The Ultimate Guide to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico
White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is one of those places I had always wanted to travel to, but had never had the chance. It's kind of in the middle of nowhere, at least for me. I'm sure it is somebody's somewhere. Fortunately, we had a trip planned to climb at Hueco Tanks State Park near El Paso, Texas, and I found out that the White Sands National Monument was only about an hour and a half from that climbing area. So Michael and I made sure to put White Sands on our list of things to visit during that trip. White Sands National Monument is an extremely beautiful place and definitely worth the stop if you find yourself in that part of the United States. The white sand dunes are like nothing I've ever seen before, comprised predominantly of the mineral called gypsum. We drove out there one early afternoon during our trip and spent our time hiking around, taking photos, and and watching the sunset, and I'm so glad we made the trip out there, even if it was only for the afternoon.
This post will detail everything you need to know about visiting the White Sand Dunes National Monument including when to go, what to do, what you can bring, photography tips and more. I feel like our visit to White Sand Dunes was limited, but there is so much more you can do and explore out there. If I could go back I think if would be particularly fun to do one of the longer hikes.
I would say that the photos don't do this place justice as is often the case in many places we visit on our adventures, but I really have to make an exception here as I think that Michael really captured the beauty of this place very well! I hope you all get a chance to visit some time!
Please note that the below post may contain some affiliate links.
white sands national monument overview:
The white sand dunes cover over 275 square miles of the Chihuahuan desert, and the National Monument protects over half of the sand dunes. The sands are unique here because they are comprised of the mineral gypsum which gives them their uniquely white color. In fact, it is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. This beautiful oasis is ironically surrounded my military installations such as the White Sands Missile Range and the Holloman Air Force Base, so it is always important to check that there are no road closures to the area due to missile testing before you go visit. To read more about the White Sand Dunes National Monument history and wildlife, check out the national parks service page.
There is an entry fee of $5 to enter the park, so be sure to bring some cash, or you can use an annual national parks pass if you have one of those. This fee payment is good for up to 7 days in the park, so keep your receipt if you plan to visit multiple days in a row.
And yes, pets are allowed, but make sure to keep them in control and on a leash.
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White Sands National Monument is located in the state of New Mexico in the United States. You can see in the map below that the closest "bigger" cities are Albuquerque, New Mexico (3 and 1/2 hours away from the monument) and El Paso, Texas (1 and 1/2 hours away from the monument). So while it's not exactly super close to anything, it would make for a great stop on a United States road trip if you happened to be driving through the area.
The sand dunes are located in the Chihuahuan Desert which expands into West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico, and they are surrounded by the San Andres Mountains (on the West) and Sacramento Mountains (on the East).
when to go:
As with any desert, the temperature highs and lows have pretty big swings from mid-day to night time. The average high temperature at White Sands National Monument is 97 degrees Fahrenheit in June and July, but the record high has been recorded up to 111 degrees Fahrenheit. Not as warm as Death Valley's highest recorded temperatures, but still hot nonetheless. The best times to visit are in the fall, winter, and spring months, but I suppose you could also get by visiting in the summer. I've plotted the average low and high temperatures each month at White Sands in the graph below.
Late afternoon thunderstorms are most common during the July through September months, and the spring months can bring high winds (sometimes up to 50 mph) so definitely check the weather and current conditions before your visit. It wouldn't be a very fun visit with 50 mph winds with all that sand. The Monument also has some specific visiting hours, so be sure to check it out here before you visit.
activities at white sands national monument
There are so many fun things to do at White Sands, more than you might imagine on first glance.
This is by far the most popular activity to do at the White Sands National Monument and there are endless options for hiking! The park has 5 official trails (detailed below), and you can also "choose your own adventure" among the dunes, but it's important to remember that it is very easy to get lost among the sand dunes, so be careful if you decide to do this.
Interdune Boardwalk: this trail is wheelchair accessible and is a short 0.4 mile trek out into the dunes via a wooden boardwalk.
