The Ultimate Guide To White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park, home to mystical white sand dunes!
With glistening white sand dunes and wave-like structures, White Sands National Park is an otherworldly experience and very picturesque!
Located in southern New Mexico, White Sands National Park is home to unique sparkling white sand dunes. The sand’s white color is due to the gypsum deposit found in the sand at White Sands National Park.
Gypsum, a common soft mineral, is often found naturally when water bodies evaporate. However, huge gypsum sand dunes are very rare, as gypsum easily dissolves in water, and water bodies generally carry the minerals along with it to the ocean.
However, several million years ago, the White Sands area was covered by a shallow water body that found no outlet. The water evaporated, leaving behind huge gypsum deposits. Over time, it was broken down into tiny sand grains by the extreme temperatures in the region, leading to the formation of the massive gypsum dune field.
White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dune field in the world!
White Sands National Park, previously known as White Sands National Monument, was re-designated as a National Park in 2020 to recognize its natural and social significance. The park, besides protecting and preserving the geological site, also offers several recreational opportunities to visitors.
The White Sands National Park is relatively smaller than other National Parks in the US. However, the views and the experience make it a must-see in New Mexico!
Here is my ultimate guide to White Sands National Park in New Mexico, featuring things to do in White Sands National Park, a suggested itinerary, and recommendations on hotels and restaurants near White Sands National Park.
Getting To White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is located in Alamogordo, in southern New Mexico.
White Sands National Park is located 16 miles from Alamogordo and 52 miles from Las Cruces. In New Mexico, public transportation options are limited, so I highly recommend flying into the closest possible airport near White Sands National Park, renting a car, and driving to the park.
White Sands National Park, located in southern New Mexico, is quite close to the New Mexico – Texas border, which opens up the option of flying into the nearby airport in El Paso, Texas.
International Airports near White Sands National Park
El Paso International Airport (ELP): Located in El Paso, Texas, 98 miles from White Sands National Park, and about 1 hour 30 minutes drive.
Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ): Located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about 225 miles from White Sands National Park, around 3 hours 20 minutes drive.
Domestic and Regional Airports near White Sands National Park
There’re a few regional and domestic airports near White Sands National Park, but the flights will most likely include multiple layovers, depending on your departure location.
Roswell International Air Center (ROW): Located in Roswell, New Mexico, 136 miles from White Sands National Park, 2 hours 20 minutes drive.
Cavern City Air Terminal (CNM): Located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, 170 miles from White Sands National Park, 3 hours 15 minutes drive.
Santa Fe Regional Airport (SAF): Located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is 245 miles from White Sands National Park, about four hours drive.
Amtrak offers passenger train service on the Southwest Chief that runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, stopping at few major cities in New Mexico Amtrak stations, including Albuquerque (ABQ), Gallup (GLP), Lamy (LMY), Las Vegas (LVS), and Raton (RAT).
However, there are no direct train or bus services to White Sands National Park. So, hiring a taxi, ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft, or renting a car is the best way to reach White Sands National Park from the airport or a train station.
The best way to get to White Sands National Park or any other attractions in New Mexico is by flying into the closest possible airport and then renting a car and driving to different places within New Mexico.
Driving distance to White Sands National Park from major cities in New Mexico
- Alamogordo to White Sands National Park: 16 miles, 20 minutes drive
- Roswell to White Sands National Park: 132 miles, 2 hours 30 minutes drive
- Carlsbad to White Sands National Park: 162 miles, 3 hours drive
- Santa Rosa to White Sands National Park: 193 miles, 3 hours 15 minutes drive
- Albuquerque to White Sands National Park: 224 miles, 3 hours 30 minutes drive
- Santa Fe to White Sands National Park: 233 miles, about 4 hours drive
The driving time may differ based on the weather and road conditions. You can find other details about New Mexico, including weather, transportation options, and more in my New Mexico Travel Guide.
Things To Do In White Sands National Park
Dunes Drive, hiking trails, a museum, backcountry camping, and ranger programs are the main attractions in White Sands National Park!
