12 Best Things to Do in White Sands National Park

What to Pack When You Visit White Sands (All the Essentials)

Located in the Tularosa Basin in the Northern Chihuahuan Desert, between the New Mexico towns of Alamogordo and Las Cruces, is one of the world’s largest gypsum sand dune fields. From sledding down the steep dunes to taking a ranger-led hike, these are the best things to do in White Sands National Park.

With 275 square miles of white sand dunes, White Sands National Park is one of the world’s largest gypsum dune fields and one of the natural wonders of the world. This irresistible, untamed natural playground is one of the most unusual vacation spots in the US. From sledding down the soft sand dunes to hiking in an ever-changing landscape, these are the best things to do at White Sands National Park.

Ripples in the White Sands at White Sands National Park in New Mexico

Have You Visited White Sands National Park?

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Important Note: By signing his name to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 in December 2019, President Trump upgraded White Sands from a national monument to a national park. A few years later, you may still see America’s 62nd national park referred to by its former name, White Sands National Monument.

1. Stop at the White Sands Visitor Center

The adobe pueblo building at the entrance of the White Sands National Park is a great first stop. Here you can grab information on daily events, refill your water bottles, stock up on any necessities in its small gift shop, and explore the interactive exhibits in the museum.

The White Sands Visitor Center is also the place to watch “A Land in Motion,” a fantastic 17-minute film about White Sands and the creatures that call it home. 

Sage Advice:  If you have a National Park Passport, be sure to get a passport stamp at the White Sands Visitor Center.

Colorful umbrellas against the white sands.
The white gypsum crystals at White Sands National Park will feel like visiting a tropical beach. Minus the ocean.

2. Pick Up an Adventure Pack

Adventure Packs are available for loan on a first come, first served basis at the White Sands Visitor Center. Each pack includes binoculars, an animal track guide, compass, and a bunch of other goodies that make exploring and learning about White Sands fun. When you’re done with the Adventure Pack, simply return it to the White Sands Visitors Center.

Related Article: 100+ Powerful Desert Quotes for Instagram and Photo Captions

3. Become a Junior Ranger

The Junior Ranger program helps kids of all ages engage with our national parks.  While some National Park Service locations charge a few dollars for their booklet, the one available at White Sands is free. (Thank you tax payers!) 

Activities are broken into different levels:  

  • A special Pre-K booklet is available for children under six
  • And the junior ranger book is available for ages six and up

Take your completed book to the White Sands Visitor Center, and your child can be sworn in as a Junior Park Ranger and receive a White Sands National Park patch to prove it!

Related Article:  How to Make the Most Out of Your Trip to a National Park

A remote control car in the sand dunes at White Sands New Mexico
A family near us was driving a remote control truck through the sandy white dunes

4. Tour the Native Plant Garden 

Learn more about the native plant life in the Chihuahuan Desert by taking a free, self-guided tour of the Native Plant Garden just outside the White Sands Visitor Center.  There’s nothing quite like the desert in the spring, when wildflowers and yucca are in bloom, but the plant garden is pretty and full of bright colors nearly non-stop between mid-March and November.

Girl sliding down sand dune in White Sands New Mexico

5. Wind Along Dunes Drive

Dunes Drive is an eight-mile (13 km) scenic drive that goes from the visitor center to the heart of the gypsum dunes. It takes about 45 minutes to complete the entire drive, but you may want to allow additional time to explore outdoor exhibits, walk or play in the sand, or take photographs.

Highway 70 is occasionally closed to traffic when the White Sands Missile range is performing a missile test.  Depending upon the specifics of the test, Dunes Drive may also be closed at this time.  If Dunes Drive is temporarily closed, use this time to explore the visitors center.  

To check on road closures, visit NM Roads or call 575.678.1178.

Be sure to check for road closures before heading to White Sands National Park

Sage Advice: The White Sands Visitor Center does not sell gas, and the nearest gas station is about 15 miles away in Alamogordo, New Mexico, so plan ahead!

6. Walkabout the White Sand Dunes on a Hiking Trail

In addition to experiencing the white gypsum sand dunes “freestyle,” you can also walk the boardwalk or explore one of four hiking trails.

Interdune Boardwalk.  At a minimum, take 20-30 minutes to complete this half-mile (650m) stroll along an elevated wooden walkway through the dunes. The experience will include signs explaining the geology, plants, and animals of White Sands.

Four Hiking Trails.  There are several other opportunities to stretch your legs at White Sands:

  1. Playa Trail
  2. Dune Life Nature Trail
  3. Backcountry Camping Trail
  4. Alkali Flat Trail

Sage Advice: Despite its name, the five-mile Alkali Flat Trail is actually not flat. You’ve been warned!

Regardless of the path you pick, be sure to pack plenty of water and these additional, important items when you venture out along the hiking trails in White Sands New Mexico.

A girl buries another in the sandy white dunes at White Sands New Mexico
Even when the temperatures are warm, the white gypsum sand at White Sands National Park is cool to the touch.

7. Play in the Sand

The texture of pure, gypsum sand is like no other sand you’ll ever experience. Its fine, powder-soft texture is mesmerizing to sift through your fingers and fun to dig. 

