Top 10 Things to Do in White Sands National Park

by Jon D. B.
White Sands National Park. (Photo credit: Getty Images archives, Outsider)

There’s a whole lot more to White Sands than those white sands, making this New Mexico national park an unmissable adventure.

Here in the heart of the Tularosa Basin, great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand engulf 275 square miles of desert. It’s the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, and one of Earth’s great natural wonders. White Sands National Park preserves a major portion of New Mexico’s glistening white sands, alongside the plants and animals that live here.

Trails, history, and wonders abound within. So pack plenty of water, protect yourself from the desert sun, and get ready to explore the top 10 can’t-miss aspects of White Sands National Park.

10. Dune Life Nature Trail

This trail is great for everyone just make sure you are prepared with enough water.( Photo credit: WHSA, NPS Photo)
  • Length: One mile (1.6 km) loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trail marker color: Blue
  • Trail marker symbol: Clubs
  • Average Completion Time: 1 hour
  • Distance from Visitor Center: 2.5 miles (4 km)

As the park states, the Dune Life Nature Trail is full of life. This trail lets you explore the edge of the dunefield, giving visitors access to unique characteristics that are not found in the heart of the dunes.

While listed as moderate, this is a family-friendly trail, and one of the best ways to explore White Sands – especially for those interested in wildlife. The park has placed 14 trailside signs featuring Katie the Kit Fox, the Dune Life Nature Trail mascot, to teach about the animals living in the park.

Be sure to keep an eye out for the tracks of these animals in the sands, and you may spot kit foxes, badgers, birds, coyotes, rodents, and reptiles.

9. Ranger Tour: Lake Lucero

Selenite crystals at the lake can vary in size from small to on average one to two feet long (Photo credit: WHSA, NPS Photo)

Want to see one of the most unique natural wonders in America? Or know how the white sands of New Mexico formed? Lake Lucero is often referred to as the birthplace of the dunes, and this ranger-led tour explains why. Ranger-led access is also the only way to see it, making for a truly special experience.

With a park ranger, you’ll learn about the formation of these remarkable sands. The geologic story of White Sands National Park comes to life as you traverse a steep gully down to the lake bed, then walk by thousands of exposed selenite crystals (above). These unique geological wonders are critical to the formation of the gypsum sand, and create a landscape unlike anything else you’ll ever see.

Today, Lake Lucero is the largest playa* in the park, and only fills with water when there has been abundant rain or snow, though, so don’t worry about prepping for a true lake. To view tour times and further information ahead of your visit, click here.

8. Hike Playa Trail

The Playa Trail has green markers because it is our easiest trail to hike. (Photo credit: WHSA, NPS Photo)
  • Length: 0.5 mile (800m), round-trip
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trail marker color: Green
  • Trail marker symbol: Heart
  • Average Completion Time: 30 minutes
  • Distance from Visitor Center: 2.5 miles (4 km)
  • Restroom: No restroom facility is available

*A playa is a shallow depression or low-lying area that fills temporarily with rainwater from storms. And if you can’t make a Lake Lucero ranger tour – or simply want to see more of these amazing ecosystems – we recommend hiking Playa Trail.

For most of the year, a playa is a dry lakebed. But during monsoon storms, playas will refill with water, creating a beautiful, fascinating, and ever-changing ecosystem. Depending on the time of year you visit, White Sands National Park’s playas may be brown, white, filled with water, or growing crystals. You never know what it’ll look like until you get there!

Park Note: Please stay on the trail. Footprints destroy the vital biological soil crust.

7. Take a Sunset Stroll through White Sands National Park

USA, Southwest, New Mexico, Otero County, Alamogordo, White Sands National Park. (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The park’s Sunset Stroll is a leisurely, ranger-guided stroll through the gypsum sand dunes, and it’s one that lives up to its name. As the sun sets, these tours are timed to end with a providing a panoramic view of the sunset over the mountains and the potential for some breath-taking photographs.

As the park states, sunset strolls are a great way to end a day in White Sands. This leisurely one-hour, ranger-guided walk across sand dunes comes highly recommended, and will also teach you heaps about the geology, plants, and animals of this unique area.

Sunset Strolls are offered every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, except Christmas Day, at approximately one hour before sunset. To plan your ranger-led tour, click here.

6. Marvel at the Moon During a Full Moon Hike

“Have you ever wanted to hike the dunes under the magical glow of the full moon?”

This is another excursion that requires planning ahead, but the best opportunities often do. As the park cites, “This is your chance to enjoy the peace and serenity of this elusive environment and experience unique stories of the park,” all beneath the luminous glow of the full moon.

Moonlight reflecting off the white sands is an unreal experience. The glow becomes so intense on the gypsum, in fact, that your full shadow will appear on a clear night.

Full moon hikes are offered once a month, April through October, on the night before the full moon. To schedule your full moon hike, click here.

