National Park Guides

White Sands National Park: Unveiling an Enchanting White Wonderland

POSTED ON May 17, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction to White Sands National Park

Nestled in the Tularosa Basin of south Central New Mexico, lies a mesmerizing natural wonderland of a desert oasis with glistening white sands, The White Sand National Park. This amazing national monument is among the world’s great natural wonders spreading over 227 square miles (590 km2) and creating great wave-like dunes.

The park boasts a unique landscape that is unlike anything else in the world. Here, pristine white gypsum sand dunes stretch across the horizon as far as the eye can see, creating a surreal and magical atmosphere that will leave you spellbound.

The shifting patterns of these inspiring white sand dunes under the clear blue sky make for breathtaking scenic views. The park is home to a variety of plants and animals that have adapted to thrive in the harsh desert environment.

In this blog post, we’ll take you on a journey through the wonders of White Sands and give you a taste of what makes this destination special.

sand-during-daytime-in-white-sands-national-park

White Sands National Park History

White Sands National Park has a rich and fascinating history that spans millions of years.

The park’s unique landscape of white gypsum sand dunes was formed through a complex geological process that began around 30 million years ago. The Tularosa Basin, which encompasses the park, was once a shallow sea. Over time, the water evaporated, leaving behind layers of gypsum deposits that were eventually lifted and exposed by tectonic activity.

For centuries, the land that is now White Sands was inhabited by the Mescalero Apache people, who recognized the area’s natural beauty and abundant resources. The Apache used the gypsum deposits to make tools & weapons and relied on the surrounding plants and animals for food and medicine. The Spanish arrived in the area in the 16th century, and over the next several hundred years, the land changed hands many times, passing from Spanish to Mexican to American control.

In the late 19th century, a group of investors formed the Alamogordo Improvement Company with the goal of developing the Tularosa Basin for agriculture and tourism. However, the arid climate and harsh conditions made these efforts largely unsuccessful, and the area remained undeveloped for many years.

In the early 20th century, the United States Army established the White Sands Proving Ground, which later became the White Sands Missile Range for missile testing, adjacent to military land. The military’s presence in the area helped to preserve the natural landscape and limit development, laying the foundation for the establishment of White Sands National Monument in 1933. In 2019, the monument was elevated to national park status, becoming the 62nd national park in the United States.

Today, White Sands National Park is not only a beloved destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. It is a symbol of the rich cultural and natural history of the American Southwest. The park’s unique landscape and rich history make it an important part of the local community and a source of pride for all who call New Mexico home.

Key Facts

Size: 145,762 acres (227.8 sq mi; 589.9 km2)

Number of visitors: 782,469 (2021)

Established: January 18, 1933 (national monument), December 20, 2019 (national park)

Length of hiking trails: Approximately 10 miles (16 km)

Highest point: Summit of the San Andres Mountains,  9,000 feet (2,743 meters) above sea level.

Lowest point: Lake Lucero, about 3,887 feet (1,185 m) above sea level.

Other interesting facts about Yellowstone:

  • The gypsum sand dunes in White Sands are constantly shifting and changing as rainwater dissolves the gypsum and carries it away. But new gypsum is brought in by the wind.
  • White Sands is home to the largest gypsum dune field in the world, covering over 275 square miles (712.25 km²). The dunes can rise as high as 60 feet (18 meters) and are dazzlingly white, reflecting up to 90% of the sun’s rays and creating the world’s largest gypsum dunefield.
  • White Sands is home to a variety of plants and animals, including several species that are unique to the area. One example is the white sand pupfish that live in the park’s ephemeral lakes and streams.
  • White Sands National Park was named an International Dark Sky Park in 2019 due to its dedication to preserving the night sky’s natural darkness and reducing light pollution.
  • White Sands has been used as a filming location for many movies and TV shows like Transformers, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and The Book of Eli.
  • The first atomic bomb was tested at the nearby White Sands Missile Range in 1945. Today, visitors to the national park can learn more about the area’s military history at the White Sands Missile Range Museum.
  • White Sands is home to more than 1,000 archaeological sites that date back thousands of years when the land was inhabited by ancient Native American tribes.
  • White Sands is a unique geological formation that is still being studied by scientists today.
  • The park’s climate is extreme, with temperatures ranging from below-freezing in the winter to over 100°F (38°C) in summer.

Climate and Weather

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White Sands National Park experiences a desert climate, characterized by hot summers and mild winters – with relatively low rainfall throughout the year. However, there are some differences in climate and weather conditions, depending on the particular season.

The park’s forecasted weather conditions can be found at noaa.gov.

