Is It Worth Visiting White Sands National Park?

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A person walking in White Sand National Park

In 2021 and 2022, over 700,000 people visited White Sands National Park in New Mexico. These were the first years the park saw visitation numbers that high. So, what makes White Sands National Park worth visiting?

If you’ve seen any photos of people who have ventured to White Sands, they’re likely doing one thing: sledding. But there’s no snow here.

Let’s look at what makes this place so unique and why you should plan a trip to southern New Mexico to see it for yourself!

Where Is White Sands National Park?

White Sands National Park is located in southern New Mexico. It also borders Holloman Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range. And it’s only 17 minutes from Alamogordo, New Mexico. 

It’s about three hours northwest of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. El Paso, Texas, is approximately 90 minutes southwest, and Las Cruces, New Mexico, is less than an hour away. The capital city of Albuquerque is about three and a half hours north.

The national park sits in the Tularosa Basin between the San Andres Mountains to the west and the Sacramento Mountains to the east. Dunes of gypsum sand cover 275 square miles, the world’s largest gypsum dune field.

When Did White Sands Become a National Park?

In 1933, President Herbert Hoover declared White Sands a national monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

It wasn’t until 2019 that President Donald Trump re-designated White Sands National Monument as White Sands National Park. It became the 62nd park in the National Park System.

View of white sands national park

What’s So Special About White Sands National Park?

There’s no place like White Sands National Park. Its unique geology creates a playground for kids and adults.

The park preserves the world’s largest gypsum dune field and the plants and animals that live there. Some dunes reach as tall as 60 feet.

But the billions of tons of gypsum sand here didn’t just appear overnight. Lakes and streams once covered this landscape about 12,000 years ago. But when the Ice Age ended, the snowmelt dissolved gypsum from the surrounding mountains and carried it into the Tularosa Basin.

The lakes evaporated over time and formed selenite crystals. Wind erosion broke up the crystals and transported them to where they are today in White Sands National Park. Erosion continues to produce gypsum sand today.

There aren’t a lot of activities in White Sands National Park.

The park is relatively small compared to other national parks, and the landscape limits the types of recreation. But you must do at least three things when visiting this special place.

View of a shadow standing in white sands national park

1.  Drive Dunes Drive

After checking in at the Visitor Center, drive along Dunes Drive. Along this road, you’ll watch the landscape transform before your eyes. You’ll pass grassy meadows full of yuccas, and then the terrain quickly turns into sand.

You feel like you’ve landed on another planet as you take in the sights of the white towering gypsum dunes that seem to go on forever.

This 8-mile scenic drive takes about 20 to 25 minutes to reach the other end of the park. You can enjoy outdoor exhibits, trails, and parking areas where you can stop and learn more about this natural wonder.

Although the last three miles are hard-packed gypsum sand, the road is suitable for any vehicle, including RVs.

2.  Go Sledding Down the Dunes

You can’t go to White Sands National Park and not take a ride down a gypsum dune.

Kids and adults enjoy sledding at the Alkali Flat trailhead, the Roadrunner Picnic area, and anywhere else they can find a towering dune. If one dune looks busy, keep driving, and you might find a better one down the road. 

You can purchase round snow sleds at the park’s gift shop or bring your own. If you want a better ride, get some wax to apply to the bottom of your sled.

This will help you race down the steep hills much faster. We recommend sledding down the back sides of the dunes so you don’t run into cars in the parking areas. Additionally, be prepared to climb back to the top. 

This type of sledding takes some getting used to because it’s gypsum and not snow. But you’ll enjoy this activity for hours once you get the hang of it. Just watch out for some plants at the bottom of the dunes. You don’t want to crash into a spiky yucca.

Pro Tip: New Mexico is filled with national parks! Read this article to avoid wasting time at New Mexico national parks.

3. Take a Sunset Stroll With a Ranger

Sunsets at White Sands National Park are magical. Although you can enjoy an evening anywhere in the park, we encourage you to take a guided sunset stroll with a ranger.

You’ll learn more about the park’s plants, animals, and geology. And when the sun sets, you’ll enjoy the breathtaking scenery. The walks are free, and reservations aren’t required.

Or you can simply walk along the soft white sands and explore the rolling dunes. And the park is pet-friendly! You can bring your dogs along. They may love digging in the sand. Just keep them on a leash and under control as there are dangerous wildlife they may run after. They can also get lost or disrupt other guests. 

Watch out on your strolls; you may come across rattlesnakes, scorpions, lizards, and other creepy crawlies. 

You may also see owls, raptors, and roadrunners, the state bird. Other animals that call the park home include jackrabbits, coyotes, and bobcats.

View of white sands national park

Visit This Hidden Gem in White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park closes after sunset. You don’t want to get lost walking over miles of white sand and get lost. Don’t stray too far from your car, as the white rolling sand doesn’t provide many landmarks. 

But throughout the year, the park hosts a Full Moon Hike. Once a month, from March through November, rangers take guests along the Dune Life Nature Trail the night before the full moon. No flashlights or headlamps are allowed. It’s truly a unique experience in a unique national park.

But you must purchase tickets for this event on Adult tickets cost $8, and child tickets cost $4.

Best Place for Camping Near White Sands National Park

The closest campground to White Sands National Park is Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. Camping isn’t permitted inside the national park. It takes about 30 minutes to drive to the national park from Oliver Lee.

The campground has 15 electric and water sites, 24 dry sites, and a dump station. Campers also have access to potable water, restrooms and showers, hiking trails, picnic tables, education programs, and wildlife viewing. Electric sites start at $14 a night.

However, you can also find other campgrounds further away. Or you can stay in hotels in Alamogordo.

While camping, you can explore other local attractions, including the Alameda Park Zoo and the New Mexico Museum of Space History. You can also visit Heart of the Desert Pistachios and Wine and McGinn’s Pistachio Land, where you’ll see the world’s largest pistachio.

And if you want to enjoy a forest during your desert adventures, you can head up to Cloudcroft Village within the Lincoln National Forest. It takes about 40 minutes to drive from White Sands to Cloudcroft.

You’ll find many other campgrounds up in the mountains. It just depends on how far you want to stay from the park and what other things you want to explore nearby.

Keep in Mind: While in New Mexico, enjoy your campsite and stay at one of The Highest Rated RV Parks!

Is Visiting White Sands National Park Worth It?

White Sands National Park is one of the coolest parks we’ve ever visited. You only need a day to enjoy hiking, sledding, and scenic driving. But it will be a full day. Pack a picnic lunch and dinner, and stay until sunset. 

You can visit year-round. However, during the summer, the sand can get very hot. There’s not much shade except in the shadow of the dunes. Also, wear layers as the dunes are usually windy, and it can get chilly around sunset. In the winter, the sand can feel as cold as snow. 

And expect to track a lot of sand back in your car as it’ll likely find its way into your clothes and hair. However, note that taking sand out of the park is illegal. 

New Mexico has so many wonders and cultures to explore. And White Sands is one of the best places to start. Have you ever been to this New Mexico national park? What was your favorite thing to do?

1 comment
  1. We went to New Mexico several years ago. We stopped at Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands. It was March. There was snow still on the ground but it was melting. It was a warm day. The sand was beautiful. It looked like snow.

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