Rising from the glistening white sands of New Mexico along the San Andres mountains is America’s newest National Park, White Sands. These sands are made of gypsum, a soft mineral left by the ancient Permiari Sea thousands of years ago.
Here in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico, repeated freezing and thawing cycles over millennia have transformed this delicate mineral into luxurious white sand. The result? The creation of stunning, wave-like dunes encompassing 275 square miles of desert, making it the largest gypsum dune field on the planet.
As of December 2019, the government has made this great stretch of land into a National Park, thereby protecting this unique area and all of the plants and animals in it.
Images of White Sands inspired my road trip around New Mexico. After stops in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, and the Bisti Badlands, White Sands National Park was my last stop, and well worth the journey.
Places to Stay in Las Cruces
I stayed just one hour away from the park in Las Cruces, the most popular home base for exploring White Sands. The Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces has stylish Spanish colonial charm and offers a pool and restaurant. There are plenty of chain hotels in town, but for the most authentic local experience, this hotel has it.
If camping is more your style, there are first-come, first-served camping sites (only a handful of them) where you can camp right inside the park. But get there as early as possible, as they tend to be snatched up fast!
Where to Eat in Las Cruces
If you’re looking to grab coffee and breakfast on your way out to White Sands, head to Nessa’s Cafe. They have a drive thru window if you want to eat on the road, and delicious, healthy options like yogurt parfaits and gluten free quiche.
Cafe de Mesilla is another great option for breakfast and lunch, with a fun patio and charming adobe style building.
Stock up on snacks and healthy groceries at the Mountain View Market Co-op.
For dinner, head to D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro to try delicious local wines and a hearty meal after a long day of adventuring in the park.
If you’re in the mood for New Mexican, La Posta De Mesilla has amazing food and atmosphere, including parrots and piranhas set in an 18th century stagecoach station.
If you have some extra time to explore, there are numerous wineries, pecan farms, and other activites to enjoy in Las Cruces.
How to Get There
El Paso is the closest major airport, but many people also fly into Tucson or Albuquerque. I flew into Albuquerque and drove south after visiting the Northern part of the state, then flew back home out of El Paso.
From Tucson or El Paso: Take I-10 East to Las Cruces from Tucson, or I-10 West from El Paso.
From Las Cruces: Take Highway 70 East to the park.
From Albuquerque: Take I-25 South to Sorrento, then US-380 East to Alamogodo, then Highway 70 West to the park.
WHAT TO PACK
The weather can change quickly in New Mexico, it can go from intense sun to thunderstorms within an hour. The White Sands park and hiking area is large and unshaded, so you’ll want to bring layers, a brimmed hat with a neck strap so it doesn’t blow away, hiking or athletic shoes, flip flops also optional if you want to go barefoot sometimes, and sunglasses. Be sure to pack sunscreen, a snack and a full water bottle (or two!)
For optimal light and temperatures, start your hike early in the morning or a couple hours before sunset. You can also get some incredible views and photographs at night if you choose to camp out. Definitely bring warm clothes and a headlamp if you’re going out there in the dark!
Make sure your phone and camera is all charged up before you head out hiking, and it never hurts to bring a portable charger.
I brought the Nikon CoolPix B700 (all the shots in this post were taken with it) which is always a great go to for travel and outdoor shots. I especially like it for wildlife photography because the zoom is fantastic. If you’re looking to level up to a more professional camera I highly recommend the Canon EOS R Mirrorless Camera. (I didn’t own the Canon yet when I went on this trip or I would have taken both.) The mirrorless design makes the camera more lightweight, quiet, and durable than a traditional DSLR, and the picture quality is stunning!
THE HISTORY OF WHITE SANDS
Over millions of years, Lake Lucero dried up. Gypsum at the bottom of the lake was created faster than the water in the lake could dissolve it, so as the lake dried the gypsum remained. Wind erosion slowly broke down the gypsum into the fine selenite there today. White Sands Park is the largest gypsum dune field in the world!
Ice age mammals once lived around the lake, such as Columbian mammoths, ground sloths, camels, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats. You can see some amazing images and fossils at the park visitor center.
THINGS TO DO IN THE PARK
White Sands National Park is small, it’s only 16 miles roundtrip to drive the road to and from the visitor center. I stayed in Las Cruces for three nights and went to the park a few times, because I wanted to see it both in the morning and in the evening.
The trails are marked but don’t have clear pathways, and it can be easy to get disoriented out there, especially if you get overheated. However, I really had no problem exploring the park on my own. I was honestly really nervous going out there solo and it turned out to be super easy! My entire road trip around New Mexico was one of the best solo travel experiences I’ve ever had.
There’s a road through the park with places to park at each of the trail areas, and as long as you keep the road and cars within your vision you’ll be able to make it back fine. It does get very hot out there though so take a lot of rest breaks.
Sledding the Dunes!
All the fun of sledding without the cold. You can buy sleds at the visitors center, or bring your own from Walmart.
The Interdune Boardwalk
This 0.4 mile walkway is an amazing way to see the adaptive plants living in the park.
Dune Life Nature Trail and Playa Trail
These two trails are easy to follow with markers along the way, and are fantastic ways to explore the park.
Sunset on the Dunes
Don’t miss sunset at White Sands, it was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever experienced, check out the image above for proof! You can either hike out on your own to watch from the dunes, or go on a ranger-led Sunset stroll, where you’ll learn more about the history, geology, and creatures in the park while the sun goes down.
WILDLIFE IN THE PARK
You may be lucky enough to spot darkling beetles, roadrunners, whiptail lizards, and other small creatures during your hike in the park. It’s unlikely that you’ll see any of the park’s larger resident mammals, but they’re hiding out there somewhere! Some of the cool creatures living in the park are badgers, porcupines, kit foxes, and coyotes.
Stay on the lookout for rattlesnakes and other potentially dangerous critters, but you shouldn’t have any issues. I only saw beetles, some birds, and a lizard the entire time I was out there.
Be sure to pack out any food, trash and other items you bring into the area as well, to help protect the wildlife.
Know Before You Go
- Since the park is very near the White Sands Missile Range, occasionally they will block Highway 70 and close the park for a short time during testing. Check this website ahead of time for any closures, or call (575-479-6124).
- There is a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint just before you arrive at the park’s Visitor’s Center. They may not ask for your I.D. but it is still a good idea to have it with you when you arrive.
- During the summer, things can get quite hot! If you visit during this time, opt for arriving early in the morning, or later in the afternoon so you don’t melt! All of that brilliant white sand reflects a lot of light. Bring hats and plenty of sunscreen.
- Plan two days for visiting the park, to get the full experience. Or if you only have one day, go early in the morning, spend a couple of hours, then come back later in the day and catch that glorious sunset!
WHEN TO GO
White Sands National Park is open all year round. The best time to visit Southern New Mexico is between September and November. Springtime has a similar climate with similar hotel rates, but the festivals in Santa Fe make fall a more popular time to go. The spring can also be windy. Summer temps range between the 50s and upper 80s. However, Summer is the peak season, making hotel rates high and availability low. Winter can be chilly with highs reaching the upper 40s during the daytime and lows in the teens at night. I visited in June and the temperatures were getting to be pretty hot in the middle of the day but still tolerable.
Come explore the incredible beauty of this unique part of New Mexico and discover its rich geological history.