New Mexico

The Adventurer’s Guide to White Sands National Monument

by Erin Maxson

white sands national monument guide
Photos: Erin Maxson

The Land of Enchantment? More like Sands of Enchantment.

With 275 miles of beautiful white dunes and little to no tourists, White Sands National Monument was made for true adventurers. 

Solitude, Mother Nature, and Adventure all meet here under the stars as they invite you to their secret club that most explorers won’t ever venture out to see.

Located just over the mountains of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and around the bend from White Sands Missile Range, you’ll find these dunes tucked away in the desert waiting for you.

So, where is White Sands?

Yikes — It’s In The Middle of Nowhere

If you haven’t looked it up yet, White Sands National Monument is over an hour in every direction from the nearest city or town, which often makes it a difficult or unworthy trek for some. 

Every time we talk about White Sands, someone always has to ask, “Why would you go out that far for a bunch of sand?”

And every time we’re asked that question, there’s no real answer that makes logical sense.

white sands backcountry

After you visit for the first time, you’ll find that the magic and wonder of White Sands will continue to pull on your heartstrings no matter where you are in the world.

And from what we know about adventurers, there’s always room for extra miles in our route if it means adventure, solitude, jaw-dropping scenery, and magical moments.

So, we’re giving you all the details you need to know before packing up your gear and heading out for an adventure in the world’s largest white sand dunes!

Why White Sands is So Cool, Literally

What most people don’t know about White Sands is that the sand stays cool all year round. According to Visit Las Cruces, the sand here is made from 98% pure gypsum, a mineral that doesn’t absorb heat, so you can walk on the dunes without burning your feet even if it’s 100 degrees outside.

This makes hiking, sliding, climbing, and rolling in the dunes bearable throughout the entire year.

And that’s science, friends.

Why Visit White Sands?

visit white sands new mexico
Photo: Jacob L.

Honestly, we would be here all day if we had to list off all the reasons to visit White Sands here in this guide, but we’ll sum it up for you.

White Sands is truly something you won’t find anywhere else in the world (don’t believe us, check this out). The sand alone is made out of a rare mineral that often finds itself washed away after hundreds of years.

But the love for White Sands doesn’t just come from the science or wildlife, it comes from seeing a sunset as you’ve never seen before out in the middle of one of the world’s most isolated and beautiful landscapes.

You fall in love with every star in the sky and find yourself running up and down the dunes, no matter how old you are.

The truth is that White Sands is the definition of The Land of Enchantment and it won’t let you forget it.

It’s time to hit the road.

What to Expect at White Sands

So you’ve made it to White Sands National Monument, now what? 

Check out the Visitors Center

Your first stop at White Sands should be the Visitors Center. Here, you’ll find everything you need to know about Ranger Programs, hiking and biking trails, and backcountry camping.

You’ll grab your backcountry camping permit and sand sled here before you hit the dunes. 

Ask About the Weather

Thankfully, White Sands is open year-round and doesn’t necessarily have a prime visiting time. You should keep in mind that the dunes are in the desert, so summer temperatures can be upwards of 100 degrees during the day and 40 degrees at night.

Rainy season at White Sands starts in July and ends around late September, so prepare for all types of weather when you pack up for this trip. Be sure to ask a Ranger or stop by the Visitors Center to check in with the latest weather reports.

Bring Your Own Water & Supplies

Water isn’t abundant at White Sands, so be sure to pack plenty of water for your stay out in the dunes. You should pack at least one gallon per person per day.

You’ll be about an hour away from any emergency services and food/water supplies, so be prepared to take care of yourself out there.

Pets are Welcome

white sands dog hikes

Unlike most other federally owned parks and monuments, pets are allowed to roam almost anywhere. Pets must be leashed at all times, but you can romp and play in the sand dunes with your pup as far as the eye can see.

Pet parents can rejoice in knowing that White Sands offers pet-friendly backcountry camping and Bark Ranger tags for pups at the Visitors Center, too! 

Missile Closures

When the nearby missile range plans for missile testing, the monument shuts down. The highway on either side of the mountain pass to get to White Sands National Monument will also be closed.

