Want to travel somewhere that is incredibly peaceful, not filled with tourists and reminds you of how UNBELIEVABLE our world is?! The White Sands is one of those amazing destinations that will make you and your problems feel incredibly small. If I could’ve spent one more day there all I would want to do is find an isolated dune, plop down on a blanket and read a good book.
The White Sands National Monument is a protected area of sand dunes that is relatively small in comparison to the 275 miles of sand dunes (but trust me, it won’t feel small). The sand dunes are made of 98% pure gypsum, which are the cause of the bright white color.
What the heck is gypsum?! It is a natural mineral that is used in many things you use daily. From toothpaste to concrete to chalk, it is in more things than I can name! It is extremely rare and unique to have gypsum sand because it is water soluble (meaning it dissolves in water) and even more unique to have enough sand to form 275 miles worth of sand dunes!
The white sand is easy to walk on and remains cool to the touch regardless of how hot it is outside! So leave your shoes in the car and enjoy walking in the sand as if you’re at the beach!
In this guide, I divide it into sections to cover EVERYTHING you need to know before traveling to the White Sands! Including things to do in White Sands, where it is, when to go, where to stay, what to pack, and information on attending their annual Balloon Festival.
Where is the White Sands National Monument?
White Sands National Monument is located in southern New Mexico near the border of Texas and Mexico. To get there, you can either drive (but it’s kind of in the middle of no where and the drive is not scenic) or you can fly into the nearest airport, El Paso International Airport.
If you choose to fly into El Paso, you will still need to rent a car to drive to White Sands (like I said, it’s kind of in the middle of no where!). The drive from El Paso to White Sands is only 1.5 hours and is extremely easy, practically just one road.
El Paso is a surprisingly big city with a large airport! There are a lot of car rental companies to choose from, but I chose Enterprise. I believe their rates are always fair and their check in process is quick + easy! Click here to view rates and availability.
Best Time to Go
The best time to go to The White Sands is during fall or spring. The summer is unbearably hot and there is zero shade! One of the popular things to do in White Sands is hiking, but it is advised that you never begin a hike if the temperature is above 85 degrees (Fahrenheit). Meaning.. If you go to the White Sands in the summertime, you won’t be doing any of the hiking.
I traveled in the beginning of September for the annual White Sands Balloon Festival and the temperatures were perfect! If you want to see hot air balloons take off at the White Sands, I have a whole section at the bottom of this guide on tips for visiting during the Balloon Festival.
Hotels Near White Sands, New Mexico
If you are looking for a hotel near White Sands, there are two cities to choose from: Las Cruces and Alamogordo.
– Las Cruces –
Las Cruces is a larger city with more things to do and nicer hotel options. The only downside is it’s far from White Sands (50+ minute drive each way). If you are traveling to the White Sands for a short trip, you won’t want to waste time with unnecessary driving.
If you plan to stay for a few days, this will be the better option for you since there are more things to do other than just the White Sands. In Las Cruces, you can visit museums, go to the spa, wander around the university, and go hiking!
– Alamogordo –
Alamogordo is a VERY tiny town located next to the White Sands, only a 15-20 minute drive. This will be your best option if you are doing a short vacation to just see the White Sands.
Even though it is a small town, it will have everything you need! There are a decent amount of hotel options, convenience stores, restaurants and Starbucks! I mean.. is it even a town without a Starbucks!?
I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express and had a wonderful stay! They provide free water bottles, sand boards + wax to use for the White Sands, hot tub / pool, fitness center, free parking, and the rooms were extremely clean. I would highly recommend this hotel if you are planning a short vacation to see the White Sands!
What to pack for the White Sands National Monument?
I don’t want to bore you with exact clothing pieces, but I do recommend wearing something with bright colors like red or blue. If you take any far away pictures wearing a neutral color, you will look like sage brush, ha!
My top MUST HAVE items for traveling to the white sands are:
1. Camera… DUH!
One of the biggest reasons people travel to the White Sands is to photograph this amazing piece of nature! This place is seriously gorgeous! I would just remember to bring a camera strap so you never have to put your camera down in the sand. My go to camera for travel is this Canon Camera!
2. Sunblock packets
Guys. These are so underrated. I take these babies on every single vacation with me and recommend these on literally every post! They are as tiny as a ketchup packet and can fit in your bag or pocket. I buy a box of amazon and they last me forever! You can check them out here!
A cute blanket takes your photos to the next level and give you a place to sit and enjoy the beautiful views without getting sand all over you. I got my pink blanket as a freebie with a purchase from Victoria secret, but this one from Amazon is super cute as well!
