What was once White Sands National Monument, has been upgraded to White Sands National Park. If beauty is a metric in this decision, then it was well deserved!
I have been to nearly every National Park in the country and when it comes to landscape photography, few enchant me more than the glittering White Sands. There is no one “iconic shot” or “must-see viewpoint”. Rather, the joy is in just getting (proverbially) lost in the dunes. There is no one vista with a sign indicating the perfect place for visitors to stand to get the perfect Instagram photo. Instead, visitors and photographers will find inspiration in the natural artistry nature has put on display everywhere they look.
While this comprehensive guide focuses on the need-to-know facts for visiting White Sands National Park, I have also created this guide to photographing White Sands that explains what I looked for in compositions and how the different times of day truly impact the photos.
Bring a sand sled, a camera, and your parks pass and prepare for an unforgettable visit.
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Quick Facts About White Sands National Park
- Location: New Mexico, USA
- Established: December 20, 2019 (designated a National Monument January 18, 1933)
- Size: 145,762 acres (589.9 km²)
- Annual Visitors: 415,383 (2020), 608,785 (2019)
- Visitor Centers: White Sands Visitor Center (year-round)
- Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle; $20 per motorcycle; $15 per individual; $80 Interagency Annual Pass
Map of White Sands National Park
Below is the official White Sands park map. You can find a downloadable version of this map and others for White Sands on the NPS website.
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White Sands National Park Trails
The vast majority of White Sands National Park is located along a 7-mile stretch of road aptly named Dunes Drive. Located at the entrance is the visitor center, with the entry gates just beyond that.
Along this stretch are a few short trails and one long one, all of which will be covered here. However, do not feel relegated to these! The best thing to do in White Sands NP is to simply start wandering the dunes in the early evening, as the shadow play begins, and let the intricate textures, shapes, and colors beckon you.
Dune Life Nature Trail
This short 1-mile loop is lined with informational displays that teach visitors about the insects and animals that call White Sands home. While I did not find myself taking many photos, I absolutely loved learning about the variety of life that has adapted to desert living.
Nature can be brutal, especially in the desert! Be sure to include this 15-20 minute walk on your itinerary!
Walk approximately a quarter-mile around what used to be, and occasionally becomes, a small lake in the dunes. Much like the Dune Life Nature Trail, this trail is more about learning and less about doing. It is relatively unimpressive, but visitors interested in the origins of White Sands will be fascinated by how the region was formed.
From a photography perspective, I have to imagine there would only be some interest if you were lucky enough to get some rain to fill up the lake.
Don’t feel like getting your shoes filled with sand, or have physical mobility limitations? If so, the Interdune Boardwalk will be your best option.
An elevated walkway allows you to walk about a half mile into the dunes and learn about the landscape all around you.
Unless you are unable to walk amongst the dunes physically, there is not much to be seen here. I found a display on identifying the desert tracks of various animals interesting, but was otherwise underwhelmed.
Alkali Flat Trail
The 5-mile Alkali Flat Trail loop is the best place to hike in White Sands National Park to appreciate the rolling dunes. The winds that blow in off the San Andres Mountain Range form beautiful, sweeping dunes that erase all signs of human existence consistently. For this reason, it is also important that you either stay near the trail markers or have some kind of GPS/compass to navigate you back.
If you were to begin walking the Alkali Flat Trail and continue straight on past the dunes, you will eventually land at an open expanse fronting the mountains. Expect heavy winds to whip plenty of gypsum your way, and prepare accordingly.
Backcountry Camping Trail Loop
Similar to the Alkali Flat Trail discussed above, the Backcountry Trail Loop is a shorter 2.2 mile journey that takes you around some of the larger dunes in White Sands NP. If you wish to continue into the dunes and camp overnight, you are required to obtain a permit first.
Sunset Stroll Meeting Area
When it is being offered, you can sign up for a ranger-guided tour to enjoy sunset from the dunes and learn about White Sands.
This section of the dunes is more easily traversed to accommodate people of a variety of ages and physical ability. If you are healthy and interested in photography, I strongly recommend continuing past this point to the large, unsigned parking lot on the left located a few hundred feet further.
There are no trails or signs here, but this section of dunes is incredible and offers amazing compositions facing west for sunset.
