ripples of white sand with one plant on the right hand side

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11 Top Things To Do In White Sands National Park For First Time Visitors

A visit to White Sands National Park initially looks like a mirage or a sea of waves that are stark white with varying shades depending on the light. These waves are of gypsum sand creating mounds of magical beauty. Get ready to explore the many fun things to do in White Sands National Park no matter if it is your first or second trip! 

Walking out onto the sand dunes is like stepping out onto an undiscovered planet. Although it is a desert, it is the most captivating desert I have ever seen.

Because of its unique landscape, White Sands is one of my favorite National Parks in the country and one I highly recommend seeing at least once.

If you didn’t know it, the white sand looks like you could be on a stunning beach minus the ocean of course…

Walking along the ripples of the white sand dunes is one of the best things to do in White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

How did this white sand come to be? Millions of years ago, this area of New Mexico was the Permian Sea. When the sea dried up, it left layers of gypsum (a mineral found in rocks).

Over time with water, wind, and the sun, these gypsum crystals were broken down into the fine white sand you see today. In fact, White Sands is the largest gypsum sand dunes in the world.

So, if you are wondering what to do in White Sands National Park keep reading to discover these beautiful white sand dunes yourself…

Note: White Sands became a U.S. National Park in 2019. Prior to that is was designated as White Sands National Monument.

Where Is White Sands National Park?

White Sands National Park is located in southern New Mexico and is a vast desert that covers 227.8 square miles of white sand dunes.

New Mexico itself is in the southwest area of the United States between Arizona and Texas. The cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe are about 3.5 hours and 4.5 hours north of White Sands.

A cluster of yucca plants among the white sand dunes.

If you don’t want to drive from Albuquerque or Santa Fe, New Mexico you can also fly in and drive from El Paso, Texas which is about 100 miles south of White Sands.

Is White Sands worth visiting? Yes, absolutely! Keep reading and use this complete guide on what to do in White Sands National Park, where to stay, and tips for visiting!

Tip: If you are looking for other things to do in New Mexico, explore these fun posts:

How To Spend The Best Weekend In Albuquerque

The Ultimate Guide To The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

15 Best Things To Do In Santa Fe, New Mexico

7 Unique Day Trips From Santa Fe

When Is The Best Time To Visit White Sands National Park?

White Sands is a desert so, with that in mind, the best time to visit based on temperatures is September through May. But the spring and fall are the most optimal for both weather and nice temperatures.

The summer months of June, July, and August will get very hot so it might not be the best time if you can’t take the heat!

A row of picnic tables with over hangs spread out over the picnic area with each having a grill to use.

The temperatures in the summer months will reach up to 98 F to 100 F ( C to C) whereas the rest of the year will range from 57 F to 87 F on average.

I visited in June as it just worked out that way and I made a point to do most of my touring of White Sands during the early morning and late afternoon/sunset hours to avoid the midday heat.

It was hot but not bad as I carried plenty of water, wore sunscreen, a hat, and had a travel cooler with me.

White Sands National Park Hours

White Sands National Park is open daily from 7:00 am to sunset year-round with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As sunset will vary throughout the year, the park will close anywhere between 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm depending on when you visit.

What Is The White Sands Entrance Fee?

To enter the national park the entrance fee is $25 per vehicle and up to 4 people per vehicle. If you are on a motorcycle the fee is $20.

The entrance fee allows you to come and go as many times as you want for 7 consecutive days from purchase.

But if you plan to visit a few national parks within 1 year, I highly recommend purchasing the America Is Beautiful Pass for $80.

Since I knew I would be visiting a few national parks on this road trip I knew it would pay for itself on this trip alone.

If you would like more information on getting the pass, what is covered, and how to use it, refer to America The Beautiful Park Pass: Is It Worth Getting For Your Trip?!

And the bonus is I can use it for a whole year at 2,000 federal recreation parks in the United States including all national parks that have an entrance fee!

