Clambering up gypsum sand dunes in White Sands National Park in New Mexico, I half expected to see Will Smith dragging an alien in a parachute across this other-worldly landscape, like a scene from Independence Day.
The white sand dune field stretches as far as you can see, meeting the dark line of San Andres mountains at the horizon. The glistening white of the sand makes the sky seem even bluer, creating a contrast that is simply stunning. Visiting White Sands National Park in New Mexico was the highlight of our recent trip to the Southwest and definitely one of the most beautiful places in New Mexico.
Ever since I heard that you could sled down the sand dunes at White Sands National Park in Southern New Mexico, I’ve waited for the opportunity to visit. When I decided to extend our visit to Arizona with a mother-daughter road trip to New Mexico, it was the perfect opportunity.
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Getting There and Accommodation Options
White Sands National Park is located in the Tularosa Basin in Southern New Mexico. If you are driving from Las Cruces or Interstate 25 in the west, you will need to go through the White Sands Missile Range. When they conduct missile tests, the road is actually closed to traffic for up to three hours and White Sands National Park is also closed. Therefore it is good to check the website or call ahead to check for closures (575-479-6124) due to missile tests. For Highway 70 closure information, call the White Sands Missile Range at (575) 678-1178.
The smaller town of Alamogorda is nearby, but I liked the hotel options in Las Cruces better. We stayed at the Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces, which offered a restaurant, pool, and a charm that reflects the area’s Spanish and Mexican Colonial heritage.
If you are coming down from Albuquerque, it is a three and a half hour drive. However, you can stop overnight in Truth or Consequences, a small town known for its natural hot springs. This is about one hour and 45 minutes from White Sands National Monument. We stayed at the Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa on the night after we visited White Sands and really fell in love with this property.
Featured in National Geographic Traveler as one of ‘150 Hotels You’ll Love’, this is such a charming and unassuming property. The service is excellent, the food is delicious (breakfast is included), and the decor is charming. It is such a better option than the chain hotels/motels around and not that expensive. They also have a fabulous spa and a 30-minute soak in their indoor or outdoor hot tubs is included for each night of your stay. We also splurged on a mother-daughter massage after our soak and it was blissful.
Exploring White Sands National Park
White Sands National Monument was named White Sands National Park in December 2019. This park is in the Tularosa Basin in Southern New Mexico. The white sands dune field covers 275 square miles, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world. The National Park preserves more than half of this dune field.
At one point in ancient history, this area was covered by the Permiari Sea. When that sea receded, it left deep layers of gypsum. Mountains formed and raised the gypsum, but the receding of the glaciers after the Ice Age dissolved the gypsum and returned it to the basin. Over the ages, wind and water have broken down the gypsum to create sand. A steady southwest wind keeps shaping and reshaping the dunes.
Things to Know Before Visiting White Sands National Park
1. Check Before you Go
If you are driving from Las Cruces or Interstate 25 in the west, you will need to go through the White Sands Missile Range. When they conduct missile tests, the road is actually closed to traffic for up to three hours and White Sand National Park is also closed. Therefore it is good to check the website or call ahead to check for closures (575-479-6124) due to missile tests. For Highway 70 closure information, call the White Sands Missile Range at (575) 678-1178.
2. Be Prepared for Random Stops
Also, you may encounter a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint before you arrive at the Visitor Center. We actually had to pull over and go through two of these during our time in New Mexico. We didn’t need to show any ID or answer questions, but the car in front of us was stopped for quite a few minutes with a lot of back and forth discussion. It is a little disconcerting to go through those when not crossing the border but perhaps that is more common in border states and this girl from the Northeast just isn’t aware of it.
3. Beware of the Heat
If you are visiting during the summer, like we were, be prepared for the heat. Temperatures can exceed 100°F during the day and the only shade you are going to find is in some picnic areas. Plus the light reflecting off of that white sand is powerful. You will need to bring a strong sunscreen, a good sun hat, and polarized sunglasses — plus lots of water!