Here’s what to expect in each of the four seasons:

Spring (March-May):

Spring is a beautiful time to visit White Sands, as most plants begin to bloom and temperatures start to warm up. High temperatures in spring usually range from the 70s to 80s Fahrenheit (21-27°C), while nighttime temperatures remain cool. However, you should be prepared for occasional windy conditions, which can create sandstorms and affect visibility on the dunes.

The longer days and warmer weather bring out more wildlife and make for an exciting time at the park.

Summer (June-August)

Summer is the hottest time of the year in White Sands. The average high temperatures range from the mid 90s to over 100°F (35-38°C). The park is also prone to occasional thunderstorms, which can bring occasional heavy rains and lightning.

In addition, the park’s low elevation increases humidity, making a mild day feel hot and oppressive.

Fall (September-November)

Fall is a popular time to visit White Sands, as temperatures begin to cool down and the crowds start to thin out. High temperatures in fall often range from the 70s to 80s Fahrenheit (21-27 degrees Celsius), while nighttime temperatures can drop into the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit (4-15 degrees Celsius).

Visitors can enjoy hiking and outdoor activities in cooler weather.

Winter (December-February)

Winter is the coolest time of the year in White Sands, with average high temperatures in the 50s and 80s Fahrenheit (6-27°C) and nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing. While snow is rare in the park, but happens occasionally. The park is also prone to strong winds.

Best time to visit White Sands National Park

The best time to visit White Sands National Park depends on what you’re looking for.

For those looking to avoid crowds and enjoy mild weather, fall, and winter are great options. For those wanting to see the park’s wildflowers, spring is the best time to visit. Summer offers the best opportunities for stargazing and sledding down the dunes.

Here’s what to expect during each season, and the best time to visit for different activities:

desert-landscape-in-white-sands-national-park

Spring

Spring is the best time to visit if you want to see the park’s wildflowers in bloom. The park’s dunes are transformed into a colorful display of flowers and other plants, making for stunning sunrise photography. Temperatures during the day are a bit warm but can still be windy. So, be prepared for possible sandstorms.

Summer

Summer is a peak season for White Sands National Park. But, it can get crowded on weekends and holidays. However, this is the best time for stargazing and night photography, as the Milky Way is visible overhead, and the park offers ranger-led astronomy programs. Be prepared with sun protection for hot temperatures during the day.

Fall

Fall is the best time to visit if you want to avoid the crowds and enjoy mild weather. Temperatures are cooler, and the national park offers guided tours and ranger-led programs. Fall is also a great time to hike, as the temperatures are more comfortable, and the park’s plants are still in bloom.

Winter

Winter is the least crowded time to visit the park, and visitors can enjoy cooler months and beautiful sunsets. Temperatures during the day are warm but can drop below freezing at night. Winter is also the best time for viewing diverse wildlife, like resident foxes and rodents. But you should understand the safety protocols when viewing wildlife.

Recommended Gear

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When visiting White Sand National Park, it’s important to be prepared with the right gear to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Here are some recommended items to bring along:

Sun protection: The park receives a lot of direct sunlight which can cause sunburns quickly. So, it’s important to bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and other sun protection gear to protect yourself from harmful UV rays.

Water: Be sure to bring plenty of water, as the park can get hot and dry. Temperatures can reach into the 90s during the day, and the national park service recommends bringing at least one gallon of water per person, per day to stay hydrated.

Footwear: Comfortable and sturdy footwear is essential to keep your feet from sinking when exploring the park. Closed-toe shoes with good traction are recommended, as the gypsum sand can be soft, slippery, and unstable.

Clothing: Dress in layers, as temperatures can vary throughout the day. Be sure to bring a windbreaker or light jacket, as the park can get windy. Also, a warm jacket is essential because temperatures can drop quickly in the evening.

Snacks and meals: There are no restaurants or food vendors inside the park, so bring your own snacks and meals. Although, picnic tables are available at the park’s visitor center.

Camera and binoculars: White Sands is a photographer’s dream, so bring a camera to capture the stunning dunes and sunsets. Binoculars, on the other hand, are essential for bird and wildlife viewing in the park.

Sledding equipment: Sledding down the dunes is a popular activity, so consider bringing plastic saucer sleds or rent one.

First aid kit: It’s always a good idea to include a basic first aid kit with bandages, antiseptic wipes, and pain relievers.

What to Do in White Sands National Park

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Apart from watching wildlife like in most national parks, there are several things to do in White Sands National Park for visitors of all ages. Whether you’re looking for hiking, sandboarding, scenic drives, camping, stargazing, or just a peaceful day surrounded by nature, White Sands has something to offer everyone.

In this section, we’ll cover some of the top activities to do in the park.

