White Sands National Park, the 52nd US national park we’ve visited, was magical! It was as though we were in a place that was a cross between being in the desert, being on the moon, and being in the Arctic (minus the gloves and parkas, although jackets were warranted when the sun went down).
The sand at the park is unlike sand nearly anywhere else. Rather than being grains of silica, it is soft pieces of gypsum. You may have heard of gypsum if you have ever worked with drywall: it’s the white powdery stuff in the middle. In the White Sands dunes, the gypsum is granular, but it still feels very soft. Gypsum also has the magical property of not getting hot even when being baked in the sun, so no matter how sunny it is you can still walk barefoot in the sand if you want. While White Sands is not the largest park by any stretch, this 275 square mile gypsum field is actually the largest in the world — it can be seen from space!
Since the park is small, it can be seen in half a day, but we definitely recommend spending at least one full day so you have a chance to do some of the hikes and enjoy a sunset. We spent two and a quarter days so were able to see three sunsets. Each was completely different and all were stunningly beautiful. The sand reflects the colors in the sky, so it turns yellow, orange, pink, and then bluish before the light is gone.
Dunes Drive is the only way into and out of the park. Just 8 miles long, its first half is paved while its second half is plowed and packed gypsum. At night, a drive on the gypsum road looks just like driving on snow! The road is easily navigable by any car – we even saw motorhomes and trucks pulling trailers on it. Multiple pullouts allow visitors to enjoy the dunes right from the side of the road, but doing at least a short hike into the dunes will give you a more full experience. All trailheads are along Dunes Drive.
Many of the park’s hikes are short (1/2-2 miles) and you can do several of them over the course of the day. Most of the hiking is fairly easy, but it is in sand, so keep that in mind as you plan how far you want to hike. The Interdune Boardwalk trail offers a fully accessible hike.
The most difficult trail in the park is the Alkali Flat Trail. It was a highlight of the trip, but it was challenging. The trail, 5 miles (8 km) round trip, wanders up and down (and up and down and up and down) through the dunes. The trail is clearly marked, and it’s best to stay on the trail as it is extremely easy to get disoriented out in the dunes. Being out where the bright white undulating dunes seem to go on forever and the silence is deep was a beautiful, unique experience. We highly recommend it!
Another fun activity in White Sands is sledding down the dunes. Our KOA campground in Alamogordo loaned us sleds and wax, but you can also bring your own or rent them at the visitor center. We watched a lot of other people sled before we tried it, and it seemed like the steeper the dune, the better chance you had to get moving. The length of the dune didn’t seem to be as much of a factor. It also seemed to help if you could slide down a track someone else had already created instead of creating your own. It was really fun to zip down the dunes! (And even crashing wasn’t so bad.)
There is currently no camping in White Sands (the backcountry campground is closed for renovations, and we did not see a reopening date), but lodging and camping are available in nearby Alamogordo. Cell service throughout the park is spotty at best. The visitor center offered a few snacks, but no full meals. Plenty of shaded picnic tables are available along Dunes Drive, so pack a picnic lunch with a view!
Several parking areas along the park road offer pit toilets, and they were clean and well stocked with paper and hand sanitizer. Potable water is available only at the visitor center, so pack plenty of water no matter what your plans are. Always carry water when hiking, and if you are there in summer, bring lots of water with you. And since the sand is highly reflective, sunscreen is always recommended.
This small park outside of Alamogordo definitely embodies New Mexico’s “Land of Enchantment” motto. We hope you get the opportunity to visit it — you’re sure to find some magic in this hidden gem. Enjoy your next trip to a national park, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!