Some places are so stunning and surreal that they transport you to another world. White Sands National Park is one such place. Here, the sand is so white it resembles mounds of snow and the dunes are so big and rolling that they resemble giant white waves. The otherworldly effect is only enhanced by the New Mexico blue sky which makes the white of the dunes pop.
A long-standing national monument, White Sands National Park had its designation upgraded in December of 2019—and for good reason. This surreal field of gypsum sand dunes tucked into the south-central portion of New Mexico has dazzled visitors for decades. Along with its stunning beauty it also has a fascinating historical and cultural context: surrounded by military installments this part of the country is often used to test defensive technologies such as missiles lending it an even more otherworldly and perhaps even eerie, quality.
That said, White Sands is a cheerful place as well; families gather to sled down the dunes and adventurers take to the sands for hiking, horseback riding, and just taking it all in. The national park is located in a relatively remote stretch of the southwestern desert and the closest New Mexican communities are Alamogordo and Las Cruces.
As far as landscape characteristics, White Sands is known for—you guessed it—its white gypsum sand dunes which covering 275 square miles of the desert is the largest such gypsum dune field of its kind. A wonder of the natural world, gypsum very rarely appears in dust form because it’s soluble in water, so whenever it rains in the area the gypsum readily dissolves and rolls off the mountain as fast as water.
However, since the dunes are in the Tularosa Basin, the gypsum stays within the park in a completely enclosed area. Also, gypsum is transparent but the scratches make the sand appear as white as snow because the particles keep rubbing against each other under the sunlight.
Unlike most inland sand, gypsum doesn’t absorb heat so the sand remains cold even on the hottest day of the year.
The illustrious white-sand-like gypsum dunes have existed for over ten thousand years and created an ecosystem wherein plants and animals have rapidly adapted to survive. Besides being a place of scientific marvel, it truly is scenery that’ll leave you speechless.
The park is also home to a variety of plant and animal life with more than 800 animal species including the park’s endemic “white species”—mice, lizards, moths, and other insects that have gradually changed color becoming lighter in color than their relatives elsewhere.
It’s also been the site of fossilized footprint findings by which scientists have learned about a variety of its ancient citizens like dire wolves, mammoths, and saber-toothed cats.
Given its southern desert location, it’s no surprise to most visitors that White Sands can get extremely hot during the summer months with temperatures frequently nearing (or reaching) the triple digits; the sub-freezing winter nights are often more surprising.
The region has gone through many phases in history to hold the historical and national significance it does today. It is believed that at the end of the Ice Age approximately 20,000 years ago Asian hunters and gatherers crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska along with large herds of domesticated animals and some now extinct species (like mammoths). The fossil footprints left by these animals can still be found on the Alkali flats along the edges of Lake Lucero (located on the southwest edge of the park).
By 10,000 years ago, people reached the margins of Lake Lucero which at the time was a permanent salt lake. With the harsh climate, any spot of lush green gradually disappeared. It is believed the area became a low-range hunting ground.
It is claimed that a significant drought took place in the 1200s in the Tularosa Basin leading its inhabitants to abandon it. After a couple of centuries, it was reinhabited by Mescalero Apaches, a Native-American tribe joined by Hispanic New Mexicans in subsequent decades.
These public lands became of interest in the nineteenth century due to industrialization and the significant possession of gypsum in the area. However, none of the plans to extract the gypsum materialized and the area just gained scenic and scientific significance.
The 275-square-mile area was formally recognized on January 18, 1933 when President Herbert Hoover declared it a National Monument. By the end of the 1940s, large parts of the region were set aside as defense areas that undertake system testing even today at the White Sands Missile Range. The US Government reclassified it as a National Park in 2019.
The only road in White Sands, Dunes Drive is an eight-mile scenic drive that leads from the visitor center into the heart of the gypsum dunefield. The scenic drive loops through the park past a picnic area, hiking trails, and educational exhibits with many stops along the way to take photos or explore the dunes on foot. The first five miles of Dunes Drive are paved and the last three miles are a hard-packed gypsum sand road. The road is suitable for cars, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, and buses.
White Sands National Park has only one visitors center which greets visitors as they drive along Dunes Drive. It has restroom facilities, water supply, ranger information, and a small gift shop that sells water, snacks, sleds, and souvenirs. There are no gas stations or restaurants in the park and the closest are 13 miles away in Alamogordo.
Visitors to White Sand National Park can hike on and sled down the giant mounds of super-soft powder-like sand. Popular hiking trails include Dune Life Nature Trail, a moderate 1-mile self-guided loop hike. Though not difficult, this hike does require hikers to climb two steep dunes with loose sand. Follow the blue trail markers with a club symbol. Meet Katy the Kit Fox and learn about her friends on this family-oriented trail. Look for tracks of the animals that call these dunes their home. Kit foxes, badgers, birds, rodents, and reptiles all live in this area.
The Alkali Flat Trail is the park’s most strikingly beautiful hike. Since the winds are ever-shifting, the 4.6-mile trail is marked by a series of red trail markers with a diamond symbol which guide hikers along the correct path. The Alkali Flat Trail skirts the edge of what is now the final remnant of Lake Otero. You will be hiking up and down dunes the entire way. It’s the trail to take to see the park’s famous endless white sand against (usually) clear blue skies. But don’t let the word flat fool you.
