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An Overlander’s Guide to White Sands National Park 

 June 10, 2024

By  Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

White Sands National Park BadgeNestled in the heart of southern New Mexico, White Sands National Park is a breathtaking destination that beckons overlanders and adventure enthusiasts from around the world. This awe-inspiring park, spanning 145,762 acres in the Tularosa Basin, is home to the largest gypsum dune field on Earth.

The mesmerizing white sands, sculpted by the forces of nature over millennia, create an otherworldly landscape that must be seen to be believed. The park’s unique geology, coupled with its diverse flora and fauna, make it a true wonder of the natural world.

Whether you’re a seasoned overlander or a curious traveler seeking an unforgettable experience, White Sands National Park promises to leave you in awe of its raw beauty and serene tranquility. This comprehensive guide is designed to help you plan an unforgettable overlanding adventure in White Sands National Park, providing essential information, insider tips, and a glimpse into the park’s natural wonders.

Discovering the Wonders of White Sands National Park

Entrance sign to White Sands National ParkWhite Sands National Park is a testament to the raw beauty and power of the natural world. The park’s iconic white dunes are the result of an ancient lake that once covered the Tularosa Basin, leaving behind vast deposits of selenite crystals as it evaporated over time.

These crystals, exposed to the elements for thousands of years, have been eroded by wind and water to form the stunning gypsum dunes we see today. The process of creating these dunes is ongoing, with the park’s ever-shifting landscape constantly being reshaped by the forces of nature.

Visitors to the park can explore this unique landscape through a variety of activities, each offering a different perspective on the park’s natural wonders. The Dunes Drive, an 8-mile scenic route, takes you deep into the heart of the dune field, offering breathtaking vistas at every turn and the opportunity to stop and explore the dunes on foot.

For those seeking a more immersive experience, the Alkali Flat Trail is a challenging 5-mile round trip hike that rewards intrepid adventurers with panoramic views of the endless sea of white. The trail winds through the heart of the dunes, offering a chance to experience the park’s unique geology and ecology up close.

Families and those with limited mobility can still enjoy the park’s beauty via the Interdune Boardwalk, an accessible trail that winds through the dunes. The boardwalk offers a glimpse into the park’s delicate ecosystem, with interpretive signs providing insight into the plants and animals that call the dunes home.

In addition to hiking and scenic drives, White Sands National Park offers a range of other activities for visitors to enjoy. Picnicking is a popular pastime, with several designated picnic areas throughout the park offering stunning views of the dunes.

For a truly unique experience, visitors can try their hand at sand sledding, using specially designed sleds to glide down the steep slopes of the dunes. The park’s visitor center rents sleds and provides safety information for those interested in this thrilling activity.

Planning Your Visit to White Sands National Park

Scenic road into White Sands National ParkWhen planning your visit to White Sands National Park, it’s important to consider the time of year and the weather conditions. The best times to visit the park are spring (March to May) and fall (September to November), when temperatures are milder and more conducive to outdoor exploration.

During the spring, the park’s wildflowers begin to bloom, adding a splash of color to the white dunes. The mild temperatures and low humidity make this an ideal time for hiking and other outdoor activities.

Fall is another great time to visit, with comfortable temperatures and fewer crowds than during the peak summer months. The park’s autumn light creates a beautiful golden hue on the dunes, making for stunning photography opportunities.

Summer temperatures at White Sands can soar, with daytime highs often reaching over 100°F (38°C). This extreme heat can make outdoor activities challenging, particularly during the middle of the day.

If you do visit during the summer, it’s important to take precautions to stay safe and healthy. Drink plenty of water, wear sun protection, and limit your outdoor activities to the early morning or late evening hours when temperatures are cooler.

Winter can also be a beautiful time to visit the park, with mild temperatures and the possibility of snow on the dunes. However, nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing, so it’s important to come prepared with warm clothing and appropriate gear.

white sands national parkRegardless of when you visit, it’s always a good idea to check the park’s website or contact the visitor center for the most up-to-date information on weather conditions, park closures, and any special events or programs that may be happening during your visit. The park’s hours of operation vary throughout the year, so be sure to plan accordingly.

