Heading to White Sands National Park? We’re sharing the best things to do at White Sands National Park, as well as fun things to do nearby!
About a year ago, we took a two week road trip from Washington to Texas for the holidays. We explored the California coast, climbed to the highest point in Texas, enjoyed the quirkiness of Marfa, ate lots of tacos in San Diego, and visited many National Parks.
However, right before our trip, the government shutdown happened, which altered our plans a bit. We were unable to visit two spots that we were excited to explore: White Sands National Monument (now White Sands National Park) and Carlsbad Caverns, both located in New Mexico.
So this past weekend, on our way back to Texas for the holidays we made it a top priority to finally visit the two! We spent the weekend in Southern New Mexico playing in the sand at White Sands National Park (which actually became a National Park just a few days after we were there!), eating and drinking coffee in Las Cruces, and being mind blown at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
White Sands truly is as magical and vast as it appears in photos. The gypsum dunes are beautiful, especially against the mountain backdrop. We only spent a couple hours at White Sands and felt that was enough to experience, but you could definitely spend longer if you’d like! Whether you have an hour or a full day, here’s our list of the best things to do at White Sands National Park, as well as helpful information about the park, where to stay, and extra activities nearby!
Want to have an epic New Mexico and Texas road trip? Check out these posts:
One Day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
5 Things to do at Guadalupe Mountains National Park
3 Days in West Texas: Marfa + Big Bend
Watch our road trip series from last year where we visited New Mexico + West Texas!
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
About White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park, formerly White Sands National Monument, became the 62nd US National Park on December 20, 2019. White Sands is a 275 square mile dunefield that is so large it can be seen from space! The tallest dune at the park is 60 ft tall, making them a lot shorter than the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park, but it’s still so fun to explore!
The dunes are made up of gypsum, which is a pretty common mineral found in everyday products, like drywall and toothpaste (woah!). Similar to salt, gypsum dissolves in water and will recrystallize during evaporation of liquid. When rain falls on the mountains behind the dunes, the layers of gypsum on the mountains start to dissolve, and the gypsum runs down the mountain to the basin floor to a spot called Lake Lucero. And when the water evaporates, the minerals recrystallize into Selenite, which then helps form the dunes.
The park has set hours, which vary based on the season. The gate to the park opens at 7 AM year-round, but the gate closes between 6 PM-9 PM depending on the month, with the last entry one hour before the park closes.
One very important thing to know about the park is that it neighbors the White Sands Missile Range and can close down for up to three hours during missile testing. You can see the schedule of closures here to make sure you don’t show up to find the park closed.
Entry into the park is $20 per car, but free if you have the America the Beautiful Pass, which is $80/year and gets you access to all National Monuments and Parks. It’s totally worth the cost!
And one of the best things about the park? It’s pet friendly as long as they are on a 6ft leash! Kona absolutely loved rolling around in the sand!
When to visit White Sands National Park
One super cool fact about White Sands is that gypsum doesn’t absorb heat like typical sand does, which means that the dunes don’t get too hot even when the sun is blasting and the temperatures are high.
However, even though the sand won’t burn your feet, the weather at White Sands National Park can be pretty brutal during the summer months. The temperature during the summer can reach over 100 degrees and with zero cover from the sun, it’ll feel pretty dang hot. We’d recommend arriving to the park as close to sunrise as you can if you plan to visit in the summer.
We visited during the month of December and the weather was great! In the shade it was a bit chilly, but in the sun it was the perfect temperature. If you want the best daytime weather, we’d suggest visiting between October-April.
Getting to White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is located about an hour northeast of Las Cruces in Southern New Mexico. The closest major airport is in El Paso, about 45 minutes south of Las Cruces, but we have a feeling that many of you are visiting while road tripping across the Southwest!
If you’re road tripping, White Sands is a great stop if you’re making your way to Tucson or Phoenix, Albuquerque, or through West Texas. When we first attempted to visit White Sands, we visited Saguaro National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Big Bend National Park, and Marfa all within days of each other. So if you’re visiting any of those destinations, we’d highly recommend adding White Sands to your itinerary!
Where to stay at White Sands National Park
There are a few options of where to stay near White Sands National Park. As we mentioned above, White Sands is near Las Cruces, which is the largest town in the area and would be our top pick to stay in because of the amenities, but it’s also close to a couple smaller towns, like Alamogordo and Cloudcroft. Below are a handful of lodging options to check out!
- Airbnb Option #1: A charming 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom adobe casita
- Airbnb Option #2: A gorgeous 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom hacienda
- Airbnb Option #3: A super cute 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment
- Hotel Encanto
- Hampton Inn & Suites
- Drury Inn & Suites
- Airbnb Option #1: A 1 bedroom, 1.5 bathroom casita with a fenced yard and grill. They provide sleds for White Sands too!
- Holiday Inn Express
- Fairfield Inn & Suites
- Hampton Inn
- Airbnb Option #1: A 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom cabin
- Airbnb Option #2: A 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom guest suite
If you’d rather fully immerse yourself in White Sands, you can go backcountry camping! The backcountry campground is about 1 mile each way and gives you the chance to sleep on the gypsum sand dunes for the night. If you plan to do this, keep in mind that the park gate closes at night, so you cannot leave until 7 AM when it opens in the morning. Campfires are also not allowed, but you can bring a camping stove.
