occur daily, except for Christmas Day, approximately one hour before sunset. Rangers will guide guests through some of the dune highlights, while shedding some light on White Sands history and facts. These sunset strolls last roughly one hour. If photography is an interest of yours, capturing a White Sands sunset will be among the top pictures you will ever be able to capture in a lifetime, so this is a prime time to explore White Sands hiking.
The sunset strolls are free, and do not require advance reservations, though if you have an abnormally large group, you may want to contact the park ahead of time to inquire. The sunset stroll is approximately one mile in length, with scheduled stops. It is considered an easy hike, though there are some sections of minor incline over smaller dunes. The meeting spot is at the sunset stroll sign, approximately 5 miles from the fee station.
Full Moon Hikes
As the name implies, these ranger led hikes occur at night, under a full moon lit sky! There is maybe no more unique way to appreciate the splendid-ness of this National Park than under the glow of the moon. Full moon guided hikes are offered from April to October, once a month, the night before the full moon. More information on full moon hikes, including cost, reservations, meeting locations, and other requirements, can be found on the White Sands Full Moon Hikes webpage.
Lake Lucero Guided Tours
A hike at Lake Lucero is the perfect way to get a first hand glimpse of just how White Sands National Park was formed. Lake Lucero is often referred to as the birthplace of White Sands, because it was the evaporation of this lake that eventually led to the creation of eroded gypsum. Now, visitors have a chance to see the aftermath of this desert lake’s exposure, including a lake bed full of selenite crystals. More information on Lake Lucero guided hikes, including cost, reservations, meeting locations, and other requirements, can be found on the White Sands Lake Lucero Tours webpage.
For additional information on any of these ranger led hikes, or other upcoming events at White Sands New Mexico, visit the Park Ranger Programs webpage.
Recommendations for White Sands Hiking
- Bring plenty of water! With this particular backdrop, things can heat up very quickly, especially in the summer months. If you are planning to do any day hiking, be sure to bring a minimum 3 liters of water in a suitable water transportation system, like this Platypus hydration bladder that I use for my day and overnight hiking! This bladder is convenient because it offers on the go hydration, with a wide mouthed opening for easy cleaning and drying. Know ahead of time that the only accessible water from which to fill or refill your personal water supply is at the Visitor’s Center refill station.
- Bring polarized sunglasses! The glare from the acres and acres of white sands is no joke, and can really strain your eyes if they are not protected! Check out these polarized sunglasses that I use for all types of glare inducing environments, from the dunes of White Sands New Mexico, to the snowscapes of Greenland!
- Talk to the rangers when you arrive! They will give you a heads up to any environmental changes to be aware of, and it is good for them to have made contact with you before you hike! Hiking on any trail involves safety and responsibility, but even more so in an environment where changes on the trail can happen as easily as the wind blowing. It is even more crucial to pay attention while hiking here, as there are less stand alone landmarks to help keep you from getting lost.
- If you are planning to do any extended day hiking, bring the 10 hiking essentials!
- Bring gaiters for your hiking shoes, to help in keeping out the sand as you hike! More than likely you’ll still find yourself having to stop occasionally to dump sand out of your shoes, but gaiters will definitely help!
- According to the White Sands homepage, it is recommended that visitors not begin a hike when the temperature is 85 degrees or higher, as the temperatures in the desert can climb quickly.
White Sands Sledding
There are few places in the world that boast the opportunity to sled when there is not snow present! Grab a disc, pick out the tallest dune you can find, and get ready to have some fun sledding, sliding, and tumbling your way around White Sands New Mexico! If there is one unmissable thing to do at this National Park, this is it! Do not miss out on the chance to let your inner child, or your actual children, let their imaginations run loose and have some whimsical fun while White Sands sledding!
Sand dune sledding can be done right from the 14 mile long roundtrip scenic park loop, Dunes Drive, so it is very accessible and family friendly. After arriving at White Sands National Park, follow Dunes Drive 7 miles into the heart of the dunefields. Here is where you can find a spot along the Dunes Drive loop for your White Sands sledding exploits!
Visitors are allowed to bring their own sledding devices if they choose, or you can purchase new or used discs from the gift shop from between $10 to $18 dollars. Sometimes the gift shop does run out though! The gift shop also sells disc wax to help your disc go faster.
Insider Tip: if you return your new or used disc at the end of your visit, you can receive $4 back!
So bring your own disc, or snag one when you arrive, find a preferable spot to pull over and park on the loop portion of Dunes Drive, and head straight up your nearest chosen dune.
When White Sands sledding, take care to avoid any contact or interference with the road. Also avoid directly sledding into vegetation or causing any harm to vegetation. It is advised to choose a spot to sled where there is little to no vegetation in the direct intended path.
White Sands Camping
After a day, or days, of White Sands sledding and White Sands hiking, top it off with an overnight of White Sands camping! There is something surreal about camping amongst hills of powdery gypsum sand, smack in the middle of the New Mexico desert, miles away from the nearest ocean! Sunsets and sunrises here are unbeatable, as the vibrant reds, oranges, purples, and pinks dance across a perfect backdrop of ivory expanses. An overnight White Sands camping experience grants you easy access to both of these stunning panoramas, as well as an unbeatable backdrop of night sky.
There are no developed campgrounds at White Sands National Park, but you can backcountry camp.
Camping is only allowed in the backcountry of White Sands New Mexico, on ten designated primitive sites. Sites are first come first serve, and a permit has to be obtained from the Visitor’s Center by the cutoff time. There is also an additional camping fee on top of the National Park entrance fee. Camping fees are $3 a person, or $1.50 for persons under 15 years of age. Fees are to be paid at the fee station found on Dunes Drive.
Orange spade trail markers mark the Backcountry Camping Trail at White Sands New Mexico. Be sure to follow these markers carefully, as it is easy to become disoriented among the sprawling sand dunes. These markers will also designate each of the ten backcountry campsites. Be sure to set up your tent within 5 feet of each marker, and it is also required that tents be set up by nightfall.
There are no facilities located at the backcountry campsites. Be prepared to pack out all trash, as well as utilize waste disposal bags.
Pets are welcomed in the backcountry campsites, as long as they remain on the immediate premise of the designated site. Follow the same waste collection methods for your pets as you do for yourself!
Finally, since there are no facilities located in the backcountry dunes, pack in all necessary water, for both humans and animals.
Insider Tip: the Visitor Center is open from 9 AM to 6 PM, so if you are needing to obtain a backcountry camping permit, make sure to do so within the timeframe.
These sites will require campers to backpack to the sites, so be prepared to efficiently transport your camping inventory for your night in the dunes. The hike to the designated backcountry sites at White Sands are an approximate 1 mile hike each way, or 2 miles roundtrip. Once there, get ready to enjoy an unrivaled display of New Mexican dark skies!
Read More: if your curiosity was piqued reading about the dunes of White Sands New Mexico, extend your interest to some of New Mexico’s other outdoor highlights, from hiking to the highest point in the state at Wheeler Peak, to enjoying the best of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, White Sands National Park’s sister park!
So, What’s Next After White Sands New Mexico?
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