Located an hour outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico are huge sparkling white sand dunes covering 275 square miles of desert, creating the world’s largest gypsum dune field. White Sands National Monument is one of the world’s great natural wonders and a beauty to photograph.
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Last Updated: Jun 17, 2019 // First Published: Jan 21, 2016
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5 Incredible Things to Do at White Sands National Monument New Mexico
After visiting Saguaro National Park, we couldn’t resist driving a few hours more to White Sands. We’ve seen so many beautiful photos of the dunes and wanted to go take our own.
The park itself is mostly open land with endless dunes. After stopping by the visitor center, you can head in and park at any of the number of pullouts.
1. Take the Scenic Drive
The 8 mile scenic drive takes you into the heart of the dunes.
2. Hike a Trail
There are 5 established trails in the park, the largest being the Alkali Flat Trail.
- Interdune Boardwalk – This easy 0.4 mile trail is great for the whole family and even wheel chair accessible.
- Playa Trail – 0.5 mile easy trail.
- Dune Life Nature Trail – 1 mile moderate loop hike.
- Backcountry Camping Trail – 2 mile moderate round trip hike
- Alkali Flat Trail – 5 mile strenuous round trip hike. This is the one we did. We mostly tried to walk in a direction with the least amount of people and carried our sleds out there with us too.
Note: There is no shade. If the weather is over 85 degrees F, it is not recommended to hike. People have died from the heat. Also, carry at least a gallon of water per person.
3. Go Sand Sledding at White Sands
One thing that you should try while at White Sands National Park is sand sledding. You can pick up a cheaply made and overpriced sled at the gift shop, or get a more solid one online. This sled is from REI, so if you try it and it doesn’t work out well for you, you can always return it within a year. Don’t forget to get wax too. We had so much fun sledding that we almost missed sunset.
Note: Do it at your own risk, because we both took a tumble and came out with some bloody hands. The sand was a lot harder because it had rained a few days back.
4. Go Backcountry Camping
Get your backcountry permit at the visitor center. There are ten primitive backcountry camping sites available first-come, first-serve.
5. Become a Junior Ranger
Pick up a junior ranger activity book at the visitor center, complete the activities, and get sworn in as a junior ranger. It’s mainly an educational program for kids, but adults can do it too. I’ve done this at every major national park I’ve visited, but am slowly starting to at the smaller national park units as well. You can learn so much through them, and you get a badge.
Essential Tips for First Time Visitors
- In case you’re using a hand help GPS to find your way around, the visitor center is located at 32º 46′ 45″ North, 106º 10′ 19″ West.
- It gets incredible hot during the summer so remember to bring plenty of water and always keep in mind where you are. We’ve heard of tragedies, and our friends who live near White Sands told us people get lost out there all the time. The park recommends bringing 3.8 L of water. We always carry a small, lightweight backpack and a couple soft water bottles and managed okay since we went during cooler temperatures (sunset & late September).
- Since it’s easy to get lost, pay attention to the mountain ranges and the direction of where the sun rises and sets. Jacob also has a good sense of direction, but we still ended up one parking lot over.
- Make sure you sign the park’s entry register, so that rangers can find you in case you get lost.
- The best time to go is early morning or close to sunset. Otherwise, the sun is beating down on you the entire time.
- Be sure to check the site before your visit, they sometimes close the park for missile testings in the surrounding areas.
- Look out for kit foxes, badgers, birds, rodents, and reptiles who reside here.
- If you see strange objects, stay away from them and tell a ranger of the location. Because of the active missile range nearby, sometimes debris will fall into white sands. They may possibly still detonate.
Photography Tips for White Sands National Monument
- Bring a wide angle lens if you want to capture the grandness of the dunes. We shot our photos with a 35mm but could have gone wider.
- A small handy tripod is nice to have in case you want to take any longer exposure shots.
- If it’s windy, be careful not to expose your camera to too much sand. It gets in everything and can scratch up your lenses.
- For more general photography tips, sign up for our newsletter here. We have a lot of resources that will be coming out soon!
What to Pack for White Sands New Mexico
- White Sands Missile Range Museum and Missile Park (34.1 mi SW, 30 min drive, map)
- Lincoln National Forest (43.6 mi E, 1 h drive, map)
- Aguirre Springs National Recreation Area (40.9 mi SW, 50 min drive, map)
- Oliver Lee Memorial State Park (26.7 mi E, 30 min drive, map)
- Organ Mountains Desert Peak National Monument (47.9 mi SW, 50 min drive, map)
- El Paso, Texas (96.1 mi S, 1 h 30 min drive, map)
Hotels near White Sands National Monument
- Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces (luxury)
- Fairfield Inn & Suites Alamagordo (mid-range)
- Hampton Inn Alamagordo (mid-range) – this and Holiday Inn are the closest accommodations to White Sands. Continental breakfast is included. It’s comfortable, clean, and consistent.
- Magnuson Hotel Alamagordo Suites (budget)
- White Sands Motel Alamagordo (budget)
Have you visited White Sands? Would you hike, sled, or ride on horseback?
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Esther + Jacob
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in Las Vegas.