5. Interdune Boardwalk

Being a boardwalk above the sand, this trail is perfect for everyone. (Photo credit: WHSA, NPS)
  • Length 0.4 mile (650m), round-trip
  • Average Completion Time: 20 minutes
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Distance from fee station: 4.5 miles (7.2 km)

Thankfully, White Sands National Park offers plenty of excellent opportunities for casual visits. One of the best aspects of the park is the Interdune Boardwalk, an elevated boardwalk that leads you through the fragile interdune area to a scenic view of the dunefield and the Sacramento mountains.

This wheelchair-accessible boardwalk is the perfect excursion for the entire family, or anyone looking to see the most iconic aspects of the park without getting into the sand. Either way, there are 10 outdoor exhibits along the boardwalk that teach about the amazing science happening in White Sands National Park, the hardy wildlife etching out a living in this harsh desert, and the incredibly rare geological conditions that created and sustain the world’s largest gypsum dunefield.

As the park says, “This short walk may convince you that White Sands is the world’s greatest sandbox AND much more.”

4. White Sands Historic District & Visitor Center

You’ll begin your visit at White Sands National Park visitor center, but be sure to stick around and explore this historic structure and district. The visitor center itself is an excellent example of Spanish Pueblo-style adobe architecture, and makes for a brilliant introduction to this New Mexico gem.

The visitors center was built from 1936 to 1938 using readily-available, local materials. Here, you can obtain information on daily programs and browse the park store and gift shops, as is the national park norm. But it’s the native plant garden, interactive museum, park films, and historic structures that make this such a unique, unmissable experience.

3. White Sands’ Scenic Road: Dunes Drive

Dunes Drive is curvy in some areas so always use caution when driving and obey the speed limits. (Photo credit: WHSA, NPS photo)

If you’re a lover of scenic drives, you can’t miss White Sands’ Dunes Drive. One of the most unique drives in North America, Dunes Drive is an 8 mile (13 km) scenic drive that leads from the visitor center into the heart of the gypsum dunefield.

The ever-shifting nature of the sands means your drive will look as if you’re driving through the white dunes themselves. The first five miles of Dunes Drive are paved, and for the last three miles you will literally be driving on the sands atop a hard-packed gypsum sand road (suitable for cars, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, and buses).

A full drive is a 16-mile (26km) round-trip drive that takes approximately 45 minutes, but this scenery may have you wanting to plan additional time to explore and photograph the dunes. The park also offers outdoor exhibits, hiking trails, picnic areas, vault toilets, and parking areas alongside the drive.

2. Sledding the Dunes of White Sands National Park

Visitors sled the dunes of White Sands National Park. (Photo credit: WHSA, NPS photo)

Who knew there was a U.S. national park that allows you to sled down the largest gypsum sand dunes in the world? This is a New Mexico tradition, and one the park encourages visitors to partake in. So bring your own personal saucer, or rent/purchase one from the park visitor center, and get ready to have a blast sledding down dunes as tall as 60 feet.

The glistening, powdery gypsum sands behave like snow, making for excellent sledding down the slip face of dunes. To do so yourself, the park allows sledding in the loop portion of Dunes Drive, away from the road and where there is little or no vegetation.

Most sledding visitors use waxed, plastic snow-saucers, which can be purchased at the park gift shop. For more information on White Sands sledding, see our Top 10 Things to Know About White Sands National Park.

1. Hike Alkali Flat Trail

The Alkali Flat Trail offers the biggest dunes with little to no vegetation. (Photo credit: WHSA, NPS photo)
  • Length: 5 miles (8 km), round-trip
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Trail marker color: Red
  • Trail marker symbol: Diamond
  • Average Completion Time: 3 hours
  • Distance from visitor center: 7 miles (11.2 km)

If you’re hoping to tackle the full splendor of White Sands National Park, Alkali Flat Trail is the experience for you. The name is deceiving, however, as this is where you’ll see the largest sand dunes in the park – and the largest gypsum sand dunes on Earth.

Here, 60-foot white dunes tower over endless seas of sand. This is the place to soak in the full majesty of White Sands as you walk the sand itself through the heart of the park. As for the trail’s name, Alkali Flat is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero. This lake filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles, helping create the park lands as we know them today.

Please be aware that this is a strenuous hike with a total distance of five miles (8 km), round-trip. To travel it safely, follow the red trail markers with a diamond symbol through the heart of the expansive dunefield. Look carefully for the next trail marker before continuing. If you cannot see the next trail marker because of blowing sand or because the trail marker is knocked down, do not proceed. Instead, return to your car immediately.

Follow this advice and you’re in for one of the most remarkable hikes in any national park.

For more ahead of your excursion, see our Top 10 Things to Know About White Sands National Park: PHOTOS next.