It is unexpectedly windy in the White Sands, but that is why they are so beautiful and not covered in footsteps constantly! I would definitely bring sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sand and from the sun bouncing off the white ground. I always take a super cheap pair of sunglasses with me on every vacation because I don’t care if they get scratched or lost, here is a pair I have!
5. Light Jacket
Like I mentioned before, the weather is unpredictable in The White Sands. It was fairly windy when I went and when the wind would pick up, the sand would hurt my arms and legs. It was also very cold in the morning when I went for sunrise. I would highly recommend a light jacket that you could easily throw into your backpack like this one!
White Sands Hours + Fees
I found the opening hours confusing on The White Sands website, so I thought I would go in more detail with a full section.
There are two different hours: Monument Gates and Visitor Center. The Visitor center hours are irrelevant unless you want to buy/rent sand boards or sign up for a hiking tour. I originally thought you had to buy the park pass at the visitor center, but you can also buy them at the Monument Gates. If you want to visit the visitor center, they are open from 9am-5pm daily.
The Monument Gates to Dunes Drive (which is the road that take you through the park) opens at 7am daily and closes at different times depending on the time of the year. “The Visitors Must Enter Before” column is the last time you are able to enter the park and buy a pass from the gate. “The Visitors Must Exit Before” is the time everyone needs to be out of the park unless you want to be locked in until 7am the next morning! The chart below is pulled from their website:
**White Sands will close unexpectedly due to missile testing at the nearby military base. It is usually only for an hour or two, so you might just have to grab a coffee and wait for the gates to open back up**
The fee to get into the White Sands National Monument is $10 per person or $20 per car (whichever is cheaper). This pass is good for 24 hours, so if you plan to make a few trips to the sand dunes during your stay, make sure you keep the receipt!
White Sands Camping
Did you know that you can camp in these magical sand dunes? Imagine waking up with the sun and getting to explore the sand dunes without a single tourist in sight.
If camping interests you, keep in mind it is VERY limited and is on a first come first serve basis with no advance reservations. To snag a $3.00 camping pass, head to the visitor center as early as possible (9am) because they only give out ten per day.
The White Sands does not allow RV or van camping, so be prepared to hike over a mile through the sand dunes to the tent site. Click here for all the information you need for Camping in the White Sands.
White Sands Sledding
One of the highlights of my trip to the White Sands was sand board racing down the dunes! Sand Sledding is the most popular excursion to do in the White Sands and you will see everyone bringing one into the park.
When I went for the Hot Air Balloon festival, there were significantly more tourists and locals at the park. Even though I hate crowded places (especially over-touristy spots), the White Sands are so big that you never feel too crowded. Everyone grabbed their sand sled and raced from the top of the hill!
You can buy sand sleds at many of the nearby stores or you can buy one from the White Sands visitor center for roughly $18.00 per sled. You can return the sleds to the gift store for a few bucks, but I think this is extremely overpriced. If you have the time, I would definitely look around at either the Walgreens or Walmart in Alamogordo before going. AND DON’T FORGET THE WAX!
TIP: Ask your hotel if they have sleds and wax! The hotel I stayed at provided free sand sleds and wax to borrow for the day.
Hiking in White Sands
There are many hiking trails within the park that are clearly named. Once you drive along dunes drive, you will see parking areas and signs labeling the trails. I will list them from closest to farthest from the visitor center:
1. Interdune Boardwalk
Interdune boardwalk is exactly how it sounds… a flat boardwalk that is a scenic walk through the dunes. It only takes 20 minutes or less to complete the 0.4 mile trail. This is the most popular trail because it is a quick and easy to do with children, so expect some crowds! Click here for more information on the Interdune Boardwalk.
2. Playa Trail
Playa Trail is another flat and easy trail that is only 0.5 miles round trip. If you want to learn more about The White Sands, they have outdoor exhibits along the trail so you have the opportunity to learn while you hike. You should be out and back in less than 30 minutes. Click here for more information on the Playa Trail.
3. Dune Life Nature Trail
The Dune Life Nature Trail is very close to the entrance of the Playa Trail, so these could easily be done in one day. This 1 mile trail will take you through the greener area of the the dunes to see the plant life that grows in this wild conditions. Slightly more difficult than the Playa trail & Interdune Boardwalk, it shouldn’t take you longer than an hour to complete. Click here for more information on the Dune Life Nature Trail.
