White Sands National Park, New Mexico: The Beach Without Water

white sands np - new mexico sand dunes

If you love the beach but dislike all that pesky water, then White Sands National Park in New Mexico is for you!

White Sands NP is located in southern New Mexico. All the sand is white gypsum sand, which is rarely found on the earth’s surface because it dissolves in water. But it rarely rains here; hence, the dunes stay intact.

At the welcome center, they’ll make it very clear that there is no water available anywhere on the premises. You have to carry in your own water. And don’t you dare forget, because it’s super hot here.

Curious about this national park? Read on for White Sands photos, activities, and frequently asked questions.

White Sands National Park: Here’s What You’ll See

The welcome center is the last sight of color for quite a while. Look at this cool little orange structure.

white sands welcome center
The visitor center at White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

The conditions are rough. With no water and almost no shade, even Bear Grylls wouldn’t last more than a couple days here.

There are a few scattered plants and some shrubbery in the area.

white sands shrubbery

And I managed to find a few amazing flowers.

white sands flowers

You can even see a few lonely trees, who somehow survive by having roots that burrow way down to soil that contains some moisture. This is what a forest looks like in White Sands:

white sands new mexico forest

So, nature is pretty much non-existent, though you can keep an eye out for a couple of select creatures, like the bleached earless lizard, which has evolved to become white (with a green tail.)

I spotted one hidden among some dead branches. Can you spot the tail in this photo?

bleached earless lizard - new mexico white sands

You should wear swim trunks when you visit the park, because, just like the beach, you’ll be shaking sand out of your clothes for days. Or maybe it’s just because I did cartwheels and played in the sand.

One of the suggested activities here for kids is sledding down the sand dunes as if they’re made of snow. We tried that and it didn’t work so well. But we didn’t have a proper sled. You can bring your own or get one from the visitor center.

White Sands National Park is a strange place. Which makes it fun, in my book.

White Sands: Transition From National Monument to National Park

On December 20, 2019, White Sands became the 62nd national park in America. It had previously been a National Monument since its original designation in 1933.

new mexico national park

In a public statement, White Sands Superintendent Marie Sauter said, “Our staff are very excited for White Sands to be recognized as a national park and to reintroduce ourselves to the American public.”

White Sands is the second national park in the state of New Mexico, following Carlsbad Caverns. The two parks are about a 3-hour drive apart.

What are some other things to do at White Sands National Park? You can try hiking (don’t hike if your visit comes during hot summer weather), you can take your vehicle down Dunes Drive, go on a horse ride, bicycle through the park, or even go backcountry camping out in the middle of the dunes. Cool!

What is the best time to visit White Sands National Park?

Generally speaking, the climate at White Sands results in hot summers and very cold winters.

The best time to visit White Sands National Park is spring or fall. During these times, temperatures are milder and more comfortable.

During the spring, White Sands is pretty busy. The weather is pleasant, averaging around 75°F. Additionally, the yuccas bloom around April, adding a nice pop of color to the landscape.

Be sure to pick a day without strong winds. Complete white-out conditions from windstorms are common in the area around spring!

During the summer, temperatures routinely exceed 95°F, so it’s best to avoid visiting during this time. You can make a summer visit, but it will likely be too uncomfortable to do any long hikes or spend a lot of time in the dunes.

If you plan on visiting during the summer, maybe skip hiking and go for a drive instead.

Having your car nearby will also come in handy if a thunderstorm hits. Yup, July through September is monsoon season, and thunderstorms can hit the area in a blink.

During the fall, high temperatures are around 80°F, and the days are usually sunny with only light winds. Perfect for sledding!

Granted, the wild blooms won’t be as rich as the spring and summer. However, the Cottonwoods should be changing color (to a beautiful orange hue) by late October.

During the winter, crowds are much smaller, but the weather can be unpredictable and it can get very cold. The daytime temperatures in the winter average 60°F.

But there are a few things to keep in mind before planning a winter trip:

  • Unexpected Closures: There’s always a chance that the park will close due to extreme weather conditions. You’ll have to keep an eye on the park’s Facebook page for updates.
  • Sun Exposure: Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can skimp on the sunscreen. There’s still a risk of getting a nasty sunburn.
  • Appropriate Clothing: Temperatures can drop drastically, especially after sunset, so bring layers.

Basics About Visiting and FAQs About White Sands NP

What are the park hours?

One of the most common questions is about park hours. White Sands National Park is open every day at 7:00 am. Its closing hour changes depending on time of year. During summer, the park stays open until 9:00 pm.

In spring and fall, closing time is 8:00 pm. In winter, it closes at 6:00 pm or 7:00 pm. See the park’s visiting hours page.

Do you need a reservation for White Sands?

No. While some other national parks have instituted reservation systems due to overcrowding, White Sands NP does not require reservations to visit the park.

However, if you’re planning to visit during peak season, it’s a good idea to arrive early to avoid crowds and secure a parking spot.

Note that if you plan on camping overnight, you will need to make a reservation in advance.

When is the visitor center open?

This park only has one visitor center. The White Sands Visitor Center is open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm everyday.

What is the entrance fee?

The entrance fee for White Sands National Park is $25 per vehicle, $20 per motorcycle, and $15 per person for visitors arriving on foot or bicycle.

The fee is valid for seven days, so you can visit for several days in a row if you like. Annual passes are also available for $45.

How do you get there by car?

The park is located off of US Highway 70, approximately 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Once inside the park, check out the Dunes Drive, an 8-mile scenic drive through the heart of the park. It’s a one-way loop road, so plan accordingly.

What’s the closest airport to White Sands National Park?

If you’re flying, the closest airport is the El Paso International Airport, which is approximately 85 miles southwest of the park. From the airport, you can rent a car and drive to the park.

Which hiking trails are available?

This is not really a hiking park, but White Sands does have some trails that range from easy to moderate. The Interdune Boardwalk Trail is a great option for those who want an easy walk with good views of the dunes.

The Alkali Flat Trail is a more challenging hike through the heart of the dunes. Make sure to bring plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes.

What plants and animals live in White Sands?

White Sands National Park has a diverse group of plants and animals that are perfectly situated for to the desert environment.

White Sands National Park is home to several endemic species, which means they are found nowhere else in the world.

One of the most famous is the White Sands pupfish, which lives in the park’s shallow, gypsum-rich waters. Other endemic species include the White Sands giant sand-treader cricket and the White Sands mantis.

Animals in the park have developed unique adaptations to survive in the desert. For example, the desert kit fox has large ears that help it dissipate heat and locate prey, while the horned lizard has the ability to shoot blood from its eyes as a defense mechanism.

Plants have developed special strategies to find water and nutrients in the gypsum sand. Some plants have long taproots that can reach deep into the ground, while others have shallow roots that spread out to capture as much moisture as possible.

What are some safety tips for visiting White Sands National Park?

Safety should be your top concern when visiting White Sands National Park. Be sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and protective clothing to shield yourself from the sun. You may want to consult a list of desert hiking essentials.

It’s also important to stay on designated trails and avoid walking on the dunes, as this can damage the fragile ecosystem.

What else do I need to know about the park?

-There is limited food service available in the park, so it’s a good idea to bring your own food and drinks.

-There are no established campgrounds inside the park. Primitive backcountry is your only option.

White Sands is one of the few parks with sand dunes in America. Would you like to visit here?