Lake Lucero Tour
Plan accordingly if you would like to see Lake Lucero, as tours must be arranged through the NPS, access is challenging, and tours and are only offered once per month in January, February, March, April, November, and December. Tours can also be cancelled, so check the latest availability.
Visit the White Sands government website to learn more and make reservations for the Lake Lucero tour.
This was not available during my visits due to Covid restrictions.
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Best Things to Do in White Sands NP
Honestly, the best thing to do in White Sands NP is to simply walk the dunes, particularly from early-evening through blue hour (and under moonlight when permitted). It is amazing to watch and appreciate the way the textures, tones, and desert life all come to life in varying ways as day turns to night.
Beyond that, however, are some other favorite activities for visitors.
Many people come to White Sands National Park just for the sand sledding! Bring your own, or buy one for $15 at the visitor center.
The “sand” here is actually gypsum, and is as soft as fresh snow. Find yourself a nice, steep dune and drop in for a thrill ride!
Watch (and photograph) the sunset
Without question, golden hour and sunset is the best time to be in White Sands. The sun will descend behind the distant San Andres mountains, creating incredible light and shadow play within the dunes. Look for the ripples and textures to become accentuated.
The dunes are shaped by the incoming winds from the west. As a result, easterly views are not as dramatic as facing west, making sunset the clear favorite over sunrise here.
Visit Lake Lucero
As discussed above, Lake Lucero can only be seen via a ranger-guided tour once per month. It is an incredible landscape, but requires some planning to witness.
If you would like to visit, be sure to read all about the requirements and restrictions, and make your reservations well ahead of time at the White Sands NPS website.
Be warned, no photography or videography is allowed here!
Planning Your Visit to White Sands NP
The following section includes all relevant, non-park information to help you plan a fun and successful visit to White Sands National Park.
When to Visit White Sands National Park
The best time to visit White Sands National Park is in the spring, particularly late-April and early-May. This time of year, visitors will see the desert wildflowers in full bloom, and the spring sunsets tend to be incredible.
While the park can be busy, it is certainly quieter than during peak season, and the temperatures tend to be moderate, even pleasant.
As for the best time of day to visit White Sands, this is undoubtedly during the evening hours into sunset. The colors and textures and landscapes all transform during this time and are truly special!
How Many Days to Spend in White Sands NP
You would only need a couple hours to see White Sand NP. Even if you were to do all the trails, a half day would probably suffice. However, the park changes form dramatically as day turns to night.
Landscape photographers in particular will want to make sure they allow themselves at least the latter half of a day to capture the park as the colors change. The famously white sand will begin to reflect the color of the sky, shadows will deepen, and the experience will change drastically.
When possible, be sure to stay after dark to watch it change further! Park hours vary so this is not always an option. When it is, however, the white sand reflects lunar light magically and the experience changes all over again.
How to Get to White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is located within the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, approximately 3.5 hours from Albuquerque, NM, and 1.5 hours from El Paso, TX. There is no public transport to get here, so the only way into White Sands NP is to drive. You will be driving on sand through the Dunes Drive, but it is not problematic.
Gas and Supplies
The closest town to White Sands NP is Alamogordo, located about 13 miles northeast of the park.
Alamogordo had the cheapest gas prices I saw during my road trip through New Mexico!
In addition to cheap fuel, this smallish city has everything you need and expect in a city. You will find every chain restaurant and department store, camping, RV parks, as well as plenty of local eats.
Where to Stay in White Sands National Park
As the park is so small, there is no accommodation available. There is often backcountry camping by permit, but even this is not guaranteed.
If you want an indoor option for accommodation near White Sands National Park, all of your options will be in Alamogordo about 13 miles up the road. Expect all of your typical options, such as Holiday Inns, Hamptons, etc.
If you are able to get a backcountry permit, primitive tent camping is permitted in White Sands National Park. There are 10 backcountry campsites that require a 1-mile hike to get to. It is not possible to reserve your site in advance. Permits must be obtained in person at the Entrance Booth on Dunes Drive and will only be issued between 7:00am until 5:00pm. You will be allocated a specific campsite when you’re given your permit.
Find out more about backcountry camping at the White Sands NPS website.
RV / Campervan Camping near White Sands NP
You are not allowed to park overnight at the visitor center or within White Sands National Park. If you do not need hook-ups, however, there is a large pull off with a vault toilet located less than a hundred yards west of the park entrance. This is a popular spot for truckers to pull off on a long haul, so expect a bit of in-and-out traffic. The toilet was cleaner than the one at the visitor center though and enables you to stay nearby.