Hiking and Backpacking

White Sands National Park offers several hiking and backpacking opportunities for visitors looking to explore the park’s unique landscapes.

Popular hikes include the Backcountry trail and the gypsum sand dune field which can be accessed via several different trails like the Dune Life Nature Trail. You can also find other dog-friendly trails. But you should first understand what the park expects from pet owners before visiting the park.

The Backcountry Camping Trail is a great trail to see the magnitude of the sand dune in the park.

Best Hikes in White Sands National Park

  • Alkali Flat Trail: This is the longest and most challenging trail in the park. Stretching about 5 miles (8 km), the trail takes you across the flat basin of the park, offering stunning views of the gypsum dunes, wildlife, and distant mountain ranges. It’s important to note that this hike can be very strenuous in hot weather and you should bring plenty of water. It takes around 3-4 hours to complete.
  • Interdune Boardwalk: This is a short and easy dog-friendly trail, perfect for families with young children or those with limited mobility. The trail is just 0.4 miles (650 m) long and is a boardwalk over the dunes. It offers unique views of the delicate and unique interdunes, or areas between dunes that have been stabilized by vegetation growth. This trail takes about 20 minutes to complete.
  • Playa Trail: This is a moderate 0.5 mile (800m) round trip trail that offers a unique experience of walking across a dry lake bed, known as a “playa”. Hikers can see remnants of ancient lake deposits and views of the surrounding mountains. This trail takes around 30 minutes to complete.
  • Dune Life Nature Trail: In this 1-mile (1.6 km) self-guided tour, visitors will have plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing, taking photography, and learning about the area’s wildlife & vegetation. The trail is easy and suitable for all ages, with interpretive signs explaining the unique features of the desert ecosystem. This trail can take one hour to complete, depending on what you would like to see.
  • Lake Lucero Trail: This five-mile (8 km) round trip trail leads visitors through gypsum dunes, and along Lake Lucero’s edge, where they can observe the naturally occurring desert lake habitat. The trail takes about two hours to complete and can be quite strenuous in the heat of midday. Also, park rangers are available on specific dates.
  • Backcountry Camping Trail: For more adventurous hikers, the park offers several 2-mile (3.5km) long backcountry camping opportunities, with many designated camping areas throughout the park. A permit is, however, required to camp in the backcountry. Hikers should also be prepared to carry the necessary gear. The park offers several backcountry trails ranging from easy to strenuous, with distances of about 1 to 8 miles (1.6-12.8 km).
  • Sunset Stroll: This is not a designated hiking trail, but a guided ranger-led walk that takes place every evening around sunset. The walk is a leisurely stroll over the beautiful dunes, offering a unique perspective on the park’s stunning landscapes. It’s a great way to experience the park at a slower pace and learn about the local flora and fauna.

But always consult with rangers at the visitor center before heading out on your hike if you are new to the park. Also, you can check out this checklist to know what to bring on a day hike.

Camping

Camping in New Mexico White Sands National Park is a popular option for visitors. There are primitive backcountry campgrounds in the heart of the dunes, each with its own unique amenities and features. Unfortunately, these campgrounds are closed at the moment (as of May 2023) due to rehabilitation, and you might have to contact the park for more information.

Alternatively, you will find many public and private campgrounds and RV parks within one hour’s drive of the park.

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Here is a detailed list:

  1. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park is situated in the Sacramento Mountains, approximately 24 miles (39 km) south of Alamogordo, New Mexico. The park offers both developed and primitive campsites for visitors, along with amenities such as restrooms, picnic areas, and a visitor center. Camping allows visitors to experience the tranquility of the desert and enjoy stargazing opportunities during clear nights.
  2. Aguirre Spring Recreation Area and Campground about 39 miles (63 km) east of Las Cruces, within the northern foothills of the Organ Mountains is another popular recreation area with a peaceful and scenic setting for overnight stays. The campground offers both tent and RV camping options, with designated sites equipped with picnic tables and fire rings. It’s important to note that the campground does not have water or electric hookups, but vault toilets are available.
  3. Lincoln National Forest is the last alternative for camping near White Sands Park. Situated in the southern part of New Mexico, about 40 miles (64 km) east of White Sands, there are several campgrounds with developed campgrounds with amenities such as picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets. Some popular campgrounds you‘ll find include Upper Karr Campground, Lower Karr Campground, Silver Campground, and James Canyon Campground. All these campgrounds typically operate on a first-come, first-served basis. But it’s a good idea to check availability and any specific rules or restrictions beforehand. Some developed campgrounds might also require camping fees, depending on the amenities provided.

