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.
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.
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
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.