Last Updated On
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.
|To help offset the costs of running EverydayWanderer.com, you’ll find affiliate links lightly sprinkled throughout the site. If you choose to make a purchase via one of these links, there’s no additional cost to you, but I’ll earn a teeny tiny commission. You can read all of the legal blah blah blah (as my little niece says) on the full disclosure page.|
Things to Do When You Visit White Sands #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. 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 the White Sands Visitor Center is where you can get it stamped.
Related Article: 10 Things to Pack for a Visit to White Sands National Park
Things to Do When You Visit White Sands #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 return it to the White Sands Visitors Center.
Things to Do When You Visit White Sands #3 – Become a Junior Ranger
Also available at the White Sands Visitor Center is a Junior Ranger booklet. 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
Return the completed Junior Ranger book to the White Sands Visitor Center before it closes, 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
Things to Do When You Visit White Sands #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 anytime 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.
Things to Do When You Visit White Sands #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!
Things to Do When You Visit White Sands #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!)
Pro Tip: Before you set out on one of the trails, be sure you have plenty of water and these additional, important items.
Things to Do When You Visit White Sands #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.
Things to Do When You Visit White Sands #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.
Things to Do When You Visit White Sands #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
Things to Do When You Visit White Sands #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.
To Visit 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 White Sands from Albuquerque, New Mexico? White Sands National Park 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? My favorite time to visit White Sands National Park is in the spring or fall. In the spring, the desert is in bloom and the temperatures aren’t unbearably hot. In the fall, not only are the temperatures more mild than summer, but there are usually fewer 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.
Visit the White Sands National Park website for up-to-date information about entrance fees, hours of operation, special events, and more.
More Information and Inspiration for Visiting New Mexico
Visiting Southern New Mexico (Near White Sands National Park)
- New Mexico’s flavorful chiles are the best in the world. Enjoy them at the best Mexican restaurants in Las Cruces for an experience you won’t get any of the other 49 states. And if you need a break from green chiles, check out these other Las Cruces restaurants.
- While many cities add beautiful street art to buildings, bridges, and other structures, the murals in Las Cruces use a unique canvas.
- The historic town of Mesilla, near Las Cruces, New Mexico, was once the stomping grounds of Wild West legends like Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa.
- For hundreds of years, people traveled through Las Cruces, New Mexico on the famed El Camino Real as they traded goods from Mexico City to Santa Fe. Experience 2,000 years along the Royal Highway in about ten minutes via this free exhibit.
Visiting Northern New Mexico
- From its rich history to its delicious food, here’s why Albuquerque is an up and coming US travel destination. Be sure to explore the Albuquerque BioPark and Belen Harvey House when you’re in this part of New Mexico.
- With traditions like farolitos, Las Posadas, biscochitos, cozy fireplaces ablaze with fragrant pinon wood, and tamales smothered in red chile, Christmas lovers need to visit Santa Fe during the holidays for a one-of-a-kind Southwestern experience.
Throughout the State of New Mexico
- With a red Zia sun symbol against a bright yellow background, New Mexico’s flag stands out from the other 49 states. Discover how a sacred symbol ended up on the New Mexico state flag.
- Cutting horizontally through the state, what was once historic Route 66 is now predominantly Interstate 40. But you can still get a glimpse of the Mother Road that was as you travel through New Mexico. This is especially in Tucumcari where decaying roadside attractions meet active restoration projects.
- Here’s why New Mexico’s “Chile Capital of the World” license plate makes me spicy…
- Find even more advice on what to do, where to stay, and what to eat on this New Mexico Pinterest board.
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.