Purchase Your America The Beautiful Pass Today!

A white sand dune mound with ripples left behind by the wind.

How Long Should I Spend At White Sands National Park?

It really depends on your schedule as some people will breeze through in a few hours and others will spend several days.

I would suggest spending 1 full day and if you are big into photography, consider 2 days so you can capture a few sunrise and sunsets. At the minimum, spend a half day exploring.

Plus, it gives you time to explore the various trails, visitor center, and nearby Las Cruces. But if you aren’t into taking tons of photos or hiking, a ½ day to a full day is good.

Two yucca plants with the dried up flowers of the plant that are beautiful against the white sand dunes.

Best Things To Do In White Sands National Park

1. Visitor Center

When you turn off the 70 highway, onto Dunes Drive the Visitor Center for White Sands National Park will be the first thing you see on your right.

Pull in to use the restroom and fill up your water bottles. There is no source of water within the park so make sure you have more than enough water, especially on a hot summer day.

There are snacks and refreshments at the visitor center but that’s about it along with a gift shop.

Inside the visitor center, you can get info from a ranger and watch a 17-min film “A Land In Motion”. At the time of this post, they were not showing the movie but I’m sure that will change as restrictions lessen.

If you have a National Park Passport, you can get it stamped in the small museum area.

The White Sands National Park Visitor Center is in a red sandstone adobe structure.

If there are any available you can pick up an adventure pack to rent for free on a first-come basis. The pack includes binoculars, animal track guide, and a compass.

The restrooms and visitor center did not open up until 9:00 am so if you go before like me, I visited the Visitor Center after I had toured the park.

I had already purchased an America Is Beautiful Pass. If you don’t already have a pass you will need to wait until the center opens to purchase either a pass or a one-time ticket.

Plan ahead and buy your America is Beautiful Pass so you can go whenever you want from sunrise to sunset!

Tip: Make sure to gas up before heading out from Alamogordo or Las Cruces as there aren’t places to get gas in White Sands National Park.

Address: 19955 Highway 70 West, Alamogordo, NM or you can just type White Sands National Park into your GPS.

2. Native Plant Garden

Outside of the Visitor Center is a small native plant garden with wildflowers, yucca and other plants that call this area of New Mexico home. The flowers and plants will be in bloom and prettiest to see from March to November.

Walking through this tiny garden only takes a few minutes and worth stopping at when you are at the visitor center.

3. Drive Dunes Drive

From the moment you leave the White Sands National Park visitor center, you are driving on Dunes Drive that is 8 miles (13 km) to the farthest point. Roundtrip, the drive is 16 miles (26 km).

The road will take you through the white sand gypsum dunes, splitting off to form a loop that will bring you back onto the road you started on.

Walking on top of the sand dunes looking down on my car along Dunes Drive.

Basically, if you stay on the road and follow it, it will return you to the front entrance/ visitor center. If you were to just drive the entire park and not stop it would take about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

But I highly recommend stopping at several points along the drive including the trails and places of interest listed in this post. The white sand is stunning to see especially when the ripples made from the wind are present.

A beautiful and tall yucca plant among fields of white sand dunes.

Besides the incredible sand dunes, you can find along Dunes Drive many trails, space-age picnic tables, areas to bring your horses to ride, and an amphitheater that is used for different events or programs.

Tip: You will get a map of the park at the entrance station on Dune Drive.

Note: Sometimes Dune Drive is closed when White Sands Missile Range is conducting missile tests. The park could be closed 1 to 2 times per week and for up to 3 hours but they usually post the schedule ahead of time on the park website.

4. Walk Playa Trail

After leaving the Visitor Center and driving past the gate entrance, the first pullout where you can park and walk out onto a trail is Playa Trail. It will be on your right-hand side and is a sandy dirt turnout.

Walking along the Playa Trail which is flat, blue skies and puffy clouds.