You could wait here for minutes or for hours, so it’s important to plan your trip around the missile launches to avoid wasting time.

Always check with the White Sands National Monument website to see if the monument and the surrounding highway are closed before you hit the road. You can also stay up to date by following them on Twitter or Facebook.

What to See & Do at White Sands

Check Out the Ranger Programs

White Sands offers some of the National Park Service’s best Ranger Programs including sunset and moonlight hikes, astronomy nights, and more.

Every year, hundreds of people turn out to enjoy these free programs at White Sands that many other federal parks and monuments don’t offer.

Check the White Sands Event Calendar to see if there are any upcoming events before planning your trip.

See the Park from All Angles

white sands sunset

Hiking, biking, sledding, picnicking, horseback riding, and camping are all allowed at White Sands.

Grab a sand sled at the Visitors Center or pitch a tent in the backcountry, no matter what you choose you have the option to experience the dunes in a new way each and every time.

Watch the sun go down over the Organ Mountains and see a sunset that will be instilled in your mind forever. Pink, purple, blue, and orange sweep the sky at night, setting the standard for all sunsets to come.

White Sands is the perfect place to learn sunset and night photography, so be sure to pack a camera.

Watch for Wildlife

Wildlife watching is abundant in the dunes, especially at night. White Sands is home to a unique variety of amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and insects.

Some insects and mammals, like the bleached earless lizard and the apache pocket mouse, have adapted their coloring to match the dunes to protect themselves from predators.

Bring your headlamp and wait for nightfall to watch the dunes come alive.

White Sands Backcountry Camping 101

white sands camping

If you haven’t been backcountry camping in White Sands, here’s why you should pack your gear and go right now:

  1. It’s most likely the least amount of hiking you will ever have to do in order to go backcountry camping
  2. It’s relatively easy to get a permit at the Visitors Center (no waiting in line or lottery draws)
  3. You’ll experience silence like you never have before
  4. Pets are allowed anywhere on the dunes, as long as they remain on a leash
  5. It’s downright beautiful

If you’ve never been camping in the backcountry, White Sands is the perfect place to start. You won’t hike more than three miles round trip to get to your campsite and you’ll most likely have the place almost entirely to yourself.

There are only 10 campsites inside the monument, so there are a few things to know before you get moving.

White Sands Backcountry Camping Cheat Sheet

  • There are only 10 campsites available every day.
  • You have to pick up camping permits inside the Visitors Center which are given out first come, first serve. Get there as early as possible. Permits are easier to obtain on weekdays.
  • Car camping and RV camping inside the park is not allowed. You must pitch a tent.
  • If you intend to stay multiple nights, you must trek back to the Visitors Center each day in order to get another permit.
  • Pets are allowed to camp with you but must remain on a leash.
  • Camping fees are less expensive if you have an annual National Park Pass!

Remember that you hike and camp at White Sands at your own risk. When temperatures rise above 85 degrees, it’s best to wait until the sun goes down before venturing out.

white sands tent camping

Always bring plenty of water and always, always have a good time.

Where to Stay Outside of White Sands

If you don’t feel like backcountry camping or arrived too late to get a permit, there are nearby campgrounds that you can check out.

The closest campsites are about half an hour away at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park near the Sacramento Mountains. Here you’ll find over 30 campsites for both RV and tent campers. You can reserve campsites online ahead of time, too.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Roughly 40 miles away from White Sands, you can find campsites at Aguirre Springs Recreation Area or Lincoln National Forest.

Aguirre Springs is tucked away at the base of the Organ Mountains and offers views of Tularosa Basin and White Sands from a distance. Lincoln National Forest offers RV camping, tent camping, and cabins for rent. All campgrounds in Lincoln National Forest are first come, first serve.

Experience the Magic of White Sands

The only way to experience the beauty, solitude, and adventure of White Sands is to go see it yourself. There are so many things to see and do there that you won’t be able to fit it all into one trip, guaranteed.

If you need a few measly hours of serious silence or want to experience a world-class sunset, White Sands National Monument has everything you need for your next adventure.

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