While the gypsum crystals (and lack of water) don’t make it easy to build a sand castle, being buried in the soft sand can cool you down on a hot day.

8. Go Sand Sledding

If you’re like me and love to sled, but hate the cold, then sand sledding is the perfect solution! But because gypsum crystals aren’t slippery like snow, you will need to wax up your ride.  

Sage Advice:  Did you head to the Chihuahuan Desert and forget a snow sled? Don’t worry!  Sleds and blocks of wax are available in the White Sands Visitor Center.

9. Have a Picnic

Flintstone-like picnic areas at White Sands New Mexico

There are more than 60 covered picnic tables, each with a grill, available on a first come, first served basis throughout the national park along Dunes Drive. (If you ask me, they look a bit like Fred Flintstone’s rack of brontosaurus ribs at the drive-in.) When enjoying your meal outdoors at White Sands, remember to clean up after yourself and leave no trace.

Sage Advice: White Sands National Park has limited amenities, so be sure to pack adequate food and ample water for your visit.

10. Take Some Photographs

You’ll want to capture the beautiful, unique scenery of White Sands, whether it’s with your phone or a fancy camera.  The lightweight, blowing sand can present unique challenges to other stops on your trip.  Try to store your camera when you’re not actively taking photos to reduce the amount of sand that ends up in your buttons, dials, and on your lens.

Fine grains of sand tossed in the air at White Sands New Mexico
The fine, gypsum sand of White Sands gets everywhere — between your toes, in the buttons of your phone, in the dials of your camera — so try to keep electronics put away in a bag unless needed.
White Sands National Park as the sun starts to set

11. Take a Ranger-Guided Tour

Get the inside scoop and explore areas you may not venture to solo by taking a ranger-guided tour. Experienced park rangers regularly lead sunset strolls and other activities including full moon hikes, Lake Lucero tours, and sunrise photography walks.

12. Stay for Sunset

Whether you experience it as part of a ranger-guided tour or on your own, one of the most beautiful ways to see the snowy white dunes is when the sun sets over the Land of Enchantment. So whether you spend a few hours at White Sands National Park or all day, try to stay for sunset. You won’t be disappointed!

Take a sunset stroll when you visit White Sands National Monument
One of the best ranger-led hikes at White Sands National Park is the sunset stroll.

Have You Visited White Sands National Park?

What about you? Have you experienced the sandy white dunes of White Sands National Park (formerly known as White Sands National Monument)? Is it on your New Mexico travel bucket list? Share your experience in the comments section below.


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36 thoughts on “12 Best Things to Do in White Sands National Park”

  1. White Sands National park is impressive and offers a lot of activities. I love those dunes. You provide great tips on how to spend time in the park.

  2. My family happened to be at White Sands the day this article was published. I would emphasize 2 points: Avoid mid-day in summer months and stay for sunset.
    It was about 105 the day we were there and the sun is fierce, but after 5 it is tolerable.
    Sledding was pretty cool, but the sunset was spectacular and even my kids appreciated it.
    Tip: sleds at the Ace Hardware in Alamagordo are half the price of the ones at the visitor center. They sell the wax you need too.

  3. I never even heard of this place and now I want to go there on my next visit to the USA. I prefer to see natural things than city/urban life and this is one of them. Would also take my kids to the adventure park, that looks like fun 🙂

  4. New Mexico is on our bucket list, and someday we’d like to make a road trip in that State. We’ve never heard of this sand dune, so we’d definitely want to stop there when we explore New Mexico! Thanks a lot for this inspiring post.

  5. I recently saw a documentary about White Sands and I have been intrigued ever since. It is amazing how they are formed, how animal species thrive there and people can a good time. Your compilation of things to do is great for a first timer there!

  6. Did you see any interesting wildlife? Was the sand hot? I’ve heard Jockey’s Ridge dunes in the NC Outer Banks are fun, but it is SO hot when we’re there in the summer that I don’t want to stray too far from the water!

    So cool that they have a Jr Rangers program!

    1. Actually, on a second trip to White Sands, my Dad and I walked one of the trails and saw a coyote at just the right distance. Surprisingly, I can’t think of one time when the sand was overly hot. Isn’t that interesting? I never even thought of that until you asked! 🙂

  7. thegetawayjournals

    I’ve never even heard of this park! It’s sooooo beautiful. The sand sledding looks like so much fun! And I absolutely love your photo of the rainbow umbrellas.

  8. pinkcaddytraveloguegmailcom

    Ive always wanted to visit White Sands! I’ve driven through NM several times but never made it to that part of the state. Looks like an awesome place to visit though!

  9. Driving the dunes and walking the sands sounds so cool! I’m exactly the same – hate the cold but give me the heat anyday lol

  10. This place looks great! Would love to pick up an adventure pack and to drive a remote control truck through the sand dunes! The White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, New Mexico looks really worth a visit!

  11. I’d love to visit White Sands National Monument! Those sand dunes are wonderful, and I’d like to try driving them and experiencing it for myself. It also seems like a great activity for families too.

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