Hike the Interdune Boardwalk for a short walk over a maintained boardwalk. Take the easy 0.4 mile round trip stroll through the dunes and learn about the science, geology, plants, and animals that make White Sands an unequaled natural wonder. It’s a great chance for small children, novice hikers, or anyone with mobility difficulties to enjoy the dunes. The boardwalk is a great place to take a break under the shade canopy, listen for bird calls, observe lizards, and enjoy wildflowers.
The Backcountry Camping Trail is a moderate two-mile loop. Though backpackers hike the trail most frequently it is also open to visitors who want a shorter hike through the heart of the dunes. Follow the orange trail markers with a spade symbol into an area of beautifully varied dunes and vegetation. The trail requires hikers to climb over several steep dunes and loose sand. There is no shade, no water, and no toilet facility along this trail.
White Sands is one of the few national parks in the country where the trails are dog-friendly so by all means, go for a hike with Fido by your side.
One of the most popular activities in White Sands National Park is sand sledding. It’s exactly what it sounds like: riding down the dunes on a sled. It’s particularly popular for families with children but it’s a blast for anyone. The soft sand is usually more forgiving than hard-packed snow and you can pick up a plastic sled at the White Sands Trading Company gift shop in the visitor’s center.
And every month from April to October, visitors can stay in the park until 10 or 11 pm and enjoy a surreal nightscape lit by moonlight so bright it casts shadows. The atmosphere in White Sands becomes even more otherworldly as the moon rises over the dunes and reflects off the glowing sands. Visitors can stick to Dunes Drive or join one of the ranger-led full moon hikes. Since dates and times for these special evenings vary check with the park for more information. You might even spot some of the park’s nocturnal wildlife like the kit fox, coyote, or desert cottontail that hunt and forage when the sun sets.
The best time to visit White Sands National Park is during September or October. The weather is cooler but not yet cold, the summer storms have subsided and there are slightly fewer crowds. In addition to ideal weather you can catch one of the full moon nights when the park stays open late if you time your visit. Those nights start in May and last through October. The twice-yearly open houses for Trinity Test Site are usually held in April and October.
Spring is the windiest time of year and blowing sand reduces visibility and can irritate your skin and eyes. The summer is a popular choice but visitors must be mindful of the heat and sudden the potential for sudden rainstorms.
White Sands has a typical desert climate—so, in a word: harsh. Summer temperatures can climb into triple digits and the landscape offers no shade whatsoever. Heatstroke is the most significant risk in this area and it can happen alarmingly fast. Ensure every person in your party carries adequate water (one gallon per person per day with no exceptions).
Avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day (from around noon to 3 pm) and don’t hike if temperatures are warmer than you had anticipated. Always wear adequate sun protection including sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and protective clothing.
Conversely, with little humidity to trap heat desert temperatures plummet as soon as the sun goes down. It’s common to experience temperature swings of 30 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit between the day’s highs and lows. Winter nights can be well below freezing and December lows average a chilling 21 degrees. If you plan to camp overnight dress in layers and be prepared for both extremes.
July and August are the rainiest months known locally as “monsoon season.” Expect thrilling lightning displays and sudden, heavy rains during this time. Luckily, these storms usually pass quickly.
But no matter when you go, the odds are good you’ll have sunny skies for your trip as southern New Mexico averages 290 days of sunshine per year. The region can go more than 100 days without any measurable precipitation.
While there is no RV parking or camping inside White Sands National Park, the park does offer some backcountry camping options for those looking for a rugged, wilderness experience.
That said, if you’re looking for a quick upgrade to your road trip, it’s hard to beat an RV for style! You’ll be able to enjoy all the freedom and flexibility of the road while knowing exactly where you’ll lay your head each night and even make your own meals.
White Sands National Park is located to the east of Las Cruces and is accessible from that city via U.S. Route 70. It’s about midway between Las Cruces and Alamogordo along that road.
Size: 146,344 acres, currently ranked at 37 out of 63 National Parks by size
Date established: December 20, 2019 (designated by President Herbert Hoover as a National Monument on January 18, 1933)
Location: Southcentral New Mexico
Designation: UNESCO World Heritage Site
Park Elevation: 3,887 feet to 4,116 feet
Park entrance fee: $25 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days
Backcountry camping fee: $3
Recreational visits (2021): 782,469
How the park got its name: White Sands was named for the glistening white gypsum sand dunes in the heart of the Tularosa Basin. Encompassing an enormous 275 sq mi, the dune field is the biggest of its kind in the world.
Did you know?
The highest dunes are approximately 60 feet high.
White Sands is home to the world’s largest gypsum dune-field; it is so large that is can be seen from space.
The dune-field has about 4.5 billion tons of gypsum sand. This is enough to fill 45 million boxcars which would make a train long enough to wrap around the earth at the equator over 25 times.
The sand here is not made of silica like most inland sand but rather of gypsum.
Unlike silica formed sand, the gypsum sand does not absorb heat from the sun and therefore remains cool to the touch and comfortable to walk on even in the heat.
There are over 300 plants, 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, seven amphibians, and one fish species in White Sands National Park.
There are at least 45 endemic species meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. These include the Apache pocket mouse, White Sands wood rat, bleached earless lizard, two camel crickets, and 40 species of moths.
Life is not obvious here. It is implied, or twice removed, and must be read in signs or code. Ripple marks tell of the wind’s way with individual sand grains. Footprints, mounds, and burrows bespeak the presence of mice, pocket gophers, and foxes.
—Rose Houk and Michael Collier