White Sands National Park is one of the most unique places to explore in the U.S. National Park System, offering 275 square miles of pristine white sand dunes. The park is home to the world’s largest gypsum dune field, with plenty of adventures to enjoy, from sledding on its hills and hiking on epic trails to camping under the stars and learning all about its incredible wildlife. If you want to check this otherworldly place off your bucket list, here’s 12 of the best things to do in White Sands National Park.
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About White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is located here in southern New Mexico, between the cities of Las Cruces and Alamogordo, New Mexico.
The park is open every day of the year, except for Christmas Day.
The park’s opening hours vary by season:
- Spring (mid-March through the beginning of April): 7:00 AM–8:00 PM
- Summer (mid-April through the beginning of September): 7:00 AM–9:00 PM
- Fall (mid-September through the beginning of November): 7:00 AM–8:00 PM
- Winter (beginning of November through the beginning of March): 7:00 AM–6:00 PM
For exact seasonal dates, check out the park’s website.
The park is entirely surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range—but not to worry, they’re really good about closing the park whenever they’re testing something out. But, because of that, the park does randomly close sometimes, often without prior warning.
This typically only lasts for a few hours, but if you’re visiting on a tight timeline, be sure to check the official Park Closure page ahead of time to plan accordingly.
The entrance fee is $25 dollars per private vehicle, good for 7 consecutive days or alternatively, the entrance fee is included with any valid interagency pass, like the America the Beautiful Pass.
What caused the white sand dunes in White Sands National Park?
Millions of years ago, an ancient sea covered most of the area that we know today as the southwestern United States, which had layers of gypsum deposits from the nearby San Andres Mountains.
After the last Ice Age, the water here evaporated, leaving behind a dry lakebed and selenite crystals.
Strong winds eventually broke these crystals down into teeny tiny white grains of gypsum sand, which eventually accumulated into sand dunes that could tower up to 60 feet tall.
Not only is it the largest gypsum sand dune field in the world, but you can actually see White Sands National Park from space!
How to Get to White Sands National Park
While White Sands is kind of in the middle of nowhere, it’s actually pretty conveniently located close to two international airport—less than an hour from Las Cruces International Airport in Las Cruces, New Mexico, or, alternatively, an hour and a half from El Paso International Airport in El Paso, Texas.
This is definitely going to be one of those trips where you’ll need to rent a car—there’s unfortunately no public transit options that will get you to the park. Additionally, unlike some of the popular national parks, like Bryce Canyon National Park or Yosemite National Park, there isn’t a bus or shuttle system to get around the park itself.
Best Things to Do in White Sands National Park
As compared to lots of the most popular parks, White Sands is relatively undeveloped, with a visitor center and little else, other than hundreds and hundreds of miles of rolling white sand dunes.
Nevertheless, there’s plenty of things to do in White Sands National Park to enjoy the otherworldly landscape.
Let’s get into it!
1. Stop by the Visitor Center
Like any national park, stopping by the Visitor Center is a good place to get your bearings.
There’s tons of information about White Sands here, like its geology and history, and rangers at the ready if you have any questions about any of the activities or trails in the park. Of course, there’s also a gift shop if you’re in need of any White Sands National Park swag.
If you have kiddos, be sure to have them join the Junior Ranger Program here, where they’ll learn about the park, complete a workbook, and earn a badge (why don’t they have that for adults?!).
Tip: The only water fill station in the entire park is at the Visitor Center, so be sure to fill up here before hitting the dunes! We love these comically giant Nalgene bottles, which allow us to stay nice and hydrated on the trail.
2. Enjoy a scenic drive
There’s only one major road in the park—the aptly named Dunes Drive. This road, which starts at the visitor center, winds for eight miles through the rolling white dunes into the heart of the park.
If you were to make the drive without stopping, the roundtrip journey usually takes about 45 minutes, but there’s lots to see and do along the way, from reading interpretive signs about the constantly changing dunes to taking photos of the surreal landscape.