When exploring the park, it’s important to come prepared with plenty of water, snacks, and sun protection. The park’s high elevation and dry climate can lead to dehydration and sunburn, even on cloudy days.

It’s also a good idea to wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes and bring a hat or other head covering to protect yourself from the sun. If you plan on hiking or camping in the backcountry, be sure to obtain the necessary permits and follow all park regulations and safety guidelines.

The surrounding communities of Alamogordo and Las Cruces offer a range of amenities and attractions for overlanders. Alamogordo, just 15 miles from the park, provides restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, and the fascinating New Mexico Museum of Space History.

Las Cruces, 50 miles southwest, is a larger city with more extensive services and the stunning Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument nearby. Both cities make great base camps for exploring the park and the surrounding area, with plenty of options for dining, shopping, and other activities.

Whether you’re planning a day trip or a longer stay, White Sands National Park is a must-see destination for overlanders and nature lovers alike. With a little planning and preparation, your visit to this unique and beautiful place is sure to be an unforgettable adventure.

Getting to White Sands National Park

Walkway above the sand at White Sands National ParkFor overlanders, the journey to White Sands National Park is an adventure in itself. The park is easily accessible by road, with US Route 70 serving as the main artery connecting the park to major highways.

From El Paso, TX, the drive takes approximately 1.5 hours via I-10 West and US-54 East, before merging onto US-70 East. This route offers scenic views of the Chihuahuan Desert and the opportunity to stop at interesting towns like Alamogordo along the way.

Those coming from Albuquerque, NM, can expect a 3.5-hour drive, following I-25 South to US-380 East and then US-70 West. This route takes you through the heart of the New Mexico desert, with stunning vistas of the Sacramento and San Andres Mountains.

For those flying in, the closest major airport is El Paso International Airport (ELP), situated about 85 miles south of the park. The airport offers a range of rental car options, making it easy to pick up a vehicle for the final leg of the journey.

Alternatively, visitors can fly into Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ) and make the longer drive down to White Sands. This option may be preferable for those planning to explore other parts of New Mexico before or after their visit to the park.

Regardless of your starting point, it’s important to plan your route in advance and ensure your vehicle is in good condition for the journey. The roads leading to White Sands are well-maintained, but the desert environment can be harsh on vehicles.

It’s also a good idea to check the park’s website or social media channels for any updates on road conditions or closures before setting out. Weather events like heavy rain or wind can sometimes impact access to the park.

Once you arrive at White Sands National Park, you’ll find ample parking at the visitor center and various trailheads throughout the park. The park is open year-round, with hours varying depending on the season, so be sure to check the park’s website for the most up-to-date information on operating hours and entrance fees.

Camping at White Sands National Park

white sands national park backcountry campinWhite Sands National Park offers a truly unique camping experience, allowing visitors to pitch their tents directly on the gypsum dunes. However, as of June 2024, backcountry camping is currently closed due to rehabilitation of camping sites, and no reopening date has been determined.

For those seeking alternative camping options, there are several campgrounds in the general vicinity of the park, including federal, state, and private options. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, located 30 miles from White Sands, offers campsites with basic amenities such as restrooms and picnic tables.

Other nearby state parks with camping facilities include Leasburg Dam, Percha Dam, Caballo Lake, Rockhound, Elephant Butte, and City of Rocks. These parks offer a range of amenities and recreational activities, making them a great option for those looking to explore the surrounding area.

The Lincoln National Forest, managed by the US Forest Service, also offers several campgrounds within driving distance of White Sands. These include Pines Campground, Silver, Saddle, Apache, Silver Overflow, Deerhead, Sleepy Grass, James Canyon, Skyline, Oak Grove, and Three Rivers campgrounds.

For those looking to camp on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, options include Aguirre Springs, Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, and Valley of Fires Recreation Area. These campgrounds offer a more rustic camping experience, with limited amenities but stunning natural surroundings.

In addition to camping, the nearby towns of Alamogordo and Las Cruces offer a variety of lodging options for those who prefer more creature comforts. Alamogordo, located just 13 miles from the park, has a range of hotels, motels, and vacation rentals to suit different budgets and preferences.

