White Sands National Park Travel Guide
Updated December 2020, White Sands Travel Guide was originally written in April 2016
White Sands National Park was recently changed from White Sands National Monument to White Sands National Park. It is a cool, blinding-white paradise hidden right off the US-Mexico border in New Mexico’s northern end of the Chihuahua Desert that is quite possibly the most underrated, unheard of, surreal, and unappreciated of all the parks in the USA.
I had learned after my parent’s short-lived move to the south of Utah that some of the best parks this country has to offer are the ones you may not have heard of. While the Grand Canyon is amazing in its own way, I can’t believe that the uniqueness of White Sands hasn’t skyrocketed it to fame.
My biggest recommendation if you’re going to pay a visit to White Sands National Park is to camp at least for one night in the park. It’s the kind of place you need to experience every change in light over a 24 hour period. Early morning, high-noon, the sunset and of course middle of the night are all astonishing in their own ways, each with their very own palette of color.
Learn everything you need to know to plan a perfect visit in this White Sands National Park Travel Guide.
The History & Science Behind White Sands
White Sands National Park is the biggest gypsum sand field in the world, with more than 275 square miles of this magical white powder. To be more exact on its location, it is down in the Tularosa Basin of the Chihuahua Desert.
The sand dunes were formed by an ancient sea that evaporated long ago. Pair that with the fact that the Tularosa basin as no drainages, and voila, you have a massive gypsum dune field that can’t be carried away by rainwater. And if you’re that big of a nerd (I am) you can also google how gypsum is formed in the first place. Hint: Evaporated ocean usually leads to sedimentary gypsum!
Another interesting piece of information I thought worth mentioning: The sand stays cool to the touch. Gypsum reflects light, rather than absorbing it and if I’m remembering correctly I think I read a sign saying gypsum retains moisture. So kick off your sandals and flap those bare feet around, you won’t burn them off–even in mid-summer.
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How To Get To White Sands
El Paso is the closest major airport, otherwise, Albuquerque and Tucson are comparable distances from White Sands. We flew into Tucson because we found tickets for dirt cheap coming from Alaska, with that said the drive from Tucson to Las Cruces is one of the most boring drives I’ve done in my life.
You’ll pass a neat pile of rocks near the pull off for the Dragoon Mountains (it’s closed) just outside Tucson and then it’s vast, barren, nothingness (just along the freeway, I can’t speak for if you were to actually turn off and explore further away) until you hit Las Cruces. Next time going to White Sands I will most definitely come from a different direction, not that that should stop you if you would be coming from that direction, I’m just saying be prepared for over 200 miles of misery.
There is no public transport to White Sands National Monument, so if flying into one of the above places, plan on renting a car.
White Sands visitor center is located on Highway 70. If coming from Tucson you’d take I-10 East to Las Cruces, or if coming from El Paso you’d take the I-10 West to Las Cruces.
From Las Cruces take Highway 70 East. You will have to go through a US border patrol station not far before reaching the park, have your IDs ready. They did search our trunk and check all our IDs. I’m guessing to make sure we weren’t smuggling any humans and anything fun like cocaine through from Mexico or something, who knows.
From Albuquerque take the I-25 South until Socorro where you will exit onto US-380 East to Alamogordo and then take Highway 70 West to the visitor center.
Once you’ve arrived at the visitor center the scenic road into the park goes for about 8 miles where it comes to an end.
White Sands Fees
- Park entrance: $20 per vehicle. These passes are good for 7 days. If you have a yearly ‘America the Beautiful’ Pass, White Sands is included.
- Backcountry camping: $3 per person, per night (after park entrance fee is paid).
Other Permits That Can Be purchased
- Lake Lucero Tours: $8 per adult, $4 per person ages 15 & under.
- Full Moon Bike Ride: $8 per adult 16 & older, $4 per person ages 15 & under.
- Full Moon Hike: $8 per adult, $4.00 per person ages 15 & under.
- Sunrise Photography: $8.00 per adult, $4 per person ages 15 & under.
Free days, Free Passes & Closure Information
Active duty military will get a free annual pass to the park (does not include any other permits ie: backcountry, lake tour, full moon bike or hike, or photography tours.
White Sands is part of the national park service, so they do participate in ‘free days’ where the entrance fee is waived, you can read the list of free dates here.
White Sands does have closures due to testing at the White Sands Missile Range nearby. The park is usually closed for no more than 3 hours at a time. If you plan to visit and are on limited time, visit this page here, for the upcoming closure information.
Need more inspiration? Check out White Sands in photos
There are only 10 backcountry camping sites at White Sands National Park and they can fill quickly. You cannot reserve campsites in advance, so it is first come first serve.
We made sure to show up at the visitor center just before 9 am when they open to make sure we got a spot. As mentioned above the camping fee is $3 per person in addition to your park entrance permit.
The campsites range from 0.4 miles to 1.1 miles from the trailhead parking lot. All campsites are located in an inter-dune area (between peaks of the dunes) and the trail, along with campsites are marked with orange posts.