White Sands National Park is relatively small compared to other National Parks in the US, but still, there is a lot to see and do in the park. The main attraction is the Dunes Drive, where you get to drive your car amid the sand dunes and can stop at designated parking areas and explore the dunes.
Timing: Dunes Drive opens at 7:00 a.m. daily, occasionally closed during missile tests on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range, recommend calling ahead.
Closed: Christmas Day (December 25)
Visitor Center & Museum In White Sands National Park
The White Sands National Park visitor center, a Pueblo-Style building located right at the entrance, is a great place to start your White Sands National Park exploration. The visitor center has a small museum with exhibits related to the park, a store, a gift shop, and a small garden outside the visitor center.
If you’re planning to hike in White Sands National Park, it’s a good idea to make a brief stop at the visitor center to learn about the trail conditions and fill up your water bottles. If you’re planning to go dune sledding, which I highly recommend you do, but didn’t bring your sled, you can buy them at the store in the visitor center.
Sledding The Dunes
Sledding down a sand dune is a really fun and popular activity in White Sands National Park!
To sled down the sand dunes, you would need a waxed plastic sled or a snow saucer. You can either carry yours or buy one from the park store or from one of the stores in the city of Alamogordo or Las Cruces.
It’s essential to select a safe dune for sledding, which is not close to a road or a parking area and clear of any obstructions and rocks. The National Park Service recommends using the dunes between mile marker 4-6.
Driving The Dunes Drive
The Dunes Drive is the star of White Sands National Park!
The Dunes Drive, 16 miles roundtrip, starting and ending at the visitor center, is one of the most spectacular scenic drives in the US. The Dunes Drive is the gateway to all hiking trails, vista points, sledding, and picnic areas within White Sands National Park.
The first five miles are paved, and for the last three miles, you will have to drive on gypsum, which is absolutely safe for all cars and motorcycles. You can drive the Dunes Drive in less than an hour, but I highly recommend hiking a couple of trails, climbing a few dunes, and sledding down the dunes.
However, please stop only at designated parking areas and be extra careful in winter as snow is hardly visible on the white sand. Also, watch out for dust storms, as visibility can be significantly impacted during dust storms.
Hiking Trails In White Sands National Park
There are five hiking trails in White Sands National Park located along the Dunes Drive.
The trails range from easy to moderately strenuous, and every trail has unique vantage points offering stunning views of the dune field. I have marked the trailheads on the map above, and below are more details about each trail in White Sands National Park. The hikes are really the best way to explore White Sands National Park, and I recommend at least hiking one trail on your trip.
Hiking in dunes can be tricky, and it’s not possible to have paved trails on dunes, so National Park Service uses markers of unique shape and color along the tracks, and it’s a good practice to spot the next marker before continuing on the trail.
Dune Life Nature Trail: The Dune Life Nature Trail is a moderately strenuous one-mile loop, and the loop is marked using blue club symbol markers. This hike is great to experience the diverse and harsh desert landscape, and you may spot a few animals in the area, including reptiles, badgers, and birds. The Dune Life Nature trailhead is located 2.8 miles from the visitor center along the Dunes Drive.
Playa Trail: Located right across the Dune Life Nature Trailhead, the Playa Trail is an easy 0.5 miles roundtrip hike around a playa. Playa is a dried lake bed with mud-cakes and salt crystals formed by the evaporation of the water from the lake. The Playa Trail is marked with green markers with a heart symbol. The Playa trailhead is located right across the Dune Life Nature trailhead and is about 2.7 miles from the White Sands National Park visitor center.
Interdune Boardwalk: The Interdune Boardwalk is the only wheelchair and stroller-friendly trail in White Sands National Park. It’s an easy 0.4 miles hike through a wooden and railed boardwalk and is a great way to explore varying landscapes, plants, and animals in the park. The Interdune Boardwalk trailhead and the parking lot is located on the Dunes Drive and is about 4.5 miles from the visitor center.
Backcountry Camping Trail: This trail is a moderately strenuous 2 miles roundtrip hike, marked with orange color markers with a spade symbol. This is the trail used by the campers to get to the backcountry campsites but is an excellent choice if you want to hike some steep dunes in the heart of the desert. The Backcountry Camping trailhead is located 6.6 miles from the visitor center along the Dunes Drive.
