✨Tip – to better understand and appreciate the blinding whiteness of the sand, turn the brightness up on your device, especially when watching the videos!✨
One of my favorite National Parks so far, White Sands National Park is unlike anywhere I’ve been. Simple but majestic, the sand is as white as snow and practically blinding, making you feel that you’ve been transported to a vast, snow-covered planet. I highly suggest bringing sunglasses, as almost everyone wore them, us included, even though it was not a sunny day. When you first approach from the highway, and after initially entering the park, you will see the white sand begin, dotted with shrubbery, without fully understanding the true beauty that lies inside. You don’t witness the massive rolling white sand dunes surrounded by mountains until you’ve driven a ways into the park.
Located in New Mexico, approximately 45 minutes outside Las Cruces to the southwest and 20 minutes from Alamogordo to the northeast, it sits almost dead center and towards the bottom of the state. The park is accessible from many major cities within the southwest region, sitting approximately 1.25 hours from El Paso, 3.2 from Albuquerque, 5.2 from Amarillo, 6 from Phoenix, and 7 from Colorado Springs. The park opens daily at 7am; however, closing hours vary widely depending on time of year. During winter the park closes at 7pm, during spring it’s 8pm, and during summer it’s 9pm. It costs $25 per vehicle to enter, with entry fees valid for seven consecutive days starting from day of purchase. There are several tiers of fees, including those for “person”, “motorcycles”, and annual passes. There are also discounts for military (active and veterans), 4th graders, and seniors with passes. For the exact dates and prices, it’s best to check the NPS website – https://www.nps.gov/whsa/index.htm.
White Sands is incredibly unique in multiple ways. First, it’s the largest sand dune composed of gypsum crystals on Earth and can even be seen from space. The park encompasses 145,762 acres or 227.8 sq miles, with dunes as high as 60 feet and as deep as 30 feet. Second, the potentially oldest human footprints ever were discovered at White Sands, embedded in a dry lakebed buried beneath the sand. The radiocarbon test results placed them between 23 and 21,000 years ago, whereas it was previously believed humans reached North America between 13 and 16,000 years ago.
Originally designated as a National Monument in 1933, it was upgraded to a National Park in 2019, and added in 1988 to the National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. The park sees approximately 780,000 visitors per year, and while it was not the most crowded National Park I’ve been to (that honor goes to Zion and Sequoia), it certainly wasn’t the least crowded either (like the Petrified Forest or Mesa Verde). Although there were plenty of other visitors, it was very easy to find parking and enjoy the sand dunes in peace. While we walked around and explored, we saw others doing the same or using sleds to slide down the dunes. Sledding is currently permitted, as well as hiking around the dunes.
Dunes Drive is a 16-mile (13 km) roundtrip scenic loop that begins at the visitors’ center and continues deep into the dune field. The first 4 miles is paved, with the second 4 miles comprised of hard-packed gypsum sand. The drive alone takes approximately 45 minutes to complete; however, allow more time if you plan on parking and exploring. We spent a little over 2 hours driving and exploring, and while it felt like an appropriate amount of time, one can easily spend much more time hiking along the five established trails and sledding. There’s also the Interdune Boardwalk, a 0.4-mile, round-trip, raised boardwalk with ten outdoor exhibits along the way. It’s a fun, quick thing to do, however, in my opinion, does not offer the best views of the sand dunes.
Horseback riding is also allowed; however, it’s only permitted in very select areas, you must obtain a “day-use horse and other pack animals permit” at the entrance fee station, and all waste must be cleaned up and disposed outside the park. Horses are not permitted in the Group Use Area, all hiking trails, the Interdune Boardwalk, the picnic areas, or the Backcountry Camping sites. They also cannot be ridden on any roadway – including the 4 miles of sand-packed road. Dogs are also allowed but must always remain leashed.
Important: White Sands National Park is completely encompassed by the Army’s White Sands Missile Range, and they will routinely close the park and often, block Highway 70 near the base and park when testing missiles. The park can be closed for up to 3 hours during these testing times, but usually the NPS will be notified of testing two weeks in advance. However, sometimes they’re notified just 24 hours in advance, so best to double-check the NPS website before going. The website will list park closure dates with the starting and ending closure times and if Highway 70 is blocked. Also, you will have to pass through a border security checkpoint if coming from Las Cruces (you do not if coming from Alamogordo).
Overall, if you get the chance to visit White Sands National Park, take it!!! It’s such a beautiful, mesmerizing, and magnificent place, one that I’m extremely grateful is being preserved by the U.S. Government. It’s strategically located near many major U.S. cities, as well as other National Parks and Monuments, making it the perfect stop on any New Mexico or American Southwest road trip. Give the largest sand dune in the world a visit! ☺️