Discover the enchanting white sand dunes of North America’s largest desert. These trip planning tools for White Sands National Monument list important things to know before visiting one of the world’s natural wonders.
Trip planning tools for White Sands, New Mexico
The White Sands National Monument is a US national park that’s located off Highway 70 in the state of New Mexico. It covers 275 square miles of desert and consists of gypsum sand, not your standard everyday sand formed from other rocks and minerals. It’s very near the US missile testing grounds (ominous sounding, but safe for travel), which is the largest of its kind in the western hemisphere.
This is a beautiful location for taking unique pictures, especially if you are lucky enough to visit in the late afternoon just before sunset. If desired, you can join a sunset stroll offered by park rangers. This is also the location where we spotted a camel owner packing up after a day riding the dunes. You can either explore on your own or take various tours led by the park rangers.
Things to know before visiting White Sands National Monument
• The annual Pass for access to all US National Parks is $80 and valid for one full year.
• The annual Pass only for White Sands is $30. A $5 day pass is available for Adults 16+. Under 16 is free.
• There are daily park ranger tours. The Interpretive Program, offered at various times throughout the year, charges fees for Full Moon Hikes, Step through Time, Sunrise Arts and Lake Lucero Tours. Reservations are needed for these programs.
• Stop at the White Sands Visitor Center and information desk, explore the museum and watch an orientation video about the park.
• Take the 16-mile, round trip scenic drive. The drive will take about 45 mins without stops. It leaves from the visitor centre.
• There are plenty of opportunities along the drive to pull off the road to explore, take photos and learn about the park at the interpretive exhibits.
• There are 10 backcountry camping spots available. See camping information below.
• Park elevation reaches 4,116 feet (1,255m) above sea level with the highest dunes rising nearly 60 feet high.
• Daily temperatures can vary up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit between daytime and night.
• There is a year-round danger of lightning. Summer thunderstorms in July and August are the most dangerous. If a storm is brewing, seek shelter immediately in your vehicle (keep your windows closed) or a building.
• Pets must be kept on a leash.
• Here is a complete list of maps to download before heading to the park.
Plan your visit to White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
- Keep your gas tank filled! The nearest gas facility is 13 miles away.
- Weather conditions can be unpredictable heading into any desert. Remember to check for the latest conditions and alerts before you go. You can also check the National Weather Service for the area.
- Check for upcoming park and road closures on Highway 70 between Las Cruces and White Sands due to nearby missile testing.
- May – August temperatures can be more than 100˚F (almost 40˚C).
- July – September is monsoon season.
- Avoid thunder storms and lightning. Take cover, find a shelter, avoid high spots like the tops of dunes or tree roots. If you are in a vehicle, make sure the windows are rolled up. Learn more
- Wild flowers begin to bloom in April. Desert flowers bloom at various times of the year. Find out more.
- The native plant garden blooms from mid-March to late November.
- Bring lots of water! You need at least 4 litres/1 gallon of water per person per day. There is a water filling station at the visitor’s centre. There is no water in the dunefield area.
- In the summer, temperatures can reach extreme levels. After sunset, temperatures can drop by 20-30 degrees.
- Eat high-energy foods before you go and carry plenty with you; items like protein bars, dried fruit, trail mix, granola bars, meat or salmon jerky, energy gels. Always drink some water after eating.
- Bring sports drinks or electrolyte powder packs to add to water, salt or products like nuts and pretzels to keep sodium levels up. You can become seriously ill if you are lacking electrolytes after drinking lots of water. Some signs to watch for are: fatigue, muscle cramps, nausea and confusion.
- Drive with caution. There can be people on the roadway. Watch out for people sledding and animals on the road. Use pullouts for stopping.
- Weather can change quickly. Dust storms reduce visibility. Do not drive when this happens. Sudden downpours can also make the road slippery.
- Wear closed-toe shoes, hats, sunglasses and a good sunscreen. Depending on the season – warm clothes or light coloured, loose clothing should be worn.