You will see the 0.5-mile trail leading out and back that is flat and very easy to walk. Of all the trails it is the least exciting but it does have a beauty worth enjoying.

If you are visiting during the warm season, it will look like a shallow lake bed. After a storm, you might see it filled up with water.

At the end of Playa Trail is a large lakebed that is completely hardened white sand.

As you walk along the trail, there are signs explaining the terrain and environment. It might be hard to see from the ground, but the lakebed actually forms a shape of a heart!

5. Trek Dune Life Nature Trail

After taking a stroll along Playa Trail, drive across the road to the bigger parking area for access to Dune Life Nature Trail.

Starting the Dunes Life Nature Trail before it climbs up onto the white sand dunes.
A vibrant green bush nestled within the white sand dunes along Dunes Trail.

Compared to Playa Trail, the Dune Trail is a little more challenging as you need to hike up a small hill and with the entire trail in the sand.

Think of it as walking in the very sandy portion of the beach and is a little harder to walk if you have mobility problems. This is not a trail for strollers or wheelchairs as the entire trail is in the sand dunes with no hard or flat surfaces.

Bright white sand dunes with ripples from the wind and footprints left behind with a grassy patch.

Of all the trails in White Sands National Park, Dune Trail has the most greenery and desert plants. The addition of plants is a beautiful contrast to the stark white sand.

Note: The trail is about 1 mile and will take about an hour to walk. Dune Life Nature Trail is one of the best things to do in White Sands National Park so don’t miss it!

6. Interdune Boardwalk

The Interdune Boardwalk is the easiest trail throughout the park as it is a raised boardwalk platform. It is the only trail that can be accessed by strollers or wheelchairs with ease.

Walking the boardwalk along Interdune Trail which is the only flat and easy access trail.

Along the boardwalk, there are signs that describe the plants, animals, and the science behind the white sand dunes. Midpoint on the trail is an overhang where you can escape the sun for a few minutes.

Expect to spend about 20-30 minutes wandering the Interdune Boardwalk.

Note: Walking to the end of the boardwalk and back to your car is 0.4 miles so it is a quick and easy stop.

7. Go Sledding On White Sand Dunes

Whether you are a kid or an adult sledding down the sand dunes is very fun! You can purchase sleds at the visitor center but you can bring your own or your hotel might offer sleds for use that their guests can check out.

Make sure you have wax and wax your sled before you attempt sledding to make it more likely that you actually move!

People scattered on the white sand dunes sledding.

At first, I watched others to see how they were sledding and quickly realized that it didn’t matter if you were a tiny kid or a large adult.

What seemed to be the determining factor in sledding success was waxing your board and finding the steepest sand dune.

Kids and adults having fun sliding down the white sand dune hills.

There was one couple that let me and others try our own luck at sledding. I was nervous at first but I went down super slow so not that scary…

Tip: The best places to go sledding on the dunes is past the Interdune Boardwalk and on your left-hand side after you start the loop. You will see many others doing the same thing.

The other spot is on the other side of the loop on the right-hand side where the sand dunes are steep.

8. Have A Cool Picnic

Make sure to pack some sandwiches or lots of snacks in a cooler and have a picnic surrounded by the white sand dunes!

There are around 60 picnic tables scattered throughout three sections in the park with the most in the Primrose and Roadrunner picnic areas. These two picnic areas are right next to each other.

A cool metal space age picnic table with overhead covering surrounded by white sand.

Each picnic table has a futuristic and cool design that includes an overhang to provide shade while eating. Each table also has a grill but you can bring your own if you want.

I overheard someone out there say they kind of resemble something you would see from the Flintstone’s cartoon. And I think they are right!

Note: There are trash cans but please make sure you do not leave trash anywhere in the park. Take out everything that you bring in!

9. Alkali Flat Trail

So, if you are like me, you might think that this trail would be flat and super easy. But it is quite the opposite as it isn’t flat at all.