4. Back Country Camping Trail
No, you don’t have to camp to walk along this picturesque trail! This will be a similar trail to the Alkali Flat trail, but not as long and strenuous. People like to do this hike to explore the dunes without being stuck for multiple hours! This 2 mile hike shouldn’t take you longer than 1.5 hours to complete. Click here for more information on the Back Country Camping Trail.
5. Alkali Flat Trail
If you are looking for a challenge, Alkali Flat Trail will be your go-to! This will be the longest and hardest trail by far, and don’t let the name fool you because this trail is not flat. You will hike 5 miles through the dunes, taking roughly 3 hours to complete. This trail will give you the best views and least amount of people, so I would give yourself an extra hour to stop and take photos. It is recommended to not do this trail if it is above 85 degrees Fahrenheit! Click here for more information on the Alkali Flat Trail.
The White Sands is a photographers dream! I seriously felt like a little kid at Disneyland when I was photographing the dunes. It’s SO easy to take beautiful pictures of something SO beautiful! There are some tips to get amazing shots though, let me explain them in detail:
- Don’t plan to take pictures in the middle of the day because you won’t have shadows on the dunes. If you photograph when there are no shadows on the dunes, the landscape will look completely flat.
- Sunrise and Sunset are going to be the best time for lighting, BUT I truly don’t think it is necessary to photograph at these times. I believe as long as you went early in the morning (at or before 9am), you will still get nice shadows on the dunes.
- Hike a few dunes in to avoid people in your shot. It is extremely easy to photograph the dunes without people because it is HUGE. If there are a ton of people in your shot, just walk a few dunes in and you’re good to go!
- Get the sagebrush in your shot to create depth of field. While the sagebrush isn’t the most beautiful thing, it really brings depth to a photograph, especially the far away shots.
- Stand on a tall dune to get the layers of dunes in your background. My favorite shots where of the ripples and layers of sand dunes in my backdrop. It makes it look like your in a field of dunes instead of just laying on white sand.
- Change of your perspective! You have opportunity to get multiple shots that look COMPLETELY different from each other. Take on far away, up close, at the top of the dune looking down, at the bottom of the dune looking up, and so much more!
- Be careful to not get sand in your camera. Make sure you bring a bag to stick your camera in just in case it gets windy. The dunes happen to be very windy, but that is why you get the beautiful wind ripples on the sand!
- Use the sand as your prop! If you’re anything like me, I never know what to do with my hands. Playing with the sand in your shot brings movement to your photo and helps you not feel so awkward!
White Sands Balloon Festival
Are you thinking about seeing the White Sands during their annual Hot Air Balloon Festival in September? In the first or second week of September, Alamogordo hosts their White Sands Balloon Festival for a two day event.
On day one, they host a music, food and beer festival at the Balloon Park in Alamogordo. The festival runs all day and they do a balloon “glow show” at 7pm after the sun sets.
TIP: Make sure you bring cash because most food trucks and beer stands don’t accept credit card!
The following morning, there will be a full balloon launch at the White Sands National Monument at 7am. The park will open up 1 hour early at 6am (normally opens at 7am) so you have enough time to park, hike the dunes and watch the balloons take off.
Some important things to note if you are going to the White Sands Balloon Festival:
- Even though the monument gates open at 6am for the festival, people begin to line up at 4:30am-5am. There is limited parking inside the park, so people line up long before the gates open to ensure they get a spot close to the balloon launch. I got there at 5:30am and I felt that was the perfect time! I wouldn’t get there any later than 5:45am though because about 10 minutes after I arrived, there were cars piling up on the highway waiting to turn into the monument.
- When you buy a pass to the park, it is good for 24 hours. Keep the receipt and just waive it to the park ranger when you drive through the gates. Again, the pass is $10 per person or $20 per car, whichever is cheaper.
- Bring water and snacks to the festival! The event is 3 hours long, but most people are arriving at least an hour early and there is no where to buy food or water at the festival. Many people brought lawn chairs, coolers and umbrellas and hung out on the dunes long after the balloon festival ended.
- Once the Balloon festival ends, it takes a while to get everyone out of the park. It took me about an hour to get from my parking space to the exit of the park…. and it should’ve only been 10 minutes! Plan to either stay long after the balloon festival ends, leave before it ends, or suck it up and wait in the long line to get out.
That’s a wrap! This overly-detailed guide should be everything you need to know before traveling to the White Sands National Monument + extra resources for further reading. I felt there was not much information online about traveling to the White Sands, and this guide answers a lot of the questions I had before traveling there. I hope you have a wonderful time! 🙂
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