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Located 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 sand dunes to taking a ranger-led hike, here are ten fun things to do when you visit White Sands National Park.
Originally published in September 2017, this article was updated in January 2020 to acknowledge White Sands National Monument’s “promotion” to full-fledged national park. Now known as White Sands National Park, this piece was also updated to ensure that the original information was still current.
I paid full price to slide down the dunes, hike the sandy hills, and otherwise explore White Sands National Park. But you can count on me to always share my honest opinions no matter who is footing the bill.
With 275 square miles of white sand dunes, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is one of the natural wonders of the world. There is plenty to do, see, and experience when you visit this irresistible, untamed playground, and I recommend these ten things when you visit White Sands.
The adobe pueblo building at the entrance of the White Sands National Park is a great first stop. In the White Sands Visitor Center, you can grab information on daily events, refill your water bottles, and explore the interactive 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.
Pro Tip: If you have a National Park Passport getting it stamped at the Visitor Center one of the things to do in White Sands.
Related Article: 10 Things to Pack for a Visit to White Sands National Park
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.
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 6
- Kit Fox activities are for ages 6–8
- Jackrabbit activities are for ages 9–13
- Children 14 and older (including adults) will enjoy the Bobcat activities
Take your completed Junior Ranger book to the White Sands Visitor Center, and your child can be sworn in as a Junior Park Ranger and will 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
4. Tour the Native Plant Garden
Learn more about the plants native to 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 color nearly non-stop between mid-March and November.
Pro Tip: To experience the Native Plant Garden from anywhere in the world, download the White Sands Chihuahuan Desert Native Plant Garden Field Journal or listen to the 23-minute Audio Tour.
5. Drive the Dunes
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 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.
Pro Tip: 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 Sands
In addition to exploring the white gypsum sand dunes “freestyle,” you can also walk the boardwalk or hike one of four trails.
Interdune Boardwalk. At a minimum, take 20-30 minutes to complete the is a half-mile (650m) stroll through the dunes. The experience will include signs explaining the geology, plants, and animals of White Sands.
Four Trails. There are many other opportunities to stretch your legs at White Sands, from the Playa and Dune Life Nature Trails to the Backcountry Camping and sneakily named Alkali Flat Trails. (IMPORTANT NOTE: The Alkali Flat trail is actually not flat!)
Regardless of the path you pick, be sure to pack plenty of water and these additional, important items.
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.
If you’re like me and love to sled, but hate the cold, sledding at White Sands is the perfect solution! Because gypsum sand isn’t slippery like snow, you will need to wax up your ride.
Pro Tip: 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.
8. Have a Picnic
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.
9. 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.
Related Article: Seven Tips for Taking Better Travel Photos
10. Take a Ranger-Guided Tour
One of the most beautiful ways to see the snow-white gypsum sand dunes is when the sun sets over the Land of Enchantment. So when you visit White Sands National Park, be sure to ask about White Sands National Monument guided tours like the ranger-led sunset stroll. Other park ranger-led activities include the full moon hike, Lake Lucero Tour, and sunrise photography walk.
Additional Tips for Visiting White Sands National Park (Formerly Known as White Sands National Monument)
Where is White Sands National Park Located?
White Sands National Park is located on New Mexico Highway US-70 between mile markers 199 and 200. It is between the cities of Alamogordo and Las Cruces at these GPS coordinates: 32° 46′ 45″ North, 106° 10′ 19″ West
How far is White Sands from Las Cruces, New Mexico?
White Sands National Park is about an hour’s drive northeast from Las Cruces, New Mexico.
How far is White Sands from Alamogordo, New Mexico?
White Sands National Park is about a 20-minute drive southwest from Alamogordo, New Mexico.
How far is it from Albuquerque to White Sands?
New Mexico’s biggest city is in the northern part of the state, near Santa Fe. Albuquerque is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive south from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
How far is White Sands from Santa Fe, New Mexico?
White Sands National Park is about a four-hour drive south from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
When is the best time to visit White Sands National Park?
I think the best time to visit White Sands is in the spring or fall. The days are still longer than in winter, but the weather is more mild than summer.
When you visit White Sands in the spring, the desert is in bloom and the temperatures aren’t unbearably hot. And when you visit White Sands in the fall, the summer heat is usually gone (and so have many of the visitors).
When is White Sands National Park Open?
The park opens daily at 7:00 am but closes between 6:00 pm and 9:00 pm depending on the season. It is closed on December 25 (Christmas Day). Before you head to White Sands National Park, be sure to check on road closures by visiting NM Roads or calling 575.678.1178.
What does it cost to visit White Sands National Park?
It is currently $20 per vehicle to visit White Sands National Park.
Where is the best place to stay when visiting White Sands National Park?
White Sands National Park is about 20 miles southwest of Alamogordo, New Mexico, and about 50 miles northeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico. While Alamogordo is closer, Las Cruces is a larger town with more accommodations and amenities. Find hotels in Alamogordo, hotels in Las Cruces, and other places to stay in Las Cruces.
What are some things to do near White Sands?
White Sands is located along US-70 between the towns of Las Cruces and Alamagordo. Enjoy some of the world’s most flavorful chiles at one of these delicious Mexican restaurants in Las Cruces. Or explore the old stomping grounds of Wild West legends like Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa in the historic town of Mesilla. And if you love street art, don’t miss the unique canvas Las Cruces’s water tanks provide for large scale murals that share the town’s history and culture.
What other resources can you recommend?
Have You Visited White Sands National Park (Formerly Known as White Sands National Monument)?
What about you? Have you experienced the snow white gypsum sand dunes of White Sands National Park? Is it on your New Mexico travel bucket list? Share your experience in the comments section below.
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