White Sands National Park in brief:
Imagine a huge sandbox with white sand that glistens and is blindingly bright. That is White Sands National Park. This white sand is the main (and only) attraction in this National Park. You have to visit it to appreciate how white and bright it is. It looks like a permanent snow pile. White Sands is an easy one day visit. You can do as much or as little as you want in the park.
Our Visit to White Sands National Park:
A gorgeous start to our visit
White Sands National Park is in southern New Mexico. As we drove by the air force base on a bright sunny late afternoon in October, the weather was just about perfect with temperature in the 70s with no wind (this will be important later). The scenery gradually changed from desert to patches of white sand. I was full of anticipation and eager to see what is in store for us.
We did our normal visitor center business (stamp, movie, talk to the ranger), and proceeded into the park with our annual national park pass.
Vegetation giving way to white sand
At first, there was a lot of vegetation growing in the bright white sand, but as we got deeper into the park, the vegetation gradually disappeared and the scenery became brighter and whiter.
The white sand is made of gypsum, which are in the nearby hills. Gypsum is soft and breaks off easily. Wind lifts small pieces of gypsum and as it’s blown around, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, which allows even lighter wind to carry it, and breaks it down even more. Eventually, these pieces became small grains of bright white sand.
Easy to visit
Visiting White Sands National Park is pretty straight forward. You basically drive down the 8 mile Dunes Road and stop at the various pullouts to hike into the dunes.
There are “trails” from an easy 1/2 mile wheelchair accessible boardwalk trail (Interdunes Trail), to 5+ mile trails. You can go anywhere you want on the sand dunes, so you can make the hike as long or as short as you want. Just make sure you are oriented and know how to get back to your car. For that reason, we stayed on the marked trails.
Driving in the “snow”
We drove down Dunes Road, which felt like driving a road that’s been plowed for snow. The glistening white sand looked like snow, which was very different than the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, where the sand is brown.
Playa trail – our first hike
We wanted to get a couple of short hikes in before dark. Our first hike was the Playa trail, which was only a half mile, roundtrip, a perfect way to stretch our legs, and get a taste of the park.
Playa trail was known as a place where they found fossils because it was a low area where water gather after a rain storm. Where there was water, there were animals, hence the fossils.
Easy boardwalk trail that is accessible
Our second trail was the Interdunes trail, a boardwalk over the sand that was wheelchair accessible. It was also a 1/2 mile roundtrip that led to a platform overlooking some dunes.
The dunes here maxed out at about 70 feet, a far cry from the 700 or 800 feet dunes at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Because the dunes were not very tall, I could see pretty far with little obstruction from the hills.
Stargazing in the dunes?
By now, it was getting get dark. Since it was new moon, I figured this was a good place to do some stargazing, so we headed for the Dune Life Nature Trail. We found a spot just a bit into the trail and waited for darkness to fall. I knew this was not designated as a dark sky park, but I figured I would give it a try.
We soon found out why it was not a dark sky park. The brightly lit runway of Holloman Airforce base was visible and caused heavy light pollution. We saw some stars but the Milky Way was not visible. If you want to do stargazing, White Sands is not the place.
Disk for sliding down the dunes?
Based on the weather forecast, we expected a windy day as we got up the next morning, but I didn’t think much of it. We stopped by the park store, where they sold sledding disks for $25. You can sell it back to them for $5 of store credit for a net cost of $20. I decided to pass on that because I didn’t think I would use it more than a few times. What goes down, must come back up, and trekking uphill on soft sand wasn’t going to be fun for the “more mature” among us. I was glad I didn’t get the disk (see below to find out why).
We followed a snow plow, yes a snow plow, that was clearing the snow like white sand from the road. The park service has to plow the road regularly because sand gets blown onto the road all the time.
After a few miles down Dunes Road, it felt like we were in a big field of deep snow. The sun was out and the sky was clear, which made for super bright scenery, even with sunglasses. I had to put “sunglasses” on my cameras (ND filters) to take photos and videos.
Mother nature takes over
As we got out of the car at the Backcountry trailhead, we were immediately buffeted by strong, unrelenting wind. We figured, how bad can a 1.8 mile loop trail be through sand that was relatively firm? We were wrong.
The wind, oh the sustained wind! It was strong enough to make it difficult to walk into the wind. The wind kicked up clouds of sand that rose 100 feet into the air.
I wanted to get a photo from a lower vantage point, so I knelt down. What a mistake that was! The wind kicked sand up a couple of feet and my face got sandblasted! We got about a quarter of the way into the trail before we turned around and went back to the car.
