The thrill at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico is to see one of the most unique landscapes on the planet. Not only does the park protect a massive area of sand dunes, the dunes there are snow white. Made up of gypsum rather than quartz-based crystals, which is what most dunes are made from, the endless sea of white will trick you into thinking you’re at the North Pole rather than a remote desert setting.
From 1933 to 2019, the park was a National Monument. As a result of an agreement between the National Park Service and the Department of Defense to improve the co-management of the area that makes up the dunes, President Trump signed into law a bill that re-designated White Sands as a national park. On December 20, 2019, with the stroke of his pen, the President of the United States added one more wish to Karen’s wish bucket: we gotta go back and get the official park passport stamp that says, “White Sands National Park.” Thank you, Mr. President.
In 2017, we visited White Sands with our friends John and Lolly. We were there on a cool morning in May and hiked the longest of the four, marked trails in the park: the five-mile Alkali Flats Trail. Despite the temperature being mild when we started, by the time we finished the hike, the heat of the mid-day sun started to affect our sense of time and direction. We made it back to the truck, but we got a little lost when we failed to follow the red trail markers exactly. (Bad idea. Don’t lose sight of the trail markers even if you think you are very close to where you parked and can take a shortcut.) Also, use extreme caution when venturing out onto the dunes on hot days; the average daily highs are close to 100 degrees, June through August. People have gotten disoriented and, in rare cases, have died due to heat exhaustion just a short distance from where they parked.
In addition to the white sand, there is one thing in this park that I can’t imagine you might find in any other national park unit: unexploded ordinance. Given that the park is adjacent to both White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base where the military regularly tests missiles, there is a chance—although a small one—that you could stumble upon an unexploded missile while hiking across the dunes. We didn’t see any on our hike, but John and I were on the lookout. Seriously though, as the posted signs say, if you spot a strange object on the dunes, report its location to a park ranger immediately.
The snow-like sand almost begs visitors to sled down the dunes. Sledding on sand is different than on snow and requires just the right technique and equipment to maximize the fun. Unless you’ve done this before and have figured out the right method, your best bet is to check with the visitor center for availability to rent sleds, or buy them ahead of time.
When we visited the park, we spent the night before in the town of Alamogordo, which is an easy 20-minute (16 mile) drive along Highway 70. While the main park attraction for us was to hike the dunes, there is an area of the park where you can also backcountry camp. Permits are required and you can get them at the park’s lone visitor center by the park entrance.
For us, a half-day visit to White Sands was enough to get a sense of the spectacular landscape and to hike long enough to feel we earned a hearty lunch. New Mexico has so many outdoor attractions that it’s easy to add White Sands to an itinerary that takes you to several must-see public lands:
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas is 192 miles from White Sands, which is about a three-hour drive.
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park, also in New Mexico, is 181 miles away and takes about 3 ½ hours to drive there.
- The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is home to over 21,000 petroglyphs and is about an hour’s drive from White Sands.
- Finally, one of our favorite spots in New Mexico is the Smokey Bear Historical Park and the adjacent Smokey Bear Memorabilia Museum. From White Sands, they’re located about 93 miles to the northeast in the town of El Capitan, New Mexico, which is about a two-hour drive. As a bonus, the drive will take you through a scenic section of Lincoln National Forest.