Note that visitors should be aware that camping in White Sands National Park can be challenging because of the extreme temperatures and strong winds. So, it is important to come prepared with appropriate gear.

Also, the campgrounds are subject to closure, and you need to check with the park’s website to know which camping sites are operational.

Sand Sledding

Visitors of all ages can enjoy sandboarding down the glistening white sands on plastic sleds or boogie boards! This exhilarating activity is perfect for those looking for an adrenaline rush and is best enjoyed in the early morning or evening hours with fewer crowds.

Sled rentals are available at the park’s gift shop, and the park offers several designated areas for sand sledding. But you can bring your own sled because the gift shop remains closed on Sunday.

Stargazing

White Sands National Park is one of the best places in New Mexico to stargaze, with its dark night skies, remote location, and minimal light pollution.

Visitors can enjoy the park’s amazing night skies and take in views of the Milky Way and full moon from the astronomy programs hosted by the park’s rangers. But you can also explore an easy full moon hike by yourself. There are several designated stargazing areas in the park with optimal viewing conditions.

early-evening-at-white-sands-national-park

Wildlife Viewing

New Mexico White Sands National Park is home to a variety of wildlife like coyotes, mule deer, bobcats, foxes, roadrunners, kangaroo rats, and several bird species. Visitors can enjoy watching these animals early in the morning in their natural habitat, and the park offers many wildlife viewing areas to spot the creatures.

Where to Stay

When it comes to accommodations, there are a few options available for those looking to stay inside the national park or nearby towns.

Camping is a popular option for those looking to stay inside the national park. However, the campgrounds are currently closed due to renovations.

For those looking for modern amenities, there are several lodging options in nearby towns.

Located about 15 miles from the park, Alamogordo has several hotels and motels with a parking lot and vacation rentals with bed & breakfast. Visitors can stay at hotels like La Quinta Inn & Suites or Comfort Inn & Suites near White Sands Missile Range, a few miles from Holloman Air Force Base.

About an hour from the park, Las Cruces has multiple hotels like Holiday Inn Express & Suites or Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott. All of these lodgings are conveniently located near the airport and offer different amenities for travelers.

The nearby town of Tularosa, located about 20 miles from the park has historic hotels and guesthouses, including the historic White Sands Motel and the Casa del Sol guesthouse.

You can also find a precise hotel or campground that suits your needs with these links:

How to Get There and Getting Around

White Sands National Park, southern New Mexico offers multiple alternatives for getting around once you arrive.

The nearest airports to the Park include El Paso International Airport in Texas and the Albuquerque International Sunport in New Mexico. Both airports are about 90 miles from the park and offer different transportation services to the park.

If you’re flying into El Paso, you can rent a car at any of the closest major airports and drive to nearby Alamogordo or Las Cruces, before heading on to the park. The drive takes about an hour and a half. Optionally, you can arrange for a shuttle or taxi service to take you from the airport to the park. You will spot a visitor center about 52 miles (84 km) east of Las Cruces, and one mile past the Border Patrol station.

If you’re flying into Albuquerque, the drive to New Mexico White Sands National Park takes up to three hours. Again, you can rent a car at the airport or arrange for a  taxi service to take you to the park. Optionally, there is a daily early morning shuttle bus that runs between Alamogordo and White Sands National Park. The shuttle stops at several points along the route, including the Visitor Center and Monument Basin Campground, which is located about 15 miles (24 km) west of Alamogordo on the north side of the road.

Once you arrive at White Sands National Park, you’ll need a park entrance permit. Note that entrance fees and hours vary in each season. There is a scenic drive that takes visitors through the heart of the park, with several viewpoints and pull-outs along the way.

If you prefer to explore the park’s attractions without using a car or shuttle, you can rent a bicycle from different locations within Alamogordo and Las Cruces.

Lastly, there are several hiking trails available, ranging from easy to strenuous if you prefer to explore on foot. The park offers guided tours, including sunset strolls and full moon hikes, which offer a great way to learn about the park’s history and ecology.

Conclusion

White Sands National Park is a  unique and breathtaking destination. From the endless sea of white sand dunes to the incredible sunsets and starry skies, this park is a natural wonder that must be seen. With its easy access to nearby towns and airports, it’s the perfect spot for a day trip or an extended stay for families, adventurers, or anyone looking to escape into the beauty of nature.

White Sands National Park has something for everyone whether you’re looking to hike through the beautiful dune field, camp under the stars, or relax and take in the stunning scenery.

So, plan your trip to New Mexico White Sands National Park today and get ready to explore one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring national parks in the United States.

Check out our other national park guides to find other exciting destinations for your next upcoming trip into another wonderland.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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