Because none of the dunes were very tall, we got a very expansive view. Unlike the Great Sand Dunes or the sand dunes at Death Valley, it wasn’t hard to climb to a local peak. While some sand was soft, most of it was firm and not too bad to walk on.
If you dig just below the first few inches of sand, it felt cold and wet, which explains the firmer surface.
After a while the scenery looked the same. With the wind howling, it just wasn’t pleasant to get windburn and sandblasted.
Still, we soldiered on and drove to the end of Dunes Road and tried the Alkali Flats trail. This was suppose to be a 5 mile loop and we planned to do about half of it. We hoped the wind would die down, or at least be less constant, but mother nature had other ideas.
We went about 15 minutes in, found a local hill, and was able to see the sand dunes all the way to the base of the nearby mountain range. Even though it was windy, it was also hazy because of the sand cloud the wind kicked up.
Sledding on the sand
Nearby, there were some kids sledding down the sand hill. They were struggling to walk back up the hill because the disk acted like a sail, and they had to fight to hold on to the disk. I’m glad I didn’t get the disk from the park store.
Picnic protected from the wind
After getting windburned and sandblasted, it’s time for lunch! White Sands has a three large picnic areas. Most of the picnic tables has a shelter on one side to block the wind, and they are all on the same side. That says a lot about the consistency of the direction of the wind. It must happen often enough to have these shields.
The shield was a godsend. With it, it was actually pleasant to have our usual Subway sandwich. Without it, it would have been impossible to hold the sandwich down!
Finally, a pleasant hike
We started our drive back on Dunes Road after lunch. The wind, while still strong, died down a little and there were brief periods of calm. We decided to give hiking another try, this time at the Dunes Nature Trail, where we stopped yesterday to stargaze unsuccessfully.
With the temperature in the 70s and occasional breaks in the wind, it was actually pleasant to hike this 1 mile loop in a t-shirt. The trail looped around on the ridges of the dunes. It’s like walking on the rim of a bowl with vegetation in the bowl.
That was very different from the Alkali trail, which was nothing but white sand.
White Sands National Park marks a milestone on our journey. It was our 60th National Park, and the last of the lower 48 states.
When we started our journey in 2016, there were 59 National Parks and White Sands was not one of them. White Sands was established as a National Monument in 1934 and “promoted” to a National Park in 2019. I’m glad we were able to visit it to experience the bright, white sand that is unique and her calling card.
Thought for White Sands National Park:
When Mother Nature decides to have her say, you can’t ignore her. She can be gentle and friendly, or she can be strong and nasty.
Impressions of White Sands National Park:
White Sands is unique. This is one of those parks where pictures and videos don’t do it justice. You have to go to experience it. It’s a small, one dimensional park that is easy to visit.
Have you visited White Sands National Park? Leave a comment below on your experience.
White Sands National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
|Element||Rating (out of 5 Stars)|
Guide to White Sands National Park:
Top Attractions at White Sands National Park:
- White sand dunes.
One Day Visit Plan:
- Drive the 8 mile Dunes Road.
- Walk the Interdunes boardwalk as an introduction to the sand dunes.
- Stop at any of the parking areas and hike into the sand dunes.
- Hike as much or as little as your time and energy allows.
Practical Info for Visiting White Sands National Park:
- Wear the darkest sunglasses you have.
- Bring lots of water on hikes. It’s very dry and can get very hot on the sand dunes.
- Wear sunscreen. Like snow, the white sand reflects the sun. You can get sunburn very easily.
- While you can hike anywhere on the sand dunes, it’s easy to get disoriented because all you see is white sand. Follow the trail markers so you don’t get lost.
- Wear layers of clothing. The sun can be brutal in the middle of the day, and the temperature can change quickly as the sun rises or sets.
- Avoid visiting during the peak of the summer. It’s too hot.
- Nearby Alamogordo has plenty of hotels, restaurants and gas stations.
- White Sands is surrounded by White Sands Missile Range and the Holloman Air Force Base. Sometimes, it is closed for up to 3 hours during missile tests. Check the NPS website for the latest information.
National Park Facts:
- Size: 146,344 acres, ranked 37.
- Visitors: 782,469 in 2021, ranked 31st. 2021 was a record year. It’s also the year after it became a National Park.
- Peak Month in 2021: 98,118 visitors in March.
- Low Month in 2021: 35,766 visitors in February.
- Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle.
Date Visited: October 26, 27, 2022
I’d say being sandblasted is not a great “feature” of the park, and those picnic benches were made pre-Covid? All kidding aside, it looks like a vast desert but with nice white sand. Glad you guys made it to the 60th National Park!