Playa Trail: this trail is marked with green trail markers and is an easy 0.5 mile level hike through the playa. The majority of the year, the playa is a dry lakebed.
Dune Life Nature Trail: this trail is marked with blue trail markers and is considered a "moderate" 1 mile roundtrip hike through the dunes.
Backcountry Camping Trail: this trail is marked with orange trail markers and is 2 miles roundtrip. This is the same trail used to get to the backcountry campsites mentioned in the camping section below. On this trail you will hike over several steep dunes.
Alkali Flat Trail: this trail is marked with red trail markers and is considered the most difficult hike at the park. It is 5 miles round trip and is a strenuous trek up and down sand dunes the entire way.
The White Sands National Monument only allows for backcountry camping among the gypsum dunes, there is no car camping, or RV camping allowed. There are 10 formal backcountry campsites that require a 1 mile hike in to get to them. The hike is marked by orange trail markers to help guide you among the dunes to the backcountry campsites.
The campsites are not available for advanced reservation and are administered on a first-come-first-serve-basis. If you want to backcountry camp in the dunes you must obtain a permit beforehand at the visitor center. Groups are limited to a maximum of 6 people per campsite/permit. Since it is easy to get lost in the sand dunes, there are "permit cut off times", and you must be at the visitor center before this time in order to be issued a permit.
In addition to the park entry fee there is also a camping fee of $3 per person over the age of 16 and $1.50 per person if 15 years old or younger. Pets are also allowed to backcountry camp as long as they are kept under control and on a leash at all times during your visit.
As you can see in this post, there are so many amazing opportunities for photography at White Sands National Monument. There are so many fun textures and patterns to play with. It's a photographers dream!
Below are 5 tips to taking great photos during your visit at White Sands:
Try to find a spot a little "off the beaten path" so you can find some sand dunes that don't have foot prints all over them. This way you can capture some of the beautiful designs that the wind naturally makes in the dunes. We didn't have to hike very far to find this.**
Find a cool sand dune "spine" to take photos near. This can provide an interesting dramatic effect with shadows at certain times of the day, particularly at sunset.
Take advantage of some of the natural plant life in the area to make your photographs have more texture and depth, and to help frame your subject around.
Have fun with all the shapes and curves that the dunes provide, try getting different shots at different angles, and take advantage of the beautiful mountains that surround the dunes.
Take your photos during either sunrise or sunset! We took all of our photos in January at sunset.
**Please see safety section below for more details.
Driving Dunes Drive:
Driving along the 16 mile round trip Dunes Drive road is another excellent way to see the monument. The first four miles of road are paved and the rest of the road is tightly packed gypsum sand. Pair the drive with one of the mentioned hikes above and you will get to see a lot of what the park has to offer. The entire drive takes around 45 minutes without stopping. Keep in mind you are only allowed to park in designated parking areas, so make sure not to park just anywhere on the side of the road.
There are also ample opportunities for picnicking along your drive. Along with 2 picnic areas at the visitor center, there are 3 more established picnic sites in the heart of the sand dunes drive. You could also take a picnic blanket and basket and enjoy your time away from the established picnic areas.
Bicycling through White Sands National Monument provides a fun and unique way to see the sand dunes if you happen to have a bike with you. Although there is no "off-road" cycling allowed, you can ride your bike along the same road as the Dunes Drive Road. Just remember that you are sharing the road with drivers, so always be alert and stay visible. Also, New Mexico law requires that anyone under the age of 17 must where a helmet when riding a bicycle. The Dunes Drive is 16 miles round trip, so just be prepared for the mileage if you intend to bike the whole road.
What kind of bike to bring? Only 4 miles of the road are paved and the rest of the road is tightly packed gypsum sand, so it is not recommended to bring a road bike that has skinny street tires. A mountain bike, or cruiser bike with bigger tires will be a better choice for this road.
