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Well here we are. In October. Writing about stuff from March. One of the things we ended up doing on our drive to Utah (and have wanted to do for years) is visit White Sands National Park! This is a southwest bucket list and general national park bucket list topper, for sure. I would say it’s on most peoples whether they know it or not and if it’s not on yours yet, it will be now!
While we were there it was pretty cloudy. And by cloudy I mean stormy. It wasn’t raining in the park, but it was definitely raining around it. It was mid-March and the actual temperature was perfect! So we didn’t get the blazing sun but it was still enjoyable.
We started doing the Dune Life trail but turned back then did the short boardwalk before heading out near the Alkali Flats trail. We didn’t really follow the trail , but stuck close to parts of it. We wandered out a bit to try and get pictures without footprints in them which was actually really hard.
I’m not sure if we just picked the wrong direction (out and left if you’re at the loop end of the drive and facing the dunes) or if people really do just all over these things. Either way, it was still really cool to finally see them with my own eyeballs. I mean, had been seeing them online for at least five years before actually going.
Even though we didn’t have a nice, sunny day, I did still love being able to see the dunes with the moody clouds and rain coming down around the mountains. The park wasn’t everything I hoped and dreamed for, but it was still totally worth visiting. I think it would be so much better to camp here during a full moon. And that’s coming from someone who gets pretty freaked out in the dark and camping.
We spent a few hours in the park climbing the dunes, looking for the perfect yuccas and sand waves before heading back into the rainy town. I’m super glad we went because I’ve always been so curious about it but like I said, I’d like to mostly go back to camp during a full moon. But for now, it’s crossed off my national park bucket list.
Where is White Sands National Park in New Mexico?
White Sands National Park is in southern New Mexico. It’s 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes in the Tularosa Basin at the Northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s also near the Mescalero Reservation, the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge, and the town of Truth or Consequences.
It’s just 20 minutes from Alamogordo, 1 hour and 15 minutes from Ruidoso, and 51 minutes from Las Cruces. If you’re visiting other areas in New Mexico it’s just under 3.5 hours from Albuquerque and Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Things to know before you go to White Sands
- Sometimes the park is closed because of missile testing going on in the area, so make sure you check before you go, especially if you’re just passing through on your way somewhere else or staying a little further away than Alamogordo.
- It can get really hot here in the summer so make sure you stay hydrated and put on lots of sunscreen. One things that’s cool though is that the sand doesn’t get to be a thousand degrees since it’s actually gypsum!
- It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, as in not close to much else that’s super exciting and on a typical New Mexico road trip, but it is still close to civilization, so that’s nice.
- You can buy sleds in the park but I would highly recommend not because they charge like, $20 for one of those little saucers that is probably $5 at any other store.
- It could be pretty easy to get lost here, so either drop a pin on Maps at your car or make note of the surrounding mountains to see which way you’re heading out. I was a little worried about this but it wasn’t as hard to navigate as I expected. It could be very easy to do this though, so stay aware. The road is pretty hard to see. If you’re not comfortable just walking wherever, follow the trail markers.
What to do in White Sands National Park
There aren’t tons of things to do in White Sands National Park, but there are plenty to keep you busy for a day or two. Even if you’re short on time you’ll be able to see quite a bit. The park drive takes maybe 45 minutes to an hour if you don’t stop much.
Do the Interdune Boardwalk
This is a nice, easy 0.4 mile boardwalk that takes you out into the dunes a bit. It is wheelchair friendly, but not the most exciting boardwalk out there. It’s short so it’s worth the little time it takes to do.
Walk the Dune Life Nature Trail
This is a trail through the dunes marked with blue markers. It’s just one mile and perfect for learning about the plants and animals that make their lives in the dunes.
Hike the Alkali Flat Trail
This is a five mile trail marked through the wide open dunes marked with red trail markers. If you really want to get out into the dunes and away from the crowds, but want to stay on a trail, this is for you. This is a good area to get off the beaten path and just explore the dunes off a trail. We kind of followed parts of it, but also just went wherever.
Climb the dunes
If you don’t like trails, then you can just go off into the dunes anywhere and wander around! This is mostly what we did, just make sure to keep an eye on your surroundings and try to make note of where big landmarks are when you leave your car. If you want to get away from people, this is perfect, but you’ll be surprised how far out you’ll see footprints.
Go sand sledding
Just like in Great Sand Dunes National Park, you can go sand sledding! You can bring your own sled from home or you can buy one in the park or at Walmart. I would recommend not buying one in the park because they’re like $20 plus maybe $5 for the wax? You can sell the sled back but you only get like, $5 back for it. It’s wild but a ton of people do it. That’s just so much, but it would be a fun thing to do. Just make sure you do get wax so you actually go faster down the dunes.
Do some backcountry camping
If you really want to experience the park in all it’s glory, consider backcountry camping! It’s a two mile round-trip trail marked by orange markers. There are ten backcountry campsites in White Sands with a hike over some steep dunes t get there. You can do this hike even if you aren’t camping.
This would be a magical place to go stargazing since it’s such a unique landscape. Relax out on the dunes and admire the sparkling stars above. If it’s a full moon, consider a full moon stroll on the glowing dunes. If you do anything out here are night, just make sure you either stay close to the road or are comfortable wherever you’re going.
Bike the Dune Drive
If you want to see the park on just two wheels, you can bike the scenic drive! four miles of the road are paved and the other twelve are packed gypsum sand. A mountain bike would probably be best for this just to be safe. And remember it is sixteen miles, so keep that in mind when you’re deciding to do this or not.
Where to stay by White Sands National Park
I would recommend staying in Alamogordo since it’s closest to the park. It’s not the coolest town ever, but it’s close and gets the job done. Las Cruces would probably be my next option since it seems like a little more fun with more to do than Alamogordo. We stayed at the Suburban Extended Stay and I liked it enough. The room itself wasn’t huge, but it had a mini kitchen which I could see being nice if you actually cook.
What to bring to White Sands
Snacks – These are more important for long hikes, but you never know when you’ll get hungry! I like EPIC bars (kind of like beef jerky but different), Sahale nut mix things, and Moon Cheese. There’s always the good old Clif Bars and trail mix, too.
Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen especially in the wide open white dunes. I like the Neutrogena a lot, but if you’ll be visiting a beach soon, you’ll want a reef-safe sunscreen.
Light Jacket – Because you just never know. Weather can change quickly depending on where you are and if you’ll be in any slot canyons, they can get cool depending on the time of day and season. I usually use my rain jacket for this.
Headlamp – I tend to carry my headlamp around all the time when we’re hiking. This is mostly if you’ll be camping in the park. This isn’t the exact one I have, but it’s similar and if I needed to replace mine, I’d probably get this one.
Is White Sands National Park worth it?
Yes! I will say though, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I don’t know if they were just really high or the weather wasn’t right, but there was just something that wasn’t as amazing as I hoped. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so glad we went and I did like it but it’s not in my top national parks so far.
Have you been to White Sands National Park? What did you think of it? What are your favorite sand dunes in the US?