Imagine yourself stepping out onto a soft cloud of sand as the sun begins to sets behind the mountains and colors of cotton candy sky reflect off the glistening surface around you. If that doesn’t get you, how about grabbing a sled and sliding down slopes over 50ft tall!
Located in south-central New Mexico, you’ll find a place truly unlike anything else you’ll see across the United States. With miles and miles of extremely rare gypsum sand dunes, this striking landscape has something for everyone.
White Sands National Park has easily worked its way to the top of my favorite U.S. National Park’s list. During our Southwestern cross-country road trip in 2021, we had planned to make a quick stop by the park to explore the dunes and grab a few photographs before continuing our journey. Three days later, we finally left the park still feeling like we have unfinished business there. In this article, I’m sharing with you some general park information that you need to know before visiting the park, where to hike, where to sleep, and tips for photographing the dunes to capture that magical shot. If this National Park isn’t at the top of your bucket list, it should be!
Established in 1933 as a National Monument, it was redesignated as a National Park in 2019. Talk about an UPGRADE! White Sands National Park isn’t like your typical National Parks where its sole purpose is to exist, it’s also used as a missile testing range for the National Forest. What does this mean for you? For visitor safety, the only road into the dune field, Dunes Drive, may be closed for periods of up to three hours during missile tests. Check the website for closures.
Be mindful that White Sands does have a curfew. Unless you have permits to stay late or backpacking permits for the dunes, you will have to leave the park at night. The park closure time will be posted when you arrive at the park, but you can expect it to be somewhere around 9 pm. At that time, you must be on your way out of the park or you could be subject to a fine. We found that the rangers were pretty chill, but they do wait by your car and make sure you are escorted out around closing time.
In order to obtain an Early Entry or Stay Late permit, you will need to submit a request for approval no less than 14-days in advance. There is also a $50 fee.
Sleds are available at the visitors center so you can get out there and play.
Hiking In The White Sands
“Hiking” is a funny word to use to describe the “hikes” that are within White Sands. There are a few hikes that take you on elevated boardwalks featuring signs educating you on the wildlife and environment in the park. Other than that, most of the “hikes” are really parking lots, and from there you kinda create your own path. With that being said, here are 5 of the hikes located in White Sands NP.
- Alkali Flat Trail (~5mil loop): This trail takes you through the heart of the sands, up and over steep dunes, to the edges of the Alkali Flat.
- Dune Life Nature Trail (1 mil loop): Being at the edge of the dune field, this trail has unique characteristics that are not found in the heart of the dunes. This family-friendly trail is a great way to explore White Sands.
- Interdune Boardwalk (.4 miles): Enjoy 10 outdoor exhibits along the boardwalk. Learn about the amazing science happening here; tenacious wildlife that ekes out a living in this harsh environment; and the perfect weather and geologic conditions that created and sustains the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
- Playa Trail (.5mil): This short, level, family-friendly trail leads to a small playa.
- Backcountry Camping Trail (2.2mil loop): This trail is primary used for “backpackers” when the backcountry camping is permitted, but we found this to be one of the best hikes to get out to some of the bigger and steeper dunes in the park.
Getting lost is super easy. Before heading out into the dunes, make sure to set some sort of GPS tracking. I like @alltrails. I just set my starting location and let the arrow guide me home.If you are planning to stay out there until dark (which I highly suggest watching the sunset on the dunes), take a flashlight. Walking back in the dark is a little more dangerous because the dunes seem to drop out of no where.The deeper you go, the more untouched the dunes get so plan your time accordingly.The summer sand gets way hotter than you think. Although the sand is white, it absorbs all of the heat from the day. Take plenty.. and I mean plenty of water.You can get in before the park opens ands stay after it closes, but you need to get a permit to do so. You have to apply for these in advance, so make sure you fill out a form at rec.gov.
Camping On and Near The Dunes
If you can snag a backcountry permit to sleep on the dunes, this is 1000% your best option.Backcountry permits are offered on a first-come-first-serve basis, however, when we visited back in 2021 backcountry camping was closed due to Covid. They are still closed, as of the posting of this blog for rehabilitation and the reopening date is still unknown.
