White Sands National Park Hiking and Camping Guide
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White Sand Dunes National Park – where do I even start?! I first saw a picture of this place years ago and immediately added it to my long list of places I wanted to visit. Nick and I recently took a vacation to New Mexico where we ate tons of green chilies, camped in the Organ Mountains, explored Santa Fe, and of course, visited White Sand Dunes National Park!
In this guide to White Sand Dunes National Park we’ll cover:
- the best time to visit White Sand Dunes National Park
- hiking trails and hiking safety
- backcountry camping options
- other fun things to do on the sand dunes
Where is White Sand Dunes National Park?
White Sand Dunes National Park is located in Southern New Mexico. The closest airport is in El Paso, TX which is about 85 miles from the park.
The visitor center and Dunes Drive are located directly off Highway US-70 between the cities of Alamogordo and Las Cruces.
The entrance to the park can be found between mile markers 199 and 200 on Highway US-70.
The closest town to the park is Alamogordo, New Mexico. There are hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores in Alamogordo which is about a 15-minute drive from the park.
Best Time to Visit White Sand Dunes NP
1) Park Hours:
White Sand Dunes National Park is open daily year-round except for Christmas Day.
However, the park is adjacent to White Sands Missile Range. Occasionally the road into the monument is closed for periods of up to three hours due to missile testing.
This monument closure page will show you any upcoming closures.
There was a missile testing closure during our trip and the park opened a few hours late. We weren’t on a tight schedule, so it wasn’t too much trouble to plan around it.
2) White Sands Weather and Temperatures:
Temperature and weather conditions vary throughout the year.
December through February, daytime temperatures average 60ºF (16ºC), and the evenings average around 23ºF (-5ºC). The occasional winter storm will bring rain and occasional snow.
March through May, daytime temperatures average about 75ºF (24ºC) and evenings average around 40ºF (4ºC). Spring brings high winds up to 50 mph. High wind on sand dunes can make it hard to see and enjoy the area.
The hottest time of year is typically June through August. I went in early June and it was indeed hot! The temperature on the dunes reached over 100°F (38°C) making it hard to stay out and hike for long periods of time, however, I still had so much fun, even if it was hot.
July through late September is the rainy season, and late afternoon and evening thunderstorms are common.
If you really want to backcountry camp on the dunes, which we’ll talk about more below, late September through November is probably the best time to visit.
In the early Fall, daytime temperatures average 80ºF (27ºC), with a low of 65ºF (18ºC), and the evenings are cooler, averaging around 40ºF (4ºC).
3) When Should You Visit?
Overall, the best time to visit White Sand Dunes depends on the activities you want to do.
In general, September through November is probably the best time, especially if you want to backcountry camp on the dunes. During this time, the temperature is starting to cool down, the rainy season is coming to an end, and the winds of Spring have come and gone.
If you just want to hike around on the dunes during the day, do some sledding on the sand, and take some photos, all that can be done at any time of year because the average daytime low in the winter is only 60ºF (16ºC).
Keep in mind that the Spring brings high winds and the Summer brings the hottest temperatures. You’ll have to decide which you want to avoid more – personally, I’d take the heat. High wind on sand dunes is no fun at all.
White Sand Dunes Hiking Trails
White Sand Dunes has five established trails