The first five miles and the last three miles of Dunes Drive are made of hard-packed gypsum, but the road is suitable for any kind of passenger vehicle. That being said, the wind is always causing the dunes to shift around, so it’s not unusual to have to do some creative driving en route. Drive slowly and carefully and be sure to keep an eye out for people zooming down the nearby dunes on sleds!
Which brings us to…
3. Sand Sledding
Inarguably, one of the most unique things to do in White Sands National Park is to hit the dunes and try your hand at sand sledding.
You’ll need to bring your own sled, like this one or this one, or can alternatively buy one from the Visitor’s Center. From here, just follow Dunes Drive towards the back of the park, where you’ll find the biggest dunes. Pick out one you like, park, climb it, and sled it!
Climbing up the sand dunes can always be a bit of a butt-kicker, but zooming down the hills will make all your hard work well worth it. Side effects of sand sledding may include some tumbling, slipping, sliding, and uncontrollable laughter!
Hiking in White Sands National Park
There are six hiking trails in White Sands National Park, ranging in length from a few tenths of a mile, to just over 4 miles. They also range in difficulty, from easy boardwalk trails and nature walks to more challenging hikes across the backcountry. So, no matter what level of hiker you are, there’s a trail in White Sands National Park that’s perfect for you.
And if you’re wondering, “how exactly do I follow a trail through sand dunes?”—great question! The park actually has that all figured out for you.
Hiking in White Sands is easy and straightforward, thanks to a system of color coded symbols used to identify and mark each of the trails in the park. These markers are strategically and consistently placed along the trail, so each path is easy to follow, even in seemingly identical sand dunes. We’ve listed the park’s trails, as well as their corresponding color coded symbol, below.
Nevertheless, given there’s extremely limited cell service in the park, it’s always a good idea to download a trail map on AllTrails before heading out on your hike.
You’ll need the AllTrails+ version of the app to download offline maps. Luckily, you can get a 7-day free trial, PLUS our awesome readers get a sweet 30% off discount for their first year—just use the code “Uprooted30” at check out!
4. Playa Trail
- Length: 0.4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 0 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trail Marker: Green hearts
- Trail map
If you’re looking for things to do in White Sands National Park that are easy and accessible for hikers of all levels, this hike is an incredible option.
The word “playa” in Spanish means an evaporated desert basin, which is exactly what you’ll hike along on this trail.
It’s a perfect example of the unique environments that are on display in the park. At a glance, you’ll seemingly be hiking through a completely barren expanse of desert and dunes, but, upon a closer look, you’ll notice subtle forms of life here, from wildlife tracks, petite flora and fauna, small pools of water, and even crystals!
There are several interpretive signs along the way, where you can learn more about the history of this area and the surprising diversity of life in the playa.
5. The Interdune Boardwalk Trail
- Length: 0.4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 0 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trail Marker: None (the trail follows a boardwalk)
- Trail map
The Interdune Boardwalk Trail is a great option if you’re looking for an approachable hike for all ages and abilities—this trail is even ADA-accessible!
The elevated boardwalk will take you through the interdune area to a stunning vista over the towering hills of white sand and the surrounding Sacramento Mountains. Along the way, there’s several interpretative signs about the geology and wildlife of the park.
If you’re visiting on a particularly hot day, this trail provides shade—a rare commodity in the park—with a canopy, about halfway down the trail. It’s a great spot to take a break from the sun and drink in the surrounding scenery (and some of your water!).
6. The Dune Life Nature Trail
- Length: 1 mile
- Elevation Gain: Technically, 0 feet, but there’s constantly changing sand dunes that you’ll need to traverse (so get those glutes ready!)
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trail Marker: Blue spades
- Trail map
If you want to learn more about the biodiversity in the park, which includes over 220 species of birds and mammals, like coyotes, jackrabbits, and even porcupines, the Dune Life Nature Trail is the place to go.