If you are looking for places to camp near the dunes, you do have a few options.
Holloman Lake Campground – Located roughly 5 minutes away from the turn-in to White Sands National Park, Holloman Lake Campground is the closest dispersed camping option near the park. The lake is relatively easy to find and easy to get in, and large enough for a class A towing vehicle if you stay around the lake.
GPS Coordinates: 32.81218, -106.12174
Lincoln National Forest Wild Camp: We stayed at theLincoln National Forest Wild Camp during our visit to White Sands National Park. There were plenty of spots, some spots even have bonfire pits and pull-outs, however, they do fill up. This location is free and very remote.
GPS Coordinates: 32.91252, -105.72531
If you are looking for an established campground, there are a few options but all are more than 30 minutes from the entrance. at Boot Hill RV Resort, Oliver Lee State Park, and Aguirre Springs Campground
To find more camping options, iOverlander App.
Tips For Getting The Best Photos Of The Dunes
Time of Day – By now you probably know that if you want to catch the best lighting, shooting at sunrise/sunset is key. The White Sands are no different. As the sun sets, the ripples and shadows start to surface and the mountains light up with bright colors before it settles with the softest pinks and purples. Because the park closes at sunset, the only way to get the full, un-rushed experience is to grab a permit, take a tent, and set up in the backcountry camping area. If sunrise /sunset isn’t an option for you then the daytime with the bold white on a bright blue backdrop will still make for an incredible photo.
Compress and Contract – We found that using both our wide-angle and tele were the best lenses to showcase the depth of the dunes, however, I absolutely loved how the tele compressed the dramatic turns and hills of the dunes together. I felt like the wide-angle left the dunes feeling a little flat.
Wander Far – During the day the dunes are also flooded with people wandering and sledding down the dunes, leaving footprints behind. If you want pristine, untouched sand, head back about another .5 mile. We found the best spots were starting from the backcountry camping lot.
Add Subjects – Because of how large the dunes are, it’s slightly hard to see the full range without a subject. Add a little
Unique Plant Life or Dunes – Add some variation to your shots. The White Sands has a diverse ecosystem with shrubs, trees, and bushes and you don’t have to go far out of your way to find them.
Add Patterns – Wind is constantly changing the landscape at White Sands and creates all kinds of fascinating patterns – from repeating geometric to crazy weird. You can’t see many of these until the sun is low in the sky, so morning or evening is where the patterns really start to shine for photography.
- The best compositions tend to be west-facing. This is due to the direction of the winds that formed the dunes. Facing east, you lose the layers and shadow play that you get when facing west. Furthermore, you will have the San Andres mountains in your background when facing west to add another point of interest.
- The color gamut changes drastically with the light. Because the white sand appears truly white (though it is not truly sand funny enough), it will reflect the tones of the sun. When the sun is overhead, the sand looks as white as snow. As it transitions from golden hour to blue hour and beyond, so too does the sand.
- The human element is great for adding scale. I often prefer to focus on the landscape. However, I found most compositions benefitted greatly by having a silhouette atop a ridge to provide that sense of scale.
- Don’t bother getting there early! The park is (usually) gated closed for sunrise and the views to the east are not as dramatic as those to the west.
- Look for light and shadow play. It is this naturally occurring contrast that can make the same exact frame incredibly boring at noon but incredibly dramatic in any kind of angular light.
- PROTECT YOUR CAMERA! The winds are usually very aggressive and will blow the fine gypsum sand into your expensive electronic device! Avoid leaving your camera exposed for long periods of time and, if possible, protect with some kind of rain cover.
- Bring a tripod! There are some beautiful moments after sunset that will be impossible to shoot handheld without seeing motion blur in your pictures!
For more gorgeous outdoor destinations in the heart of New Mexico like hot springs, unique accommodations and so much more, download the Google Maps that I used to create my New Mexico road trip.