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EXPLORING WHITE SANDS NATIONAL PARK – EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW

Imagine yourself stepping out onto a soft cloud of unfathomably white sand, still warm from the daylight. The sun begins to set behind the distant mountains, and the warm pastel tones of the cotton candy sky reflect off the omnipresent shimmering gypsum dust. Soon the warmth of the sun’s glow fades into the cool blue of dusk, and the infallible whiteness undergoes a metamorphosis. Enveloping your entire being suddenly feels like a different world.

Located in south-central New Mexico, you’ll find a place unlike anything else you 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 quickly reached the top of my favorite U.S. National Park list. During our cross-country road trip in 2021, we planned a quick day-stop to explore the dunes, play in the hills of white sand, and grab a few photographs before heading to our next destination.

But we fell in love. The minute the sun started to set and the dunes turned from white to soft pastel, we knew we had to stay another day.

In this article, I’m sharing with you some general information you need to know before visiting the park: where to hike, where to sleep, and tips for photographing the dunes. If this National Park is NOT at the top of your bucket list, it should be!

General Info & Park Closures

Established in 1933 as a National Monument, it was redesignated as a National Park in 2019. Talk about an UPGRADE! This place is so spectacularly unique and beautiful that it deserves every last bit of the NP status’s protection. Unfortunately, the area designated to the White Sands National Park is directly adjacent to a military ballistic missile testing facility. This is different from your typical National Park, whose sole purpose is to be beautiful; the White Sands is also used for missile testing range, so it’s sometimes closed to the public.

What does this mean for you? For visitor safety, the only road into the dune field, Dunes Drive, may be closed for up to three hours during missile tests. You can check the website for closures to see when this is happening.

Curfew & Early/Late Stay Permits

Be mindful that White Sands does have a curfew. You must have permits to stay late or backpacking permits for the dunes to leave the park at night. The park closure time will be posted at the entrance when you arrive, but you can expect it to be somewhere around 9 pm. You must be on your way out of the park at that time, or you could be subject to a fine. We found that the rangers were pretty chill, but they do wait by your car and ensure you are escorted out around closing time.

To obtain an Early Entry or Stay Late permit, you must submit a request for approval at least 14 days in advance. There is also a $50 fee.

Sand Dune Sledding

Another fun and unique thing you can do at White Sands is sand sledding! 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 describe the “hikes” within White Sands. A few hikes take you on elevated boardwalks featuring signs educating you on the wildlife and environment in the park. Besides that, most of the “hikes” start at the parking lots, and you create your own path from there. That said, here are 5 of the hikes in White Sands, NP.

Trail: Alkali Flat Trail  – This trail takes you through the heart of the sands, up and over steep dunes, to the edges of the Alkali Flat.
Length: 4.7 mi
Elevation gain: 52 ft
Route type: Loop

Trail: Interdune BoardwalkEnjoy 10 outdoor exhibits along the boardwalk. Learn about the amazing science happening here; the tenacious wildlife that ekes out a living in this harsh environment; and the perfect weather and geologic conditions that created and sustain the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
Length: 0.4 mi
Elevation gain: 0 ft
Route type: Out & back

Trail: Playa Trail This short, level, family-friendly trail leads to a small playa.
Length: 0.4 mi
Elevation gain: 0 ft
Route type: Out & back

Trail: White Sands Backcountry TrailThis trail is primary used for “backpackers” when 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. 
Length: 1.8 mi
Elevation gain: 6 ft
Route type: Loop

Trail: Dune Life Nature TrailBeing 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.
Length: 1 mi
Elevation gain: 0 ft
Route type: Loop

Getting lost out on the dunes is easier than you’d think. Before heading out on your adventure, I recommend having some sort of GPS tracking (I like the AllTrails app). I just set my starting location and let the arrow guide me home. You can also drop a pin on your maps on your phone, so at least you have a point to navigate back to.

Take a flashlight if you plan to stay there until dark (I highly suggest watching the sunset on the dunes). Walking back in the night is more dangerous because the dunes drop out of nowhere. The deeper you go, the more untouched the dunes get, so plan accordingly.

The summer sand gets way hotter than you think. Although the sand is white, it absorbs all of the heat from the day, so take plenty of water. If you believe you have enough, take more.

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.

You have a few options if you are looking for places to camp near the dunes.

Nearby Campgrounds and Disperesed Camping

Holloman Lake Campground – Located roughly 5 minutes 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, 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 the Lincoln National Forest Wild Camp while visiting White Sands National Park. There were plenty of spots; some spots even had bonfire pits and pull-outs; however, expect that sites to fill-up quickly. 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. Still, all are more than 30 minutes from the park entrance – Boot Hill RV Resort, Oliver Lee State Park, and Aguirre Springs Campground.

To find more camping options, iOverlander App.

Want Tips For Getting The Best Photos Of The White Sand Dunes?

As a photographer, photographing the White Sand Dunes was an absolute dream. While there are a handful of dunes across the United States, only one is white, which makes this place so unique. Imagine miles of untouched dunes that allow you to explore, create, and capture.

Get my Tips On How To Get Extraordinary Photos At White Sands National Park

Want To Explore More Of New Mexico?

For more gorgeous outdoor destinations in the heart of New Mexico like hot springs, unique accommodations and so much more, download the Google Map that I used to create my New Mexico road trip.

PrettylilNewMexico - Downloadable Google Map

What You'll Find Inside

PrettylilNewMexico is my downloadable Google map of the coolest places to visit around the beautiful state of New Mexico!

Let’s be honest; no one has the time to spend reading blog after blog and scrolling through Instagram to land in these locations. Skip the scrolling and start living. Once you download my PrettylilNewMexico map or any other Google Maps, you’ll add the freedom to get in your car and go.

Get access to the most unique rock formations like the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, soak in hidden hot springs, explore my favorite photography spots, and escape to the places you never even knew existed – right at your fingertips. Travel through both of New Mexico’s National Parks with pre-pinned campgrounds, trails, and more.

I’ve spent countless hours researching and tracking all my stops around New Mexico. I’ve vetted the best destinations and most instagrammable photo options for you to take with you on your travels. These are the maps that I use for all of my road trip planning.

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