This trail has several informative signs about the animals that call this unusual habitat home. Additionally, this is a great place to keep an eye out for plant life or even animal tracks, amidst the stunning white sand dunes around you, to see tangible signs of the park’s incredible biodiversity.
7. White Sands Backcountry Trail
- Length: 1.8 miles roundtrip loop
- Elevation gain: 6 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Trail Marker: Orange spades
- Trail map
While this trail is primarily used by overnight backcountry campers, it still makes a great moderate hike for those looking for a bit of a challenge, without needing to commit to White Sands National Park’s longest trail (up next on the list!).
Whether you’re backcountry camping or simply taking this trail on as a day hike, you’ll get to enjoy breathtaking views of the dunes and the surrounding mountains the entire way.
8. Alkali Flat Trail
- Length: 4.4 mile
- Elevation Gain: 52 feet
- Rating: Moderate
- Trail Marker: Red diamonds
- Trail map
Last, but not least, of the hikes in the park, is its longest and most remote—the Alkali Flat Trail. This hike is perfect for those who want to feel completely immersed in the otherworld scenery of the park and soak in the silence and peace of being in the middle of the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
While the Alkali Flat Trail is exhilarating, it also can be challenging, so come prepared with plenty of water.
Even though the hike traverses miles and miles of rolling sand dunes, the Alkali Flat Trail is well-marked with its red diamond markers, so navigating this part of the backcountry is straightforward, as long as you pay attention. Still, it’s advisable for you to download an offline map of the trail before you head out in case you get turned around—it would be REALLY hard to navigate your way back to the trail if you lose your way.
After the first mile, you’ll notice barely any other footprints on the dunes. While the stark white sand is mesmerizing, don’t forget to look up and admire the backdrop of the stunning purple San Andreas and Sacramento Mountains.
9. Lake Lucero Trail
- Length: 1.6 miles
- Elevation Gain: 75 feet
- Rating: Moderate
- Trail map
The Lake Lucero Trail is one of the most unique things to do in White Sands National Park, not only for its unusual landscape, but the fact that you can only enjoy it as a ranger-guided hike.
So what makes the Lake Lucero Trail so unique? Contrary to its name, there is no Lake Lucero anymore. At first glance, the dry lakebed may simply look like a barren wasteland from a distance. Upon a closer look, though, you’ll get to see the unique geological factors that shape the park coming into play. For example, you can see stunning clusters of glittering selenite crystals, ranging from barely visible to the naked eye, all the way up to two feet long!
These guided hikes are only offered one Saturday a month, November through March. You can learn more about the hike and reserve your spot here.
10. Full Moon Hike
What could be more ethereal than hiking across endless stark white sand dunes, only illuminated by the full moon?
Each month, at the full moon, you can sign up to go on a ranger guided full moon hike, who usually leads the group along the Dune Life Nature Trail. Flashlights, headlamps, and any other kind of illumination is strictly prohibited—it’s just your group, the dunes, and the bright light of the moon above!
You can learn more about the experience, the cost, and how to reserve your spot here.
11. Sunset Stroll
Yet another ranger-guided hike, but, unlike the other two options, this one doesn’t require a reservation and, best of all, it’s totally free!
The programs are offered daily, starting an hour before sunset. Along the way, you’ll learn about the geology and biodiversity of the park. The hike is timed to end at sunset, when you’ll have panoramic views of the sun setting behind the mountains and the sky casting dazzling punchy colors on the snow white dunes.
12. Backcountry camping
The only way you’re allowed to camp in the park is by taking your pack and pitching a tent in the backcountry, along the White Sands Backcountry Trail.
Permits are required to stay in the backcountry campsites, which can be obtained from the Visitor’s Center.
Currently, backcountry camping has been paused while restoration work is being completed, but is slated to reopen soon.
Accommodations Near White Sands National Park
Given White Sands National Park’s remoteness, it can be nice to spend a night or two near the park so that you can enjoy it fully, without having to worry about driving multiple hours round trip.