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5 Things to do at White Sands National Park
As we mentioned above, you could spend anywhere from 1 hour to a whole day at White Sands depending on how much time you have and what you’d like to do. But no matter how long you’re there, you’ll still get to experience how magical the gypsum dunes are! Here are 5 things to do at White Sands National Park!
1. Go sledding
By far one of the best things to do at White Sands National Park is going sledding! We are so mad at ourselves for not doing this while we were there–it looks so fun! You can bring your own sled or buy one at the Visitors Center for around $20 we believe. They say that waxed plastic snow saucers work the best on the gypsum dunes!
2. Hike one of the trails
White Sands has five different trails to choose from, including a boardwalk trail that is wheelchair and stroller accessible! Here is a list of the five trails, listed from easiest to the most challenging!
- Interdune Boardwalk: This 0.4 mile boardwalk takes you through the dunes and perfect for anyone who may have a hard time walking on sand.
- Playa Trail: This is a 0.5 mile flat trail that has outdoor exhibits and leads you to a small playa at the end!
- Dune Life Nature Trail: This 1.2 mile trail requires a bit more climbing up and down dunes, but gives you the chance to see two ecosystems merge: the desert scrub and white sands.
- Backcountry Camping Trail: As we mentioned above, you can backcountry camp at White Sands! The trail is 2 miles roundtrip and a great option if you want a relatively short day hike while in the park.
- Alkali Flat Trail: This trail is the hardest of the trails in the park, at 5 miles roundtrip and takes you to the edge of what was Lake Otero, a lake that filled the basin during the last Ice Age. It’s not a flat hike, and hiking in sand is harder to begin with, so only attempt if you have enough time and energy.
3. Drive down Dunes Drive
Dunes Drive is an 8 mile drive from the Visitor Center to the heart of the dunefield. The drive has great views of the mountains and dunes along the way, but the best part was that 4 miles into the drive, the road turns into gypsum, so you get to drive on the sand! But don’t worry, it’s super packed any easily accessible for any car. This is a great option if you only have 1 hour to spend at White Sands!
4. Visit Lake Lucero
Once a month during January-April and November and December, rangers lead a three hour guided tour out to Lake Lucero, which is said to be the birthplace of the dunes. At Lake Lucero you’ll get to see tons of selenite crystals, which are very important to forming gypsum sand. The cost is $8/person for anyone 16 and older and $4/person for anyone 15 and younger. You can make reservations up to 30 days in advance. To see the dates of the tour, check out the schedule here.
Don’t have a sled? Don’t have much time for a trail? Don’t worry, one of the best things to do at White Sands National Monument is to just PLAY in the sand! We seriously had a blast running up and down the dunes with our pup Kona and soaking up the views of the mountains. When driving down Dunes Drive, there are tons of spots to pull over and get out into the dunes. Whether you have 30 minutes or two hours, playing in the sand will definitely put a smile on your face. 🙂
Extra Activities Near White Sands National Monument
- Visit Las Cruces! We highly recommend checking out Picacho Coffee Roasters, which is a super cool local roaster, for coffee before White Sands. For lunch, head to Habanero’s or La Nueva Casita Cafe. And if you’re there on a Wednesday or Saturday, visit the Farmers & Crafts Market!
- Go see the world’s largest pistachio at McGinn’s PistachioLand! Okay, it may not be a real pistachio, but it makes for a fun photo opp! While you’re there, you can go on a tour and stock up on pistachio goodies.
- Explore Cloudcroft. We suggest checking out the New Mexico Rails-to-Trails and eating at Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue.
Ready to explore White Sands National Park?
Pin this guide with the best things to do at White Sands National Park to plan your adventure!
I really need to plan to visit some of these natural wonders! Thanks for all the super info!
Apparently it’s about to turn into a National Park–pretty cool!
So cool to be traveling around with your dog. Headed out soon with ours and White Sands is one of our stops. Great job at laying out what to expect!
It is so much fun and she loves it! Have a great time at White Sands and we hope your doggo enjoys it as much as ours did!
Hi! Loved this article, I’m currently doing a school project about white sands and this was very helpful in what to do section. Love from Miami! <3
We are so happy to hear that! Good luck on your project Esther!
Thank you for your in-depth research and article. Thank you for choosing to include Foothills Casita as the #1 place to stay to stay in Alamogordo.
Of course! 😀
Hello. You two are such a blast to watch. We’ve been following your adventures for some time. In fact you gave us some advice last year when we started our van build. We are going through this area and are for sure stopping to enjoy some time there. Did you guys camp or something else when there?
Hi Ken! Thanks so much for following along! I believe we boondocked here when we went: https://www.campendium.com/sierra-vista-campground.
I and my wife loves your videos. Great explanation of all the national parks you have visited.
Quick question – I am not planning to camp overnight in white sand. So will the night sky will still be good to watch ( till 8PM before the park closes) like watching stars and all, or do we need to camp at night?
Hi! From our understanding, the park closes 1 hour after sunset (which varies depending on the year) and usually it is not dark enough at that point for tons of stars to be visible. The only way to stay in the park past closing is to backcountry camp (there are no regular campgrounds in the park) or apply for a special permit to stay after hours, but it has a fee (https://www.nps.gov/whsa/planyourvisit/permitsandreservations.htm). But you could definitely see the night sky in nearby areas!