AARP’s Guide to White Sands National Park
The dramatic dunes become your personal sandbox here in southern New Mexico
The world’s largest gypsum sand dune field covers more than 275 square miles in southern New Mexico, with White Sands National Park (WSNP) the centerpiece of this remarkable landscape. Great waves of white roll across the open plains of this 145,000-acre park, with stark mountains rising in the distance. In the morning light, when shadows add dimension to the dunes, it’s possible to lose your sense of perspective in the endless undulations. In the blinding midday sun, when you’re sitting atop a 60-foot dune and the wind is howling, you can feel as if you’re adrift on a great bleached sea, sand hitting your face like salt spray from the ocean. It’s a magical environment, and a true natural marvel. WSNP is also one of the newest parks in the National Park Service system, having been elevated from a national monument in 2019.
Location: Near Alamogordo, New Mexico
Total acres: More than 145,000
Highest elevation: 4,116 feet above sea level (lowest: 3,887 feet)
Miles of trails and how many: 9 miles across five trails
Main attraction: The gypsum sand dunes
Cost: $25 per vehicle for a seven-day permit
Best way to see it: On foot, walking one of the many short trails through the dunes as the sun rises
When to go: Fall (September and October) or spring (April through early June), when the summer heat is not extreme and the nights are not below freezing, as they can be in winter
The sands form after the playa in the park’s western end, which has a very high mineral content, fills with water. When the water evaporates, the minerals form gypsum deposits that get carried away by the wind, eventually forming white sand dunes, not unlike an ocean breeze sculpting a beach. The park contains roughly 40 percent of the gypsum dune field; the remainder is on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range, which the military controls and restricts to the public.
This is the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the bare Sacramento Mountains rise dramatically above the Tularosa Basin. Far from being barren, however, the park is full of life. Even the sand itself is in constant flux, with the massive dunes moving upward of 30 feet per year, thanks to the winds that shape them. The park is also home to a range of species, including more than 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles and even one fish. At least 45 species are endemic to White Sands, including the Apache pocket mouse and the bleached earless lizard. In summer, because of the heat, most of the animals are nocturnal, but it’s possible to see the park come alive in the dawn light and just before sunset. Indeed, it’s often surprising just how full of life this pocket of the Chihuahuan Desert is.
Of course, the gypsum dunes are the main attraction, and they provide dramatic photo opportunities, especially during the golden hours just after sunrise and before sunset. March through June is peak season for the park’s nearly 800,000 annual visitors, but even then it doesn’t feel crowded. Also, most visitors tend to stick to Dunes Drive, an 8-mile road through the park, so you can easily avoid them by parking and hiking a trail.
WSNP is in a remote part of the state, so it takes more than a few hours behind the wheel to get there, no matter where you’re coming from. But this part of the West seems designed for long drives that go by quickly, thanks to the open landscapes.
The park usually closes at 8 p.m. in spring and summer (6 p.m. in winter), but during full-moon nights from May through October, it stays open an extra few hours so visitors can enjoy the spectacle — and it is a spectacle. The full moon lights up the white sand, which reflects the light back into the night sky, creating an almost spectral atmosphere. It’s an experience worth the extra effort and one you’ll not soon forget.
Plan Your Trip
El Paso, Texas, the nearest town with an international airport, is 98 miles south of WSNP via Highway 70, the main road to the park. Albuquerque, New Mexico, is 223 miles north. Either option is a good starting point for a road trip exploring southern New Mexico, which could include stops in the towns of Las Cruces and Roswell and even a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, roughly 180 miles southeast of WSNP.
In the summer, temperatures in this part of the Chihuahuan Desert can soar above 100 degrees, and in winter, they can plummet below freezing. That’s why spring, early summer and fall are the best times to visit, with midday temperatures usually around 80 degrees and lows in the 50s. If you plan to hike, bring layers of clothes for any temperature, as conditions can shift dramatically.