If you are in an RV and require hook-ups, Alamogordo has your nearest options.
Where to Eat in White Sands NP
The only place to get food within the park is at the White Sands Trading Gift Shop, located at the visitor center. Expect to find the same basic options as you would at most gas stations, such as hot coffee, burritos, sandwiches, and various snacks and beverages.
Where to Eat near White Sands NP
Again, the closest place to find a true restaurant is in Alamogordo 13 miles up the road. In town, you will find everything from typical fast food and chain options to local favorites.
For what it’s worth, I really loved my no-frills meal at the conveniently located Fatwood BBQ. It wasn’t the best BBQ I’ve had in the south, but it was great for the price and I loved their sauces.
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Packing for White Sands National Park
While your individual packing list will vary depending on the type of vacation you intend to have, there are a few essentials that you will want to consider taking with you to White Sands National Park.
America the Beautiful Annual Pass
The annual national park pass costs $80 and provides access to all 63 national parks in the US. Additionally, it grants admission to over 2000 federal recreation sites! Discounted passes are offered to some groups, including seniors, military personnel, and 4th graders. Check the NPS website for up-to-date information and to purchase your pass.
White Sands is one of the most photogenic national parks in the US – so don’t forget your camera! We use the Sony a7riii and have loved it ever since the first photo we took with it. However, for beginners, you may wish to consider an entry level DSLR. This will allow you to start learning manual settings and decide whether photography is something you enjoy enough to invest in.
Bring a sunhat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. You will be completely exposed out on the sand dunes so make sure you have adequate protection from the sun. We use Stream 2 Sea sunscreen as it’s eco-friendly and most of their bottles are made from sugarcane resin rather than plastic.
Being a desert climate, the temperatures can vary by 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. In the summer, temperatures can reach over 100°F (38°c) and in the winter overnight temperatures can drop below freezing.
With this in mind, you’ll want to pack layers of clothing. A wind and waterproof jacket is also likely to come in handy. I love my Columbia jacket as it’s comprised of two layers. This allows me to just wear the outer waterproof/windproof shell, inner insulated layer or combination of both, depending on the weather.
Reusable Water Bottle
We don’t travel anywhere without a reusable water bottle. Remaining hydrated is even more important in the desert. Bring your own bottle to prevent wasting single-use plastic bottles! Water is available at the visitor center but there is none available out in the dunes. Make sure you pack plenty with you.
It’s likely you’ll be using your phone to navigate, take photos, and more! Bring a power pack with you to keep your phone charged on the go.
You’ll want a backpack that’s comfortable and sturdy to carry around during the day. I use the GoGroove camera backpack as it also provides easy side access to my camera while out and about.
Mini First Aid Kit
When out hiking, we always have a mini first aid kit in our bag just in case. You never know when it may come in handy (particularly as I’m clumsy)!
Useful Tips for Visiting White Sands NP
- Bring a GPS if you plan on exploring off-trail: It is a ton of fun to just walk amongst the dunes, but be sure you have a device or compass to navigate you back as the winds will erase your footprints!
- Bring a sled: Even if you don’t think you’d bother sledding the dunes, you may find yourself wishing you had the option. Save yourself $15 and bring a sled, just in case!
- Plan ahead: It can get very hot, very bright, and VERY windy. Be sure you’ve packed sunscreen and sunglasses to keep both the light and sand out of your eyes. If you are planning on visiting Lake Lucero or want to camp overnight, you will definitely need to make your reservations first!
- Arrive late day: Usually, I recommend arriving early for cooler temperatures and smaller crowds, but the best views at White Sands face west. The park is very small so you will not need all day anyway! Instead, arrive 3-4 hours before sunset so you can get acquainted, then start your explorations through the dunes as the temperatures cool and the sun sets.
- It gets hot: The dry desert heat can quickly cause dehydration and the sun can be intense. Make sure you carry plenty of water and sunscreen.
Fun Facts About White Sands National Park
- The White Sands dune-field is less than 10,000 years old.
- The “sand” here is not made of silica, like most inland sand, but rather of gypsum.
- Unlike silica formed sand, the gypsum sand does not absorb heat from the sun and therefore remains cool to the touch and comfortable to walk on even in the heat.