The Alkali Flat Trail is a strenuous 5 miles (8 km) hike that climbs up and down the more remote sand dunes. In return, you are rewarded with spectacular views of rolling hills of white sand.

The reason “flat” is in the name, is because you are hiking to what was once Lake Otero. It is now a dry flat lakebed.

Since this trail is more challenging, you might find that you have this trail all to yourself! It is the perfect trail if you want to take a lot of photographs without the distractions of other people.

Note: There is no shade, restrooms or water on this trail so make sure you are prepared. If the heat is intense, maybe hold off for cooler temps. Expect the hike to take about 3 hours.

10. Play In The Sand

And much like you might do in the snow, playing in the fine and soft white sand can be a lot of fun especially if you have kids.

The white gypsum sand feels almost like powdery flour but that doesn’t stick to you! The sand brushes off quite easily and even in the intense heat, it is cool to touch.

Two kids wandering and playing on the white sand dunes

You could walk barefoot with no problem as it won’t burn your feet. I saw some families making white sand angels instead of the typical snow angel you may have done yourself.

Or you can throw sand up in the air for a fun shot!

11. Take A Ranger Guided Sunset Tour

At the time I visited there were not doing guided ranger tours but you can check the tour status on their website before visiting to sign up for a sunset or full moon ranger-guided tour.

On these tours, you can learn about the geology of White Sands National Park, the animals that inhabit it, and the plants that can thrive in a desert environment.

I didn’t see any but I was surprised to hear that a lot of foxes live among the dunes.

Things To Do Around White Sands National Park

12. Pistachio Land (Bonus)

Do you like pistachio nuts? If so, then I highly recommend you visit Pistachio Land! And no it isn’t in White Sands National Park but if you are staying in Alamogordo don’t miss it.

Just a short drive north of Alamogordo is the well-advertised Pistachio Land which you will likely see a billboard of at some point.

Not only do they have a pistachio farm but they have the largest pistachio in the world at 35 feet tall! Not a real one of course but a fun roadside attraction to see and take a photo of.

The largest pistachio in the world that is 35 feet tall
Rows of pistachio trees seen on the tour at Pistachio Land.

Inside there are numerous pistachio flavors to purchase with my favorites being the Habanero-Limon and the Green Chile flavors.

And you can take a quick tour of the pistachio farm which is very interesting to learn about the making of these yummy nuts.

Tip: If it is hot and you are waiting for your tour to start, they have the best Blue Bell ice cream…

Tips For Visiting White Sands

  • Sometimes the park can be closed for a few hours to allow for missile tests by the nearby military base. Check the park website for the missile schedule.
  • If you are walking on a designated trail, make sure you stay on the trail.
  • Don’t leave any trash behind on a trail or the dunes. Carry out what you bring in!
  • Bring plenty of sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses as the white sand is as bright as snow.
  • Carry plenty of water with you as it is a desert! You can fill up water bottles at the visitor center but if you get there early it will be closed so plan to bring your own.
  • Bring a travel cooler and keep some drinks, snacks, and lunch to picnic at one of the tables.
  • Bring a camera and photograph at sunrise and sunset for best lighting on the dunes.
  • For photos, wear bright colors so they pop in your photos like red, pink, black or blue. Avoid wearing white…
  • The sand will get everywhere, so be careful to keep phones and cameras tucked away when not using. Bring a small towel to wipe off sand from where it doesn’t belong!
  • Have a towel or blanket to sit on, the more colorful the better if you want to include in a photo.
  • To avoid people in your photos, hike a few dunes away for better shots.
  • Hot Air Balloon Festival is in White Sands the beginning of September for 2 days in Alamogordo.
  • Get ready for your trip and purchase an America The Beautiful Pass to pay for your entrance fee and lasts 1 year to all 2,000 federal recreation sites!
  • Dogs are allowed but must be on a leash.
A yucca plant on a steep sand dune that people are sledding down.

