Nestled in the Tularosa Basin beneath the peaks of the San Andres Mountains, New Mexico’s White Sands National Park is home to the largest gypsum dune fields in the world. The ultra-fine sand grains are brilliant white, shimmering like freshly fallen snow under the bright desert sun. The geological processes that led to the expansive gypsum dunes we see today began more than 250 million years ago, when the ancient Permian Sea covered what is now the American Southwest.
Previously designated a national monument, White Sands became a full-fledged national park in 2019. Along with the promotion (and, quite likely, the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic) came a huge increase in visitor numbers, with nearly 800,000 people coming to explore the vast dune fields in 2021. Although the park has seen quite the surge in visitation over the last couple years, it’s still a pretty quiet place for some scenic recreation, especially in the off-season.
While the park is relatively small in size, a handful of marked walking trails run through the dunes. The signed paths are perfect for a day or two of exploring, and all five trails are easily accessed from Dunes Drive, an eight-mile scenic route and the park’s lone road. The trails are all quite short, ranging from one-half to five miles in length. Because of this, it’s possible to see much of the park in a single day trip. If you’re interested in some gorgeous directional light on the dunes, however, you should definitely include a sunrise and/or sunset during your outing.
We visited White Sands on a cross-country road trip from New Hampshire to Arizona. Consequently, we planned it so we’d have an afternoon and sunset in the park, followed by a night in neighboring Alamogordo, and ultimately a sunrise and full morning of exploring. Even though our visit was short, we felt fulfilled with our time wandering around the dunes. If you’re planning a visit to this striking park, read on for some of our thoughts on trails and other helpful hints.
Backcountry Camping Trail
At two miles long, the Backcountry Camping Trail is White Sands’ mid-range route. This signed loop leads through the core of the dune field and, even though it’s pretty short, it does still require some navigating of the sandy hills.
We chose this trail for our mid-afternoon/sunset outing. We were initially concerned the foot traffic would be heavy, as the dunes right near the parking area were fairly busy with kids and families doing a bit of sledding. However, it didn’t take long to escape the groups. We loosely followed the signed trail, but ultimately found ourselves regularly wandering off-trail to find our own quiet retreats amongst the dunes.
The late-day late here was quite beautiful, casting long-shadows down the dunes’ eastern slopes. Since it was Valentine’s Day, we couldn’t resist spreading a little bit of love as the sun sank lower in the sky. As the sun finally dropped behind the San Andres mountains to the west, the peaks were washed with a pale purple hue. The sky glowed with oranges and yellows, and the landscape transformed to what looked like a watercolor painting. It was quite striking, and a beautiful time of day to visit.
Alkali Flat Trail
A five-mile loop, Alkali Flat is the park’s longest marked route. The trail winds through the heart of the dune field, up and down some steeper sections of dunes, to Alkali Flat. The low-lying playa was once the site of Lake Otero, a massive lake that covered much of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age.
This route was easily our favorite. Located at the far northwest end of Dunes Drive, the trail is a bit further out of the way than the others, and involves hiking along some of the steepest sections of dunes. Because there’s lighter foot traffic out here, there’s also a greater opportunity to see some untouched dunes – perfect if you’re into photography.
We spent several hours enjoying the dunes around Alkali Flat on a quiet Tuesday in February. For most of the morning, we had this entire swath of dune field to ourselves, sharing it with only two or three other people as it approached lunchtime. We wandered around, captivated by the patterns in the flawless expanse of gypsum. The varying textures and shifting shapes were just mesmerizing.
Sanchez also found herself particularly impressed with this section of the park. She was having an absolute blast running through the cool sand. When it finally came time to leave and we neared the parking lot, she refused to budge. She dug her heels firmly into the sand and put up quite the protest. Typically more of a forest- and alpine-loving mutt, we were surprised at just how much she enjoyed exploring the dunes. Stephan and I felt terrible when we finally had to coax our begrudging little adventurer back to the Subie to hit the road.
Keep in mind: If you hike this trail, you should be comfortable with navigation as well as trudging through more challenging sections of shifting sand.
For a shorter, easier walk around the dunes, consider the Dune Life Trail (1 mile), Playa Trail (0.5 mile), or Interdune Boardwalk (0.4 mile). The Dune Life Trail is at the beginning of the park. While it’s one of the easier routes, it still does require some walking through some loose sand. The Playa Trail, on the other hand, is flat with a much more compact surface. Lastly, if you’re looking for a trail that’s accessible for strollers and wheelchairs, the Interdune Boardwalk is a flat, elevated boardwalk equipped with handrails.
Know before you go
- Most areas of the park have no shade. Make sure you have plenty of sun protection and water when venturing out.
- Beware of the heat! Summer temps (June through August) average in the mid- to upper-90s and can reach well over 100°F. Because the sun is so intense and there is little to no shade, temperatures will feel even hotter. The park actually recommends not beginning a hike if temperatures are at or above 85°F (30°C). Try to hike in the coolest part of the day, especially during the summer months.
- Temperatures can change quickly. When we visited in mid-February, the early morning temperatures were around 37°F. By 11 a.m., just a few hours later, it had reached 64°F. Likewise, temperatures drop just as quickly as the sun begins to set behind the mountains at dusk. We recommend wearing layers that can be easily removed or added as needed.
- Have a GPS and be familiar with route finding. All official park trails are marked with colored signposts. However, if you want to the dunes off-trail in the backcountry (or inadvertently wander off-trail a bit), it can be incredibly difficult to regain your bearings.
- Park hours change seasonally. Be sure to check the park’s website before visiting, as park rangers close the gate nightly.
- The White Sands Missile Range is the largest missile test range in the U.S. and is located on land adjacent to the national park. Consequently, military tests regularly affect park operations. Dunes Drive (the only road into the park) and even parts of US-70 can be temporarily closed for visitor safety. Park staff can be notified as much as two weeks in advance or as little as 24 hours. When we visited, we arrived at 7 a.m. (park opening time) for sunrise. Unfortunately, because of a missile test the night before, entry was delayed for about 45 minutes and we missed that gorgeous morning light. Check here for known, scheduled park closures.
- Dogs are allowed on all trails within the national park. If you’re hiking with your pup, remember they must be leashed and cleaned up after. So few of our national parks allow hiking with pets, so please remember to respect the rules so others can continue to enjoy the same privileges with their pups.
- Pack a picnic and enjoy it out in the dunes. It’s a really beautiful spot for a quiet lunch. Just make sure to pack up all of your waste and leave no trace.