White Sands has a giant variance in night to day temperatures so make sure to pack accordingly. It does get quite cold at night and hot in the day. Visiting in the first week of April the day time temps were up into the mid-80’sºF and the night-time temperature dropped into the upper 20’sºF.
There are beetles, spiders, snakes, scorpions, and bugs that live in the plants and sands out there, so be sure to bring a tent. Make sure to have a warm sleeping bag and dress in plenty of layers, the temperature drops acutely around sunset.
Pack enough food and bring water. This is the desert after all, and you could die out here if not properly prepared. The visitor center does sell snacks and drinks during their operating hours, otherwise, food and drinks can be purchased at several stores in nearby Alamogordo.
The gates to the park do get locked after sunset, so you will be stuck here for the night.
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Where To Stay In Alamogordo
I know, camping isn’t for everyone. Plus, there’s also a chance that you arrive too late in the day and all the backcountry permits are taken for the night.
Things To Do At White Sands National Park
Climb Sand Dunes
Pick a dune, any dune. You’re surrounded by them.
We arrived on a Saturday in the late afternoon after the hellish drive from Tucson. There were tons of people out, I’m guessing mostly from nearby Alamogordo, the nearby military base, and Las Cruces. Most were hanging out atop a sand dune adjacent to a parking lot with chairs and umbrellas, coolers, and boomboxes while the kids slid down the dunes in saucer sleds.
Beyond that first dune, there were very few people.
You can buy saucer sleds at the visitor center and sled down the dunes. The visitor center sells them for pretty cheap and will buy them back for slightly less than you paid, so essentially it seconds as a rental shop. You do have to wax these bad boys or else you’ll just be stuck in the sand, similar to sandboarding.
Take A Hike
There are a number of hiking trails around that are marked. You can also wander off-trail if you fancy but beware: winds shift dunes and sand blows to cover your footprints quickly, making it easy to lose your way.
You could die, get injured, severely sunburnt, attacked by poisonous critters, and so on. Or you might live, but I figure we might as well cover all the bases so some idiot doesn’t try to sue me because they read a blog that didn’t say, hey you can do this, but you could die too. And since we’re covering all the bases, I’ll just throw in alien abductions too, it’s not that far from Roswell after all.
If you want to read up on all the hiking available out here at White Sands, click here.
There are guided hikes with park rangers available at certain dates and times for a fee.
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Have A Picnic
There is a neat little picnic area with some strange, almost artsy looking covered picnic tables. If each table had wheels and foot holes it would sorta look like some industrial version of Fred Flinstone’s car.
Watch A Sunset
One of the more cloudless and still mind-blowing sunsets I’ve experienced was here at White Sands. As the sun moves the sand dunes seem to change colors. Pastel pinks, purples, oranges, blues. It’s something you’ve gotta experience.
The stargazing at White Sands is top-notch. You do get some light pollution from Alamogordo and Las Cruces, but damn, I’ve never quite seen the Milky Way as good as I have here, though close in the running are Socotra, Tajikistan, and Morocco.
Even Lex, my amazing friend albeit being blinder than a bat stumbled out of the tent sans glasses at 3:30 am and could see it.
On the note of night skies, I was informed on Instagram by a user that commented on one of my photos is that nights with a full or fuller-ish moon are quite stunning. We were there when the moon was nearly new, and we never did see it rise so we did not get to experience that. But the IG commentator did say that you gotta see it with the bright moon out because it lights up the sand dunes.
Thanks, as if my FOMO wasn’t already off the chain! But really though, thanks for giving me a reason to 100% go back and camp again.
Need more inspiration? A Photographic Journey Through White Sands
Safety & Tips
- Bring Water: Bring more water than you’ll think you need. At very least bring refillable bottles as you can fill water bottles/jugs at the visitor center. We brought several smaller water bottles and 3 one-gallon jugs to camp overnight.
- Bring Sunscreen/Cover Up: The sun is intense out here, especially for the pasty. All three of us wore 50 SPF, I made it out unscathed. Lex and Grant, on the other hand, were burnt AF, even after applying 50 block several times throughout the day. Three weeks later I think Grant is still peeling off pieces of skin large enough to make Goldmember jealous.
- Know The Upcoming Closures: How terrible would it be if you were on some fast forward tour of the American Southwest and only had a couple of hours to check out White Sands and it happened to be during a closure? Save yourself the heartache.
- Be Ready For Cold Nights: Bring warm clothes especially outside the dead-of-summer months. A family of campers hiking out the day we were hiking into our camp had a water bottle that was frozen solid from the night before. I wasn’t kidding when I say it gets freakin’ cold.
- And Be Ready For Hot Days: It’s still astounding to me the temperature variance in one day in the desert. Be prepared. Please don’t have a heat stroke, and like I said above: BRING WATER! Another option is to visit in the earlier morning and then return in the late afternoon to avoid the sun and heat at their strongest.
- White Sands Is Dog-Friendly: Yup, you read that right! As long as you have your furry friend on a leash they are welcome, just make sure to clean up the poop.
Have Any Questions About Visiting White Sands National Monument?
Ask in the comments section below!