- The highest dunes are approximately 60ft (18m) high.
- White Sands is home to the world’s largest gypsum dune-field, it is so large that is can be seen from space.
- The dune-field has about 4.5 billion tons of gypsum sand. This is enough to fill 45 million boxcars, which would make a train long enough to wrap around the earth at the equator over 25 times!
- When filled with water, Lake Lucero covers approximately 10 square miles (16 sq. km) at a depth of two or three feet.
- There are over 300 plants, 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, 7 amphibians, and 1 fish species in White Sands National Park.
- There are at least 45 endemic species, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. These include the Apache pocket mouse, White Sands wood rat, bleached earless lizard, two camel crickets, and 40 species of moths.
- Conversely, you can also find the non-native African Oryx, a species of antelope from East Africa. They were imported from the Kalahari Desert and set free between 1969 and 1977. There are now over 3000 Oryx in the park.
- There are even signs of ancient life, thousands of prints have been found from dire wolf, saber tooth cat, mammoth, giant camel, and ground sloth.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is White Sands National Park worth visiting?
If you are into landscape photography or natural features, White Sands National Park is 100% worth it! While it is small and not particularly diverse, it is is still one of the most photogenic and unique places I have ever visited. You probably won’t need as much time here as, say, Yosemite or Yellowstone, but I consider White Sands NP one of those bucket list destinations for anyone exploring the US.
Do you need tickets for White Sands National Park?
You do not need to book a ticket in advance, but you will need to pay an entrance fee. The White Sands entrance fee costs $25 per vehicle, $20 per motorcycle or $15 per person. These entrance fees are valid for entry for seven consecutive days from the date of purchase. You can also use an Interagency Annual Pass if you have one.
The NPS also offers free National Park admission on certain days throughout the year. Find out more on the NPS website.
Why is White Sands famous?
White Sands is famous for the glistening white gypsum sand dunes in the heart of the Tularosa Basin. Encompassing an enormous 275 sq mi (710 km2), the dune field is the biggest of its kind in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What do you wear to White Sands?
The temperature can vary greatly throughout the day so layer up! Long sleeves, pants, hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are recommended to protect you from the sun, both from direct exposure and reflecting from the sand.
The gypsum sand is very fine and will likely get into your shoes. Hiking sandals, or even barefoot, may be more comfortable! The gypsum sand reflects heat from the sun so usually doesn’t get too hot to walk on throughout the day. Otherwise, be prepared to empty lots of sand from your shoes along the way!
What animals live in White Sands?
There are many animals that call White Sands National Park home. These include 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, 7 amphibians, and 1 fish species. There are also over 45 endemic species that live nowhere else in the world, including the Apache pocket mouse, White Sands wood rate, bleached earless lizard, two camel crickets and 40 species of moth! In contrast, you may also encounter non-native African Oryx in the park, originating from East Africa.
Some of the mammals that live in White Sands include coyotes, foxes, bobcats, rabbits, badgers, porcupines and rodents.
Can you take sand from White Sands?
No, it is illegal to take sand or any other item from White Sands or any other National Park. Please help preserve the park by leaving all natural and cultural resources as you find them.
Can dogs go to White Sands?
Yes! Furry friends are allowed to visit White Sands as long as they are kept on a leash no longer than 6 feet (2m) and are under physical control at all times. Of course, you are also expected to pick up after your pet and ensure they are non-disruptive to wildlife and other visitors.
Related Guides to White Sands National Park
If you enjoyed the photos and writing in this guide and are planning on visiting other nearby National Parks, you may also find some of the following resources helpful:
- White Sands Photography: How to Capture Incredible Photos at White Sands NP
- Chiricahua National Monument Guide: A guide to the Wonderland of Rocks
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park: EVERYTHING You Need to Know
- Ultimate Guide to Sitting Bull Falls
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park: The Ultimate Guide
- Ultimate Guide to Big Bend National Park
- Big Bend National Park Pictures: A Guide to Photographing Big Bend
Finally, feel free to browse our White Sands professional photography gallery for prints and inspiration ?
Final thoughts on White Sands National Park
Hopefully the photos throughout this guide have showcased why I am so in love with White Sands National Park! This small but incredible treasure is one of the most unique landscapes I have ever visited, and somewhere I cannot wait to return to for some night photography.
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