Hotels Near White Sands National Park

There is no place to stay in White Sands National Park itself unless backcountry camping is your thing. But there are two great locations nearby where you can choose from hotels and campgrounds.

The two locations are the towns of Alamogordo and Las Cruces. I chose to stay in Alamogordo as it is only 20 minutes away and closer to White Sands National Park.

Las Cruces is west on the opposite side of the park from Alamogordo and about 50 minutes away. Hotel options including the one I stayed at are:

Hampton Inn Alamogordo

Fairfield Inn & Suites Alamogordo

Holiday Inn Express & Suites Alamogordo

If you would rather stay in Las Cruces:

Courtyard by Marriott Las Cruces

Hilton Garden Inn Las Cruces

Ramada by Wyndham Las Cruces

Camping: If you prefer to camp, a great campground close to White Sands is the Alamogordo-White Sands KOA or the Boot Hill RV Resort.

Note: If you are staying in Alamogordo, grab dinner at CJ’s Si Senor Restaurant for incredible Mexican food. Address is: 2300 N White Sands Blvd, Alamogordo, NM 88310.

How To Get To White Sands 

The national park is a good distance from all major cities, so you do need to rent a car to reach White Sands National Park.

The closest major cities to fly into are Albuquerque (NM), Tucson (AZ) or Phoenix (AZ). From each city the drive time to White Sands is:

Albuquerque, New Mexico – 3.5 hours or 225 miles. The airport is Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ).

Tucson, Arizona – 4.5 hours or 327 miles. The airport is Tucson International Airport (TUS).

Phoenix, Arizona – 6.5 hours or 440 miles. The airport is Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX).

El Paso, Texas – 1.5 hours or 100 miles. The airport is El Paso International Airport (ELP).

I visited White Sands on a long road trip from California, so I drove my own car. Depending on your schedule, a road trip is a great excuse to see a lot of must see New Mexico attractions!

Search for the best car rental rates today!

FAQ About Visiting White Sands National Park

Is It Worth Going To White Sands National Park?

White Sands is definitely worth visiting as it is one of the most unique National Parks in the United States for its gypsum sand dunes. It is fun to explore the sand dunes on foot, go sledding down the dunes, and take photos of the ripples in the sand.

What Is The Closest City To White Sands National Park?

The two closest cities to White Sands are Alamogordo 20 minutes away, and Las Cruces which is about 50 minutes away.

How Much Time Should I Spend At White Sands National Park?

You can see all the top sights and a few shorter trails between half and a full day. If you plan to take a lot of photographs, you could easily spend 2 days here.

What Is So Special About White Sands National Park?

White Sands has the largest volume of gypsum sand dunes in the world. Plus, the white sand dunes are breathtaking to see, explore, and sled down in this protected park.

Can You Just Drive Through White Sands National Park?

You can’t drive completely through the park. After entering White Sands National Park, you can stay in your car and drive along Dunes Drive that forms a loop exiting where you came in.

Although you can see the sand dunes from a distance in your car, it is best if you explore on the various trails and boardwalks.

Have a fun exploring the best things to do in White Sands National Park!

A white sand field with plants scattered throughout that has tiny yellow flowers.

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Vanessa Shields

Vanessa Shields is the founder of Traveling Ness helping people with trip ideas, itineraries, travel planning, and boosting confidence for female travelers to take a solo trip. She has been a travel writer and content creator since 2019.

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37 Comments

  1. It seems really cool. The sand is ridiculously beautiful. I’d be nervous about driving off into the sand (don’t you get stuck) or lost? Then again maybe it’s not all that big. Can’t believe there is a pistachio land. What isn’t there?

    1. The white sand is crazy beautiful. The areas that you drive it is part paved and then part that is hard-packed down. Some sand obviously blows onto the roads but not too bad. I think enough people drive the loop that it keeps it pretty clear. If walking out on the dunes you could definitely get lost and why its best not to veer too far or have a satellite communicator with you! Yes, who would’ve thought there would be a pistachio land! Haha

  2. Wow this park is stunning! We are planning a US road trip next year and I would love to add this to our itinerary. I love the way the white sand is like snow for playing in and sand angels. Can’t wait to check it out in person.