Restrooms and visitor facilities are limited. The park’s single entrance has a visitors center with a gift store that offers some basic food options (essentially a convenience store), but that’s the only place in the park offering services. In other words, bring plenty of water, no matter what time of year you visit, as well as snacks. An even better idea: Pack a full picnic, as there are three picnic areas with shaded tables (and nearby restrooms) inside the park. You’ll find restrooms at the visitors center and along Dunes Drive, and one of the only handicap-accessible restrooms at Interdune Boardwalk, right off the main road, just before the pavement on Dunes Drive ends.
There’s no Wi-Fi signal in WSNP and very limited cell reception, so plan to navigate the park using paper maps or those saved on your device. White Sands Missile Range is still an active military facility, and one of the strange charms of visiting the area is having to wait on Highway 70 if a drill is being conducted in the area. The roadblocks rarely last more than an hour — though they can last up to three — but that can throw off the timing of a trip if, say, you’re planning to make it back to Las Cruces for dinner. (Check the park website for information on road closures.)
Where to Stay and Eat
There are no hotels, campgrounds or RV sites inside WSNP. Even primitive backcountry camping is currently closed. You must stay in a nearby city or campground. (See Gateway Towns)
Things to Do
Take a drive: White Sands is famous for its white sand, obviously, so you must get out in it, even if that means just cruising along Dunes Drive, which begins at the park’s entrance. But even from a car, you can get a sense of this natural phenomenon’s uniqueness as the road curves through and around the dunes. You feel as if you’re exploring a distant planet in a sci-fi movie. Although paved for a short distance, most of the road is hard-packed sand because the dunes shift each year and the road must adjust accordingly. The park maintains it frequently enough, though, that a two-wheel drive will suffice.
Go hiking: Of course, hiking up the dunes themselves is the best way to feel what makes these white waves so special — the tiny gypsum grains underfoot. Of the park’s half dozen trails, the easiest is the half-mile Interdune Boardwalk. This wheelchair-accessible trail on an elevated boardwalk makes its way through the interdune landscape, where the desert and its limited vegetation meet the barren dunes.
For something slightly more challenging, hit the Dune Life Nature Trail, a 1-mile, self-guided loop through the desert. The hike, which starts from the first parking area you pass after entering the park, isn’t difficult but requires walking up two dunes with loose sand. The jaunt is an easy way to see the dunes in all their glory, and maybe spot animal tracks, such as those from a lizard or even a kit fox (however rare it may be).
For something strenuous, opt for the park’s longest hike, the Alkali Flat Trail, which begins at the far end of Dunes Drive. This 5-mile round-trip hike leads you around Lake Otero, where the gypsum sand begins its life. There’s no shade or water available on any of the park’s trails, but it’s especially critical to bring some fluids along for this hike, as you’ll be exposed to the heat for at least a few hours. And despite the trail’s name, you’ll be climbing up and down dunes most of the way. The upside? You’ll probably be all alone. As you walk, it’s likely the wind will quickly erase your footprints, making the hike feel even more remote.
White Sands’ elevation is roughly 4,000 feet, which you’ll notice when hiking over long distances or up the dunes. Bring plenty of water and dress in layers if you take a longer hike; the elevation means the temperature can shift dramatically over the course of a few hours, and dehydration can set in quickly in the heat of the day. Don’t start a hike if the temperature is already above 90 degrees.
Other activities: Biking is allowed on Dunes Drive, and it’s a unique way to experience the park. Since much of the road is unpaved, however, it’s best not to ride a road bike with skinny tires. You’re better off with a mountain bike or beach cruiser with wide tires. Outdoors Adventures in Las Cruces rents a range of bikes, including e-bikes with fatter tires (from $30 per day).
You can even sled on the dunes. Buy plastic saucers in the park’s gift store, then just find a good dune for some sliding-in-the-sand fun (and sand in your shoes to prove it).