Las Cruces, situated 50 miles from White Sands, is a larger city with an even greater selection of accommodations. Visitors can choose from chain hotels, boutique inns, and bed and breakfasts, among other options.

When it comes to dining, the White Sands Trading Company gift shop within the park offers a selection of convenient, ready-to-eat food options, including packaged sandwiches, bottled drinks, salty snacks, and sweet treats. However, for a wider variety of dining options, visitors can explore the restaurants in Alamogordo and Las Cruces, which cater to a range of tastes and budgets.

For more information on lodging and dining options in the area, visitors can consult the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce and the Las Cruces Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. These resources provide comprehensive listings of accommodations, restaurants, and other local businesses, helping visitors plan their stay in the area.

What To Do at White Sands National Park

white sands national park hiking dunesWhite Sands National Park offers a wealth of activities for overlanders and adventurers of all ages and skill levels. Hiking is a popular way to immerse oneself in the dune environment, with trails ranging from the gentle 1-mile Dune Life Nature Trail to the more strenuous Backcountry Camping Trail.

The Dune Life Nature Trail is a great option for families and those looking for a relaxed introduction to the park’s unique ecosystem. The trail features interpretive signs that provide insights into the plants, animals, and geology of the dunes.

For those seeking a more challenging hike, the Backcountry Camping Trail offers a 2-mile trek through the heart of the dunes. This trail requires a permit and is best suited for experienced hikers with proper equipment and supplies.

One of the park’s most beloved activities is sand sledding. Visitors can bring their own sleds or rent them at the park’s gift shop, before hitting the steep dunes for an exhilarating ride.

The park’s fine-grained gypsum sand provides the perfect surface for sledding, and the thrill of gliding down the dunes is an experience that visitors of all ages can enjoy. It’s important to note that sledding is only allowed in designated areas and that visitors should follow all safety guidelines and park regulations.

In addition to hiking and sledding, the park offers several scenic drives that allow visitors to take in the beauty of the dunes from the comfort of their vehicles. The Dunes Drive is an 8-mile round trip that takes visitors into the heart of the dune field, with several stops along the way for photos and short walks.

For those looking to learn more about the park’s history and ecology, the visitor center offers a range of exhibits and educational programs. Park rangers lead guided walks and talks throughout the year, providing visitors with a deeper understanding of the park’s unique environment and the plants and animals that call it home.

Designated picnic areas, complete with tables and shelters, provide a perfect spot to refuel and relax between adventures. These areas are located throughout the park and offer stunning views of the dunes and the surrounding landscape.

For those looking to capture the beauty of the park through photography, White Sands offers endless opportunities for stunning shots. The park’s white gypsum dunes provide a unique and ever-changing canvas for photographers, with the light and shadows shifting throughout the day.

Whether you’re an experienced photographer or just looking to snap some memories with your phone, the park’s landscape is sure to inspire. Park rangers can provide tips and guidance on the best locations and times of day for photography, and the park’s website offers a range of resources for photographers, including a guide to photographing the dunes.

Stargazing in White Sands National Park

Dark skies with Milky Way Galaxy over White Sands National ParkWhite Sands National Park is not only a beautiful destination during the day but also a stunning location for stargazing at night. The park’s remote location, far from the light pollution of cities, makes it an ideal spot for observing the night sky.

On a clear night, visitors can marvel at the Milky Way stretching across the sky, a sight that is increasingly rare in many parts of the world. The park’s white gypsum dunes also provide a unique and reflective surface that enhances the stargazing experience.

The park offers several guided stargazing programs throughout the year, led by knowledgeable park rangers. These programs often coincide with special astronomical events, such as meteor showers or planetary alignments, and provide visitors with an opportunity to learn more about the night sky and the universe beyond our planet.

For those who prefer to stargaze independently, the park has several designated stargazing areas, including the Dunes Drive parking lot and the Backcountry Camping Area (when it is open). Visitors are encouraged to bring blankets, chairs, and a red-filtered flashlight to preserve their night vision.