    1. Thank you! Visiting White Sands will be an excellent addition to a US road trip! The rolling hills of sand dunes are so pretty to see in person and a place I’m sure you will enjoy. Have a great time! 🙂

    1. That definitely sounds similar and the missile base next door does make it more unique! I still need to get to Australia one day! 🙂

  3. This looks like a National Park I need to add to my list. That vast stretch of white sand looks amazing. And I would definitely want to try sledding for some fun! Always amazes me to see greenery in the midst of all of this sand!

    1. It is surprising how plants can thrive in the desert environment but I guess there are sources of water under the sand. White Sands is a wonderful national park to add to your list of places to visit! 🙂

  4. Wow, I didn’t know that White Sands was a destination. I love the white sand and the desert environment. And, I would definitely visit Pistachio Land. Yum.

    1. Hopefully, you get to see the stunning white sand dunes one day! The desert can be a very beautiful in its own way for sure! 🙂

    1. Thank you! It’s an awesome park to add to your list of must-see places! And you can never get enough pistachios… 🙂

    1. Haha the white sand is very bright! You must wear sunglasses as it is like being on snow. I took my glasses off for a minute and put them back on quickly. Yes, the nature trail is pretty fun to explore! 🙂

  5. I’ve never been to New Mexico and now you’ve inspired me to check it out! Love all the cool things to do at White Sands National Park. Would love to try the sledding…sounds fun!

  6. just the blog i needed to plan my first trip to white sands! i can’t wait to go sledding & do the Dunes Drive… this has been on my bucket list for some time now, so excited to finally cross it off.

    1. How fun! That will be a fun trip as the sand dunes are so pretty and an unusual sight to see! 🙂

  7. This looks like one of the most unique National Parks. And so interesting to learn about how the area was formed, I had no idea there was a sea there. What a great guide, an area I’d like to explore more

    1. Thanks Emma! It is really is a unique national park and one I hope you get to see one day! 🙂

  8. Crazy that there’s a missile test centre nearby! Definitely a great tip to check the schedule on that. This national park looks incredible for exploring and taking photos in!

    1. It is a fantastic park for taking photos, especially at sunrise and sunset! I got lucky and there was no missile testing when I visited but always good to check. Luckily they only shut it down for a few hours at most. 🙂

  9. Would love to visit White Sands it seems such an experience. This is the first time hearing of it but will certainly keep note of it. Love that is so far away from everything else.

    Those futuristic tables are a great idea to have.

    1. I’m glad to introduce you to White Sands National Park! It is a fun place to explore and picnic at! 🙂

  10. I’ve been to white sands many years ago, probably before it was a NP?? I loved it! I had no idea there were trails there too. Plus pistachio land! must visit again!

    1. Although I’m sure it looked the same it was a National Monument until a few years ago. Walking out on the dunes is pretty awesome. Haha yes, can’t miss out on seeing the biggest pistachio! 🙂

  11. America is blessed with such beautiful national parks! I’d probably choose the boardwalk just because I’m lazy! A picnic here would be incredible, and so would a sand sledding experience.

    1. There are so many incredible national parks in the U.S. and all are so diverse! Haha, the boardwalk trail is nice but I’d recommend trying to get out on a dune trail too for a little as it’s pretty cool! 🙂

    1. It is a really pretty and unique park. Seeing the white sand is similar to being on hills on snow its so bright! The pistachio farm was fun to visit and great to try the different flavors! 🙂

  12. I just went for the first time last week, I wish I would have had your guide! We did manage to do most of the things you mentioned and it was incredible. I will 100% be going back!

    1. Oh how cool that you got to see the sand dunes too! They are an incredible sight and I agree definitely worth visiting again! 🙂

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