Alamogordo, the nearest city to WSNP, is 17 miles northeast of the park. This town of 31,000 serves mainly as a civilian hub for White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, just a few miles outside of town. This part of New Mexico has a long military history, with a special connection to the early space program and the dawn of the Atomic Age. Learn more about that history at Alamogordo’s New Mexico Museum of Space History, whose exterior resembles a NASA Vehicle Assembly Building. It’s an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, with exhibits encompassing a wide range of subjects from the early days of the U.S. space program, including rockets, astronaut suits and satellites. An outdoor exhibit, the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park, features many early space-flight vehicles, including the Little Joe II rocket, a testing rocket for the Apollo program. Look for one of the museum’s highlights out front: the grave of Ham the Astrochimp, the first hominid launched into space, in 1961.
The city’s lodging choices are basic, including a Fairfield Inn and Suites and a Hampton Inn. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, 15 miles south of town, has 15 RV sites with water and electrical hookups and 24 other sites, as well as restrooms with showers.
Alamogordo’s dining options are similarly basic, but still good. D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro, a bar and grill, serves steaks, pasta and salads. Rizo’s Restaurant, a classic Mexican joint, has excellent street tacos and larger burritos, as well as a few non-Mexican options, like a club sandwich.
The significantly larger city of Las Cruces (population: 113,000), 52 miles southwest of the park, has more to offer. In the historic Old Mesilla neighborhood, once an Old West border town, Billy the Kid stood trial for murder. The neighborhood’s can’t-miss centerpiece is the Basilica of San Albino, an adobe cathedral finished in 1908. The area around the city brims with pecan orchards and wineries, so you can easily spend more than a day here.
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A good lodging bet is the moderately priced, 200-room Hotel Encanto de las Cruces, designed to feel like a Spanish colonial outpost, with terra-cotta tiles, stucco arches and a bubbling fountain in an indoor courtyard. Amenities include a pool, bar and restaurant, as well as several wheelchair-accessible rooms.
The city’s dining scene tends towards Mexican, as restaurants are apt to do in this part of the state. La Nueva Casita Café is an excellent choice for that cuisine. For something more upscale, with a farm-to-table vibe, try Willow + Blaine, whose small but superb New American menu features items like a 6-ounce beef filet, confit duck leg and beet gnocchi. After dinner, treat yourself at Caliche’s Frozen Custard; choose your flavor (chocolate or vanilla) then your topping, perhaps local salted pecans.
If you’re driving from Albuquerque (or the north more generally), stop at the Valley of Fires recreation area, about 5 miles northwest of Carrizozo along U.S. Route 380. Here, when Little Black Peak erupted roughly 5,000 years ago, a lava flow coursed through the valley, creating a black strip on the landscape as the magma cooled.
Also consider an escorted visit to White Sands Missile Range to see the test site of the world’s first atomic bomb. This “open house,” as the military calls it, happens only twice a year, usually on the first Saturday of April and the third Saturday of October, so check the missile range’s website for information. You won’t see much beyond an obelisk marking the spot where the bomb went off and some trinitite (sand melted from the extreme heat of the blast) that’s preserved under a large glass case, but it’s worth it to say you set foot on ground where the Atomic Age dawned. You’ll also be able to say you ventured into the seldom seen (at least by civilians) missile range.
If you’re coming from El Paso, a road trip loop makes for a good three- to five-day trek through New Mexico. Take Interstate 10 up to Las Cruces (46 miles), then U.S. Route 70 over to White Sands National Park (52 miles). You can spend a night in Las Cruces before Whites Sands, then another night in Alamogordo. From there, head over to Carlsbad via Roswell (193 miles), where the “aliens” crash-landed in 1947. After spending the night in Carlsbad, visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, another underrated gem in the National Park system. From there it’s only 149 miles back to El Paso.
Ryan Krogh is an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Garden & Gun, GQ and Scientific American. As an editor at Outside for nearly a decade, he lived in Santa Fe and made dozens of trips to southern New Mexico.