So, here are a few of your options for staying near White Sands National Park.
Hotels Near White Sands National Park
- Home2Suites by Hilton Alamogordo: While none of the accommodations near White Sands are going to be an ultra-luxury experience, this is the most upscale option, with plenty of nice perks, like complimentary breakfast, an outdoor pool, and a firepit.
- The Cabins at Cloudcroft: For a cozier vibe, these cabins have everything you need, from extra fluffy blankets, a kitchenette, and even a fireplace to curl up next to. Located less than 45 minutes from the entrance of the national park, you’ll also be within walking distance to many of the best restaurants and cafes in the charming town of Cloudcroft, like Cloudcroft Brewery.
- White Sands Motel: This motel is very basic, but if you can look past its dated appearance, you’ll find tidy rooms, a friendly staff, and an excellent value for your money.
Camping Near White Sands National Park
While there’s no established campgrounds in the park, you can definitely find a few sites nearby.
- Holloman Lake: This dispersed camping area is located here, less than 10 minutes from the entrance of the park. While the site is largely undeveloped, it’s a quiet, spacious, and free place to enjoy for a few nights.
- Oliver Lee Memorial State Park: If you’d prefer something a bit more developed, this park is located about a 30 minute drive from the entrance of White Sands. For the RVers out there, there’s 16 sites with water and electric hook-ups, as well as sites without hook-ups. Each of these sites have a mix of reservable and first come first serve camping spots.
Best Time of the Year to Visit White Sands National Park
The best time of the year to visit the park is fall through spring.
While fall and spring have the most ideal weather conditions to enjoy the park, with daily highs in the 70s and lows in the upper 30s or low 40s, winter in New Mexico is also mild enough to still have plenty of fun outdoors.
The summer can be swelteringly hot and, with the extreme reflection off the white sand, it can be an uncomfortable time to visit. If visiting in summer, head to the park either in the early morning or in the late afternoon and bring along plenty of water to stay hydrated throughout the day.
Frequently Asked Questions About White Sands National Park
Are dogs allowed in White Sands National Park?
Yes! White Sands is one of the few national parks that is extremely dog-friendly, allowing leashed dogs pretty much anywhere in the park, other than the visitor center.
Please just remember to always follow the Leave No Trace principles, including picking up after your pet.
What should I pack for White Sand National Park?
Regardless of what time of year you visit, be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses to shield your eyes from the brightness of the sun.
Remember that the deserts are always pretty chilly in the early mornings and evenings, regardless of what time of year you’re visiting, so if you plan on being in the park during those periods, pack a few cozy layers to throw on.
What other attractions are near White Sands National Park?
There are actually two more national parks within a three hour drive of White Sands National Park, which means you can check off some of the best national parks in the Southwest from your bucket list in one fell swoop!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located about three hours east of White Sands National Park, and contains an entire underground world—more than 119 caves—to explore! While most visitors come here to explore the national park, there’s a number of things to do in Carlsbad, New Mexico, like swim in the beautiful Swimming Bull Falls or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, heading out on the 100-mile Guadalupe Ridge Trail, which connects Carlsbad to the third national park, Guadalupe Mountains.
Guadalupe Mountains is a unique national park in west Texas, offering both stunning natural scenery and lots of historic structures to explore, like old stage coach stations that used to serve as a drop-off station for both travelers and the mail as they traveled from St. Louis out west.
One of the best things to do in the park is to hike to the state’s tallest mountain, Guadalupe Peak, at 8,751 feet tall. If you’re visiting during the winter in Texas, Guadalupe Peak can sometimes be inaccessible, due to snow and ice, but there’s plenty of other iconic trails in the park to keep you busy, like Devil’s Hall or The Bowl.
There’s so many cool things to do in White Sands National Park—I hope you have an absolute blast! Do you have any questions about visiting the park? Let us know in the comments below!