It’s important to note that the park’s hours of operation vary throughout the year, so visitors should check the park’s website or contact the visitor center for the most up-to-date information on when they can enter and exit the park for stargazing. Additionally, visitors should be prepared for cool temperatures at night, even during the summer months, and should dress accordingly.

Whether you’re an experienced astronomer or simply someone who appreciates the beauty of the night sky, stargazing in White Sands National Park is an unforgettable experience. The combination of the park’s unique landscape and its pristine dark skies creates a truly awe-inspiring setting for contemplating the wonders of the universe.

Wildlife at White Sands National Park

Peaceful morning at White Sands National ParkDespite the harsh desert conditions, White Sands National Park is home to a surprising diversity of wildlife. The park’s unique ecosystem supports a range of animals that have adapted to life in the dunes, from small insects to larger mammals.

One of the park’s most elusive residents is the kit fox, a small nocturnal predator perfectly adapted to life in the dunes. These tiny foxes, which weigh only about 5 pounds, have large ears and a thick, insulating coat that helps them survive in the extreme temperatures of the desert.

Another fascinating creature found in the park is the bleached earless lizard, a reptile that is found nowhere else on Earth. These lizards have evolved to blend seamlessly with the white sands, with a pale, almost translucent skin that makes them nearly invisible against the dunes.

The bleached earless lizard is just one of several species of lizards that call the park home, including the lesser earless lizard and the side-blotched lizard. These reptiles play an important role in the park’s ecosystem, serving as both predators and prey for other animals.

No visit to White Sands National Park is complete without spotting a roadrunner, the iconic state bird of New Mexico. These long-legged birds are known for their lightning-fast speed, which they use to chase down prey such as lizards and small rodents.

In addition to the roadrunner, the park is home to a variety of other bird species, including the cactus wren, the greater roadrunner, and the Gambel’s quail. Birders will delight in the opportunity to spot these and other species, particularly during the spring and fall migration seasons.

The park’s dunes also provide habitat for a range of small mammals, including the Apache pocket mouse and the Merriam’s kangaroo rat. These tiny creatures have adapted to the harsh desert environment by developing special adaptations, such as the ability to extract moisture from their food and concentrate their urine to conserve water.

Larger mammals such as mule deer and coyotes can also be spotted in the park, particularly in the early morning and late evening hours. These animals play an important role in the park’s ecosystem, helping to maintain the balance between predators and prey.

While the park’s wildlife can be elusive, visitors who take the time to explore the dunes and keep a watchful eye are sure to be rewarded with sightings of these fascinating creatures. Park rangers can provide tips and guidance on the best times and locations for wildlife viewing, and the park’s website offers a range of resources for those interested in learning more about the animals that call White Sands home.

It’s important to remember that while the park’s wildlife is fascinating to observe, visitors should always maintain a safe distance and avoid disturbing the animals in their natural habitat. By treating the park’s wildlife with respect and care, we can help ensure that these unique and wonderful creatures continue to thrive in this special place for generations to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

white sands national park bbq picnic areaQ: Are pets allowed in the park?
A: Yes, pets are welcome in White Sands National Park but must be kept on a leash at all times to ensure the safety of both pets and wildlife. It’s important to clean up after your pet and dispose of waste properly to help keep the park clean and beautiful.

Q: Is there an entrance fee for the park?
A: Yes, White Sands National Park charges an entrance fee. As of 2023, the fee is $25 per vehicle, $15 per person on foot or bike, and $20 per motorcycle, but these fees are subject to change, so it’s always best to check the park’s official website for the most up-to-date information.

Q: Can I drive on the dunes?
A: No, driving on the dunes is strictly prohibited to protect the delicate gypsum sand environment. Off-road vehicles, including ATVs and UTVs, are not allowed anywhere in the park.

Q: Are there guided tours available?
A: Yes, White Sands National Park offers a variety of ranger-led programs and tours throughout the year. These include sunset strolls, full moon hikes, nature walks, and educational programs on the park’s geology, ecology, and history.

