White Sands National Park: hiking the gypsum sand dunes of New Mexico

December 28, 2020 /
white sands national park

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

White Sands National Park, 31 miles from Las Cruces, New Mexico, is one of the strangest and most isolated parks in all America.  As the name clearly states, this unusual natural park is characterized by an immense expanse of white sand. Its arid, pale, sunny dunes transform the desert into an impossible hybrid between the lunar landscape and the snowy expanses of Antarctica.

White Sands National Park is located in the middle of the Tularosa Basin. Here you see a bizarre natural phenomenon because the white dunes are made of gypsum, which is generally water-soluble.

So why is it that here in White Sands does gypsum remains crystallized? The reason is that the Tularosa Basin is an endorheic basin, which is a depression that acts as a water basin without emissaries. Therefore, rainwater collects inside it without flowing into the sea and as a result of the wind blowing and the effect of arid climates, it crystallizes in puddles, leaving gypsum residue in the form of sand, which is continually blown away by the wind and deposited over the entire area of the park, forming the dunes.

Walking along the sandy white trails of the White Sands National Park is an amazing experience. We want to tell you about the best places to see and how to get around the park, and especially how to prepare for unforeseen events when planning your visit. Don’t forget that the park is surrounded by military bases and missile test sites!

White Sands National Park: Where is and How to Get There

White Sands National Monument New Mexico

If you’re coming from the west – from Phoenix or Tucson, Arizona – you’ll have to reach the city of Las Cruces by driving on the endless I-10 E, a straight and desolate road that cuts through the south of New Mexico. From Las Cruces, take US-70 and drive about 50 miles. After about half an hour, you’ll begin to see the white dunes on the side of the road. That’s how you’ll know that you’re almost at the visitor center, which you will soon see on your left at the fork in the road.

 

If, on the other hand, you are in the middle of a trip around New Mexico and are coming from the north (Albuquerque), your point of reference will be the city of Alamogordo, where you can find motels where you can stay. The road to White Sands National Park branches off from the US-54. Follow the signs to Las Cruces and, in this case, you’ll find the entrance on your right, once you begin to see the outline of the dunes from afar.

Things to Do at White Sands National Park: Best Hikes

pictures of white sands new mexicoAs previously mentioned, this national park is located in the southern section of the white desert that extends 309 square miles and is predominantly used for military testing. All of the park’s points of interest are located along Dunes Drive, which winds through the peculiar landscape of gypsum dunes for about 9 miles. You can drive any car on this road. In some instances, you’ll find it covered in white sand, but you have nothing to worry about. At the end of the road, Dunes Drive turns into a short loop, where there are also some surreal views and rest areas with shaded tables.

Here are the trails that we recommend you to take:

Playa Trail

  • Length: 0.5 miles (30 min)
  • Difficulty: Easy

After driving 2.5 miles, you’ll see a clearing on the right. Keep this in mind, because that’s where the trail begins. A few feet after the clearing, on the left, there will be signs of the parking lot for the Dune Life Natural Trail, where you can leave your car, then you can head back to the clearing to start the hike. The Playa Trail is very easy. It goes along the dunes and leads to a small playa, a mini-depression totally whitewashed by the gypsum deposited by the wind.

Dune Life Nature Trail

white sands national park new mexico

  • Length: 1 mile (1 hour)
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Right next to the parking lot mentioned above, you will find the entrance to Dune Life Natural Trail, which is longer than the previous trail, but here visitors can walk on the crest of the white sand dunes, with minimal but still perceptible elevation gain. In addition to your footprints, follow the orange signs and read the various information panels to learn about the geology of White Sands. The trail is a loop and takes just over an hour.

Interdune Boardwalk

white sands national park trails

  • Length: 0.3 miles (20 min)
  • Difficulty: Easy

2 miles past the parking lot of Dune Life Natural Trail, there will be another large clearing on the left. Park your car and walk along the Interdune Boardwalk, an elevated wooden walkway that leads into the white desert. This walk is pleasant and relaxing and is ideal for those who want to visit the White Sands of New Mexico without tiring themselves walking on the sand. Enjoy the dazzling view from the boardwalk, of the surrounding dunes in the pale desert, dotted by a few shrubs and the occasional yucca plants.

Alkali Flat Trail

where to stay near white sands national park

  • Length: 5 miles (3 hours)
  • Difficulty: Difficult

This long and exhausting trail is found after turning onto the final loop of the scenic route. The trail starts near the parking lot, well-marked and visible from the road. We recommend this trail only if you feel like walking for a long stretch in the whitest and vastest desert, with only the classic orange signs interspersed along the trail to show the way. The depression that you will walk around is part of what used to be the enormous Otero Lake, a lake that filled the bottom of Tularosa Basin during the last ice age.

Warning! This area of the park – there are also no restrooms or accommodations here, so you need to take care of water and food in advance – is very close to the military area where the army’s planes and missiles are periodically tested. For this reason, if you find unidentifiable metal debris, do not touch it!

Sunset Stroll

white sands national park weatherWhen you arrive at the park, ask the rangers what time to head to the Sunset Stroll Meeting Area (5 miles away from the visitor center) to enjoy the beautiful light effects of sunset on the white dunes.

White Sands National Park Map

White Sands National Park: Hours, Price, and Other Information

white sands national park hours

Here is some info that can help you make the most of your visit to the White Sands National Park:

  • The entrance fee is $15 per person and is free for children under 15. It is valid for 7 days. If you have an annual national parks pass, you will not pay admission, as long as there are no more than 4 people in the car.
  • The park is open all year round (closed on Christmas) from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm, with seasonal schedule changes.
    • In case of bad weather or road closures, the park may close without giving prior notice. According to the rangers, the website can be updated only from the stations inside the park, and that the sudden closure of the road may not be reported in time. For this reason, follow the park on Facebook which is updated more frequently.
    • The park may close for a few hours or days even during missile testing in nearby military areas. Therefore, we recommend that you monitor the official website of the park.
  • In the summer, temperatures at the White Sands National Park reach 100 – 104ºF, which are comparable to the high temperatures in Death Valley. For this reason, especially if you are planning to go on the long trails, you will need to have plenty of water and food supplies, suitable clothing, sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen.
  • You can sleep in the park only if you have the proper camping equipment. The designated camping areas can be easily found following the signs on Dunes Drive.
  • There are not many dangerous animals in White Sands. However, you should watch out for scorpions and snakes hiding in the sand.

Where to Stay Near White Sands National Park

camping near white sands national park

The surrounding area is rather desolate, but there are many hotels near White Sands National Park:

  • Southwest of White Sands National Park, look for accommodations in Las Cruces.
  • Northeast of the park, you will find motels in the town of Alamogordo.
Bernardo Pacini
Bernardo Pacini

I am an editor and copywriter and have published some poetry. Besides traveling, my interests include literature, experimental music and good food

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