4. Know When to Visit
If you are visiting in the summer, or really anytime between mid-April through mid-October, it is best to visit White Sands National Park early or later in the day to avoid the highest heat and sun. When we visited in June, we arrived in the morning and had an enjoyable couple of hours before it really started to heat up. Ideally you would visit White Sand National Park during the cooler months and have fun playing on the dunes all day.
5. Bring your own Sled (if you can)
If you are road tripping in the area, bring along your own sleds to save some money. However, if you are flying in like we were, you can purchase sleds in the gift shop just behind the visitor center. New sleds were $18 and used sleds (if there are any) are $10. The gift shop also sells wax for the sleds to make them slide easier. You can return your sled (and wax) after you are done and get $5 back.
6. Take Care Driving through the Park
After stopping at the Visitor Center (be sure to inquire about any Ranger Programs that may be happening that day), you will drive out onto Dune Drive. There are many places to stop along the eight-mile scenic drive. The road starts out paved but then becomes packed sand so you will want to take your time along the drive. Luckily, Dune Drive is very easy to navigate so you don’t need to worry about getting lost or missing special sights. Once you get out onto the dunes, then you need to pay attention so you don’t get lost.
7. Find the Steepest Hills off Dunes Drive
There is a loop at the end of Dune Drive and this is where you will find the steeper dunes that are great for sledding. Take your pick of parking lots, but you may want to drop a pin on a mapping app or at least take note of the color of the flag flying near the parking lot to ensure you can find your way back. The steepest hills offer the fastest sledding, but look for ones that end in a gradual slope to ensure a soft landing for those inevitable wipeouts. Remember that walking up the front of the dunes is tough work but worth the fun ride down. Luckily, the gypsum sand compacts nicely and you will have an easier time if you can walk in someone else’s footsteps. Even better, take the long way around and walk up the gentler, firmer slopes to reach the top.
8. Give Yourself Plenty of Time
We had initially planned on only spending the morning in White Sands National Park, but we soon learned that it was not nearly enough. We had so much fun climbing and sledding on the dunes that we both wanted to stay longer. There are numerous picnic areas (but no water, that is only at the visitor center), so I would recommend arriving in the early morning and staying through lunch. Or, come in the later afternoon, have a picnic dinner and then enjoy the sunset over the dunes. Unlike parks like Yellowstone or Grand Teton, one day in White Sands National Park is plenty of time to enjoy your visit. There is no need to spend multiple days in the park.
9. Pack a Picnic
Since there is no food or water in the park, you will need to pack a picnic to enjoy a full day in the park. There are many picnic areas, some with shade, for you to enjoy. However, I did see many families, especially those with RVs, that set up an area at the top of a dune with folding camp chairs and a pop-up canopy for sun protection so they could spend plenty of time hanging out while the kids went sledding. Just remember to Leave No Trace and bring a garbage bag to carry out everything that you pack in. I’d also recommend a cooler with ice and again, lots and lots of water or hydrating drinks.
10. Stamp your Passport
White Sands is part of the National Parks system and therefore you can use a National Parks “America the Beautiful” Annual Pass to cover your entrance fee (this was our first park of the year for our pass!) Inside the Visitor Center, you can find a stamp for your National Parks passport, which makes a fun souvenir and way to keep track of which parks you have visited.
11. Pack Smart
Be sure to bring sunscreen, refillable water bottles (the only refill station is at the visitor center), a hat, sunglasses, lip balm with SPF protection, a sled (if you have one), a towel to wipe the sand off, and a garbage bag to carry out all of your trash. I would recommend wearing comfortable clothes that you don’t mind getting sandy but also won’t get sand stuck in uncomfortable places. Perhaps bring a change of clothes for when you leave and wear flip flops or good activity sandals with straps so they don’t fall off.
White Sands National Park is definitely one of our favorite spots in the Southwest and hopefully these tips will help you prepare for your trip!
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