White Sands National Park is surreal in the best sense of the word. Snow-white sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see, with the San Andres Mountains framing the horizon. It’s hard to understand just how strange miles and miles of blindingly-white sand is until you visit this wild US national park in person.
Hiking, sledding, and camping on the dunes are definitely the attractions, here. But White Sands National Park is more than just a massive sandbox. The park offers tons of excellent ranger-led tours—the moonlit ones are especially memorable—and the nearby city of Alamogordo is definitely worth a visit, especially for its stellar space museum.
Where is White Sands National Park?
White Sands National Park is located in southern New Mexico close to the city of Alamogordo, which is about 15 miles to the east. It forms part of the Tularosa Basin, with the San Andres Mountains to the west. It is completely surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range, which gives the park the unique distinction of having to close on short notice sometimes because of missile launches.
White Sands National Park Facts
White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. It is also a relatively young natural feature relative to geologic time. As recently as 12,000 years ago, when the area was already inhabited by humans, it was dominated by lakes, rivers and grasslands. However, as the climate warmed, the lakes dried up, leading to today’s arid landscape.
Getting to White Sands National Park
Alamogordo, New Mexico is the closest city to White Sands National Park. You simply take US-70 West for about 15 minutes and then turn right at the park entrance. The closest big city is El Paso, Texas, about an hour and a half away. To get to the park from El Paso, take I-10 West towards Las Cruces. Just before reaching Las Cruces, take I-25 North for about 10 minutes and then take US-70 East. Drive for about 45 minutes and then the park entrance will be on your left-hand side.
When to Visit White Sands National Park?
Anytime is a good time to visit White Sands National Park. However, the best is usually late summer to the end of winter when temperatures are mild and there are fewer crowds. Spring and early summer are also good options, but be warned that sandstorms are a possibility then. Summer is also good, although the heat is very high and the park can get crowded.
White Sands National Park Hours
The park is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year except for Christmas. From May 28 to September 7, the Visitor Center is open 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, seven days a week. For the rest of the year the hours are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily. Also, extreme weather events, such as sandstorms, can close the road to the park, as can missile tests at the adjacent White Sands Missile Range. Double check before heading out to make sure the park is open.
White Sands National Park Entrance Fee
The entrance fee is $25 per vehicle or $20 per motorcycle, which is good for seven consecutive days. If there is only one person in the vehicle, then the fee is $15 per person. You can also buy an annual pass for $45, which covers one non-commercial vehicle and is good for a year from the month of purchase.
Hiking in White Sands National Park
There are 6 hiking trails in White Sands National Park:
- Interdune Boardwalk (Easy, 0.4 mi)
- Playa Trail (Easy, 0.5 mi)
- Big Dune Loop (Moderate, 0.7 mi)
- Dune Life Nature Trail (Moderate, 1 mi)
- Backcountry Camping Trail (Moderate, 2 mi)
- Alkali Flat Trail (Difficult, 5 mi)
White Sands National Park Lodging
White Sands National Park Camping
Planning a night under the stars? Here are some of the best campgrounds and campsites inside and outside of White Sands National Park:
- White Sands National Park Primitive Backcountry Campsites
- Oliver Lee Campground
- Alamogordo/White Sands KOA Journey
- Holloman AFB FamCamp
- Aguirre Springs Campground
- Slide Group Campground
- Pines Group Campground
- Upper Fir Group Campground
- Sleepy Grass Campground
- Apache Campground
White Sands National Park Hotels
If camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of resorts, hotels, hostels, inns, cabins and B&Bs within a quick drive of White Sands National Park. Here are some of our favorites:
- Tavares Inn
- Lundeen Inn of the Arts
- White Sands Motel
- Cloudcroft Hostel
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites Alamogordo
- Hampton Inn Alamogordo
- The Classic Desert Aire Hotel
- Quality Inn & Suites Near White Sands National Monument
- Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces
- TownePlace Suites by Marriott Las Cruces
White Sands National Park Airbnb
There are plenty of Airbnbs in Alamogordo, just 15 minutes away from the park entrance. Most of the options are contemporary homes and apartments, although a few historic adobe houses are also available. Las Cruces and Cloudcroft are further away, but tend to have more unique offerings.
White Sands National Park Tours
Visitors to White Sands National Park are fortunate to have a wide variety of ranger-led tours to choose from. Some current and recent options include full moon hikes, a tour of Lake Lucero, an exploration of the park’s 40 endemic species of moths, and a Perseid Meteor Shower watch party. Tours change depending on the time of year and special occasions, so check in advance to see what is on offer when you are there.
Best Things to Do in White Sands National Park
You’ll probably end up cruising this road anyway since it is the only road in and out of the park, but Dunes Drive it is still pretty impressive. You’ll pass by towering, snow-white dunes and get a good feel for what this park is all about.
Backcountry camping is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re going to do it just once, then you should do it at White Sands National Park. Sleeping on the dunes underneath a starry sky is an unforgettable experience and one worth forsaking a few mod cons for.
There are amazing photo opportunities throughout White Sands National Park, but if you want a sure bet, head to the Sunset Stroll Meeting Area just as the sun is going down. You’ll be treated to views of the dunes and mountains just as the sky begins to turn a stunning pink and red.
There are a couple picnic areas scattered along Dunes Drive, but the Primrose Picnic Area is one of our favorites. The picnic tables are shaded by space-age-looking contraptions, which add the perfect touch to lunch set in an alien landscape.
Sledding down the dunes is one of the most popular activities at White Sands National Park. Really, any dune will do, but the ones at Yucca Picnic Area work well since they’re close to parking and offer some shaded picnic benches.
The Visitor Center, with its southwestern architecture, is a destination in itself and has been designated a Historic District along with a few surrounding structures. It displays decoratively carved chairs and benches, crafted tin lighting fixtures, and a museum and theater.
On certain days of the year when there is a full moon, the park has extended hours and offers a ranger-led full moon hike. The hike starts at the Dune Life Nature Trail and is a great way to see the dunes lit up by the light of the moon. You may even spot some nocturnal animals!
Located north of White Sands National Park, the Trinity Site is where the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945. Today, a small monument marks the site. Because it is still located within an active missile test site, visits to the site are only permitted on the first Saturdays of April and October.
The area around White Sands played an important role in the history of space flight, with many early rockets having been tested here. The excellent New Mexico Museum of Space History is a great place to learn about this history, with exhibits including satellites, rockets, and the International Space Hall of Fame.
Lake Lucero is a dry lake bed that only has water after it rains or when snow melts, but it’s a fascinating destination since it reveals how the surrounding sand dunes formed. A ranger-led tour of the lake will take you past selenite crystals, which play a key role in the formation of gypsum sand.
During the third weekend of September, about 70 hot air balloons lift off from Balloon Fiesta Park in Alamogordo for the White Sands Balloon Invitational. This balloon festival is a great chance to take some epic pictures or to just enjoy the sight of dozens of colorful balloons floating over the sand dunes.
Trying to hike the dunes is a challenge even for the fittest among us. If you want to give your calf muscles a break while also going on a dune hike, then the Interdune Boardwalk is your answer. This wheelchair accessible hike has lots of information displays and includes great views over the dunefield and the Sacramento Mountains.
If you want something way more challenging than the Interdune Boardwalk, consider the Alkali Flat Trail. Despite its name, this trail is not flat at all; you’ll be traversing up and down sand dunes for a gruelling 5-mile round trip. The reward is being surrounded by pristine snow-white dunes that are far from the more touristed areas of the park.