There is also limited use allowed for horses and pack animals at White Sands National Monument. Of course, you must provide your own horses and they must be trailered into the park, but this is another unique way to see the park. Permits are required for personal use of horses and pack animals in the park, and you can find additional information here.
Another fun and unique way to have fun at the park is dune sledding! You can purchase a plastic snow saucer at the visitor center if you want to, or purchase a sled ahead of time and bring it to the park. Either way, it is endless fun for children and adults alike, and there are many sand dunes all over the park that offer excellent slopes to ride down. Just look for dunes that gently flatten out and always exercise caution when going down in a sled.
The Park also offers some additional fun activities for kids such as their Ranger Program and their Adventure Packs! Regardless of what you decided to do at your visit to White Sands National Monument, you are sure to have a great time playing in the sand dunes!
safety at white sands:
So we talked about all the fun things there are to do at the White Sands National Monument, but it's also important to note a few key safety items to keep in mind during your visit to the park. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few key items.
It's easy to get lost, and tracking your footsteps back may not always be reliable since there are often a ton of different tracks around the dunes and wind can often erase foot steps. When we went out into the sand dunes, it wasn't very windy at all and we were paying close attention to where we were headed, but I noticed how easy it was to get turned around out there since it is almost impossible to see the road. If you are uncomfortable and want to be extra careful, follow the established trail markers into the dunes described in the hiking section. Also, it's a best practice to never hike alone in the dunes in order to help prevent getting lost.
Always bring water and food. Not only because they are essential to survival, and it can get hot (particularly in the summer months), but also because if you did happen to get lost, you would at least have some food and water with you. Although, just opt not to get lost. I wrote a post about essential hiking gear that you could adapt for short hikes in this area as well.
Don't only bring water, drink water and take rests! This is particularly important in the summer and if you are going on one of the hikes or plan to spend a considerable amount of time out in the sun. Heat stroke can happen to anyone, and it is very important to stay hydrated.
Wear eye protection! Just like the sun can reflect off of snow into your eyes, it can also reflect off of the white sand here, so be sure to bring some sunglasses for the hike. I took mine off for photos, but definitely carried a pair around with me in my pack.
what to bring:
If you are only going to the park for a day visit, then here are a few of the essentials to bring on your trip to White Sand Dunes National Monument.
Sunglasses - My favorite pair for day hikes are Goodr Sunglasses. I originally bought these glasses last year when I got into trail running. I couldn't find a pair of glasses that were comfortable and would stay on my face when I was running. These finally did the trick, and now I love wearing them hiking too! They come in a bunch of great color options and the best part... they are only $25! If you want something more classic Native Eyewear is also another good choice because they have a great lifetime warranty.
Sunscreen - This should be a no-brainer, but always wear and bring sunscreen for a hike. I really like Neutrogena brand. They even have a Zinc based sunscreen if you are looking for something more natural.
Hat - I also like to bring a hat with me on hikes to keep the sun out of my face, and usually my hair is a bit ridiculous from camping, so hats cover that up!
Food & Water - I like to pack cliff bars, complete cookies, and lara bars for quick snacks. Sometimes we will make a little quino and veggie lunch if its going to be a longer hike, or a pb&j sandwhich. It sort of depends on how much time we have to prepare in advance. As far as water goes, Camelbaks are awesome for hiking! They are the easiest way to stay hydrated, and I always bring one with me. Or alternatively, you could bring a Nalgene.
Camera - Don't forget to pack a camera or a phone to capture your hike! You can read our post on the Outdoor Adventure Photography Gear we use if you want details on the cameras we recommend for outdoor photography, but also you can't go wrong these days with your phone camera either. Your choice!
For a comprehensive list on essential hiking gear that I recommend bringing on hiking trips, you can download my packing list below.
So I hope by this point I've convinced you what an amazing place White Sands National Monument is, and I hope you get a chance to make a visit up there to explore and play in the dunes!
Allison - She Dreams of Alpine
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