Alkali Flat Trail: The Alkali Flat Trail is the most strenuous hike in the park, 5 miles roundtrip, and takes around three-four hours to complete. The trail is marked with red markers with a diamond symbol. The trail leads to a dry lake bed, the Alkali Flat, the only remnant of Lake Otero from the Ice Age. The Alkali Flat trailhead, the most remote trailhead, is located about 7.5 miles from the park’s visitor center on the Dunes Drive.
There are no restrooms and water fountains along the trails, and all trails except Interdune Boardwalk include hiking through sand dunes, so please come prepared.
Backcountry Camping In White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park offers a one-of-a-kind experience to camp amid the white gypsum sand dunes. The park allows only backcountry camping, and no car or RV camping is permitted.
There are ten campsites which are allocated on a first-come-first-serve basis. The permits can be obtained only in person from the entrance booth or the visitor center. The camping sites can be reached by hiking the one-mile long Backcountry Camping Trail located on the dunes drive.
The weather can rapidly change in the desert, and it’s advisable to carry a physical map and magnetic compass when camping or hiking deep in the dunes. Preparation is the key to having a memorable and fun camping experience at White Sands National Park, and you can use my camping checklist to prepare for your camping trip.
Lodging & Dining Near White Sands National Park
There is no lodging facility within White Sands National Park except the backcountry campsites, and the park doesn’t allow RV or car camping. However, you could stay at one of the hotels in the nearby city of Alamogordo, 16 miles from White Sands, or Las Cruces, 52 miles from the park.
There are not many resorts or boutique hotels in Alamogordo or Las Cruces, but you will find several decent chain hotels and bed and breakfasts in both the cities. Las Cruces has better hotel choices, but if you plan to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park on your trip to White Sands National Park, staying in Alamogordo is a better option.
Hotels In Alamogordo
Alamogordo is a small and friendly town and home to a few interesting attractions in New Mexico, including White Sands National Park, New Mexico Museum of Space History, Alameda Park Zoo, and McGinn’s Pistachio Land – World’s Largest Pistachio.
The Alamogordo town has a few big brand chain hotels and bread and breakfasts, including Holiday Inn Express & Suites Alamogordo, Hampton Inn Alamogordo, and Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Alamogordo.
Hotels In Las Cruces
Las Cruces, the second-largest city in New Mexico, home to several museums and lively downtown, has a few great lodging options, including a resort and several other chain hotels and bread and breakfasts.
Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces: The Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces is a premier luxury resort in southern New Mexico. With Spanish Colonial style decor and beautiful gardens, a pool, and several dining options, Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces is a great choice when visiting White Sands National Park.
Hotels & Bread and Breakfasts: There are quite a few big brand chain hotels in Las Cruces, including Hilton Garden Inn Las Cruces, Staybridge Suites Las Cruces, and Holiday Inn Express & Suites Las Cruces.
Within White Sands National Park, your food choices are limited to sandwiches, snacks, and beverages available in the park’s store. However, you will find several restaurants in Alamogordo and Las Cruces.
Dining Options In Alamogordo
Here’re my top picks for restaurants in Alamogordo – Rizo’s Restaurant and La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant for Mexican food. Our Country Kitchen, and Waffle & Pancake Shoppe for comfort food. Taiwan Kitchen for Asian food, and you don’t want to miss the huge burritos at Eddie’s Burritos.
Dining Options In Las Cruces
Las Cruces offers more dining choices when compared to Alamogordo. My top picks and favorite restaurants in Las Cruces – La Nueva Casita Café, Hacienda de Mesilla Grille and Cantina, La Posta de Mesilla, and Paisano Cafe for Mexican food. Aqua Reef Euro-Asian Cuisine for Asian food and Double Eagle and Sunset Grill for fine dining.
Other New Mexico Attractions & Related Posts
I hope you enjoyed reading the post, The Ultimate Guide To White Sands National Park, and I hope this will help you plan your trip to White Sands National Park. While there are many attractions in New Mexico, White Sands National Park was a unique experience for me.
Happy feeding your soul!
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