Q: What should I bring for a visit?
A: To ensure a safe and enjoyable visit, be sure to pack sunscreen, plenty of water, sturdy footwear, and a hat. The park’s high elevation and dry climate can lead to dehydration and sunburn, even on cloudy days, so it’s important to come prepared.

Q: Are there any restrictions on sand sledding?
A: Sand sledding is allowed only in designated areas of the park and with approved equipment. Visitors can purchase or rent plastic sleds at the park’s gift shop, but other types of sleds, including cardboard, are not permitted.

Q: Can I camp in the park?
A: As of June 2024, backcountry camping is currently closed due to rehabilitation of camping sites, and no reopening date has been determined. There is no car or RV camping within the park, but several campgrounds are available in the surrounding area.

Q: Is the park accessible for people with disabilities?
A: White Sands National Park is committed to providing access to all visitors, including those with disabilities. The visitor center, restrooms, and several picnic areas are fully accessible, and the Interdune Boardwalk trail offers a wheelchair-friendly route through the dunes.

Q: Are there any safety concerns to be aware of when visiting the park?
A: Visitors should be prepared for extreme temperatures and intense sun exposure, particularly during the summer months. It’s important to stay hydrated, wear sun protection, and avoid strenuous activity during the heat of the day.

Q: Can I bring my drone to the park?
A: Drones and other unmanned aircraft are not permitted in White Sands National Park without a special use permit. This policy is in place to protect the park’s wildlife, natural resources, and visitor experience.

By familiarizing yourself with these frequently asked questions and their answers, you’ll be well-prepared for your visit to White Sands National Park. Remember to always follow park regulations, practice Leave No Trace principles, and prioritize safety to ensure an enjoyable and memorable experience in this unique and beautiful landscape.

Final Thoughts on White Sands National Park

Sunset at White Sands National ParkWhite Sands National Park is a destination that will leave an indelible mark on the heart of any overlander or adventurer. This awe-inspiring landscape, with its rolling white dunes and vibrant wildlife, offers a chance to disconnect from the modern world and reconnect with the raw beauty of nature.

Whether you’re hiking through the otherworldly terrain, sand sledding down the steep slopes, stargazing under a blanket of stars, or simply taking in the breathtaking views, a visit to White Sands is an experience you’ll cherish for a lifetime. The park’s unique geology, ecology, and history make it a fascinating and educational destination for visitors of all ages and backgrounds.

As overlanders, we have the privilege of exploring some of the most remote and beautiful places on Earth, and White Sands National Park is no exception. This park offers a chance to test our skills, push our limits, and experience the thrill of adventure in a truly unforgettable setting.

But with that privilege comes the responsibility to protect and preserve these special places for future generations. By practicing Leave No Trace principles, following park regulations, and supporting conservation efforts, we can help ensure that White Sands remains a pristine and awe-inspiring destination for years to come.

So pack your gear, chart your course, and set out on an unforgettable journey to one of the most unique and captivating places on Earth. Whether you’re a seasoned overlander or a first-time visitor, White Sands National Park is sure to leave you in awe of the natural world and inspired to explore even more of the incredible landscapes that our planet has to offer.

As you journey through the park and beyond, remember to take moments to slow down, breathe deeply, and fully immerse yourself in the beauty and wonder of your surroundings. The memories you make and the experiences you have in places like White Sands will stay with you long after you’ve returned home, fueling your passion for adventure and your love of the great outdoors.

White Sands National Park awaits, ready to inspire and enchant all those who venture into its mesmerizing sea of white. So what are you waiting for?

Happy trails, overlanders! May your adventures in White Sands and beyond be filled with wonder, joy, and unforgettable experiences that will stay with you for a lifetime.

Have you visited White Sands National Park? If so, what did I miss in this overlander’s guide?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thanks for your input! It is greatly appreciated!

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland


Dark Sky Overland is an overland lifestyle brand that was created to support the various trips I take to National Parks and other designated Dark Sky Parks within the United States. It was also born out of a strong desire to simplify life after my wife of over 24 years passed away from a three year battle with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). You can learn more about my story at https://darkskyoverland.com/about/.

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

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