- There are several venomous hazards in a desert. Seek help immediately if you are bitten. If possible, take a picture of what bit you. Watch where you walk, place your hands or sit. Stay on the open trails and sand. Try not to walk through vegetation.
- Travel with a map and a working compass.
- Tell someone where you plan to go.
- Plan your route to and from your vehicle.
- Shifting, changing dunes can cause you to become disoriented. Look for park landmarks.
- Do not dig tunnels or holes in the sand.
- If sledding, avoid roadways and vegetated areas.
- Make sure you have a fully charged mobile phone. Turn it off when not in use to conserve its battery life. You may need it in an emergency. VERY IMPORTANT – If your mobile phone is from outside the US, find out from your service provider how to access 911 before heading into the dunes.
- Remember there is missile testing nearby. Do not pick up or touch strange objects. Your discovery may explode.
- Wear bright colours if riding a motorcycle or bicycle. Dunes Drive can be difficult with sand drifts, potholes and other rough surfaces. You can’t ride on the dunes.
- Download a desert safety guide.
Photography at White Sands
- This area offers incredible photo opportunities.
- Kept your equipment from being damaged by blowing sands. Sand can scratch lenses and can get inside to damage buttons, electronics and dials. Use a cover on your camera or store in a bag. Be extremely cautious when changing lenses.
- The best time to capture your images is two hours before sunset and two hours after sunrise.
- It is easy to get lost in the dunefield when you are carried away looking for that perfect shot. Read the above “Keep Safe” before heading off.
- Read White Sands National Park Service guide to taking great photos of the dunes here.
Hiking Trails in White Sands
There are five hiking trails available graded from easy to difficult. Do not hike if the temperature is more than 85˚F (30˚C)
- Alkali Flat Trail is for the experienced hiker. The scenic 5 mile, round-trip route goes to the middle of the dunes.
- Dune Life Nature Trail is an easy 1 mile round-trip route.
- Interdune Boardwalk is a short 0.4 mile accessible route to the Tularosa Basin.
- Playa Trail is an easy 0.5 mile route to a small desert basin.
- The campsite trail is just over 2 miles round-trip.
Camping in White Sands
There are 10 primitive backcountry campsites available by permit, on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations can not be made in advance and the permit must be applied for at the visitor centre in person. Campers must return to their campsites by sunset. The hike into the sites is along a 2 mile trail.
There is no car or RV camping in the park. Here is a list of area campgrounds. The closest public campground is 24 miles away at Oliver Lee State Park. Several other public campgrounds within an hour’s drive can be found at Lincoln National Forest and Aquirre Springs Recreation Area.
Creatures in White Sands National Monument
- Venomous creatures live here. Avoid disturbing black widow spiders, rattlesnakes, scorpions and harvest ants. There are many others not listed here. Find out more about the common reptiles of White Sands.
- Most of the mammals in the park only come out at night. They hide in their cool homes during the day. Look for footprints in the sand that are left behind after their nightly adventures. Learn about the common mammals of White Sands.
- 220 species of birds have been recorded in the park.
Pets in the park
- Do not leave pets in a vehicle or unattended.
- Pets must not be disruptive and must be on a leash of no longer than six feet long.
- Clean up after your pet. There are two pet walking stations.
- Provide plenty of water for your pet.
- Pets can be lost quickly if let off leash and they could run across a rattlesnake or brush against spiny cacti.
- Pets are not allowed in the visitor centre.
Getting to White Sands
- El Paso, Texas has the closest airport, about 85 miles away.
- Las Cruces, New Mexico is about a 90 minute drive.
- Alamogordo, New Mexico is just over a 20 minute drive.
- Drive time from Santa Fe, New Mexico is approximately a 4-4.5 hour drive.
- A road trip from Tucson, Arizona, depending on the route, can take from 5-7 hours.
- There is no public transportation to White Sands.
- Coming soon is our trip planning guide for a road trip from Tucson, Arizona to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Do you have questions about your trip? Join our Travel Forum Travel Q&A and ask your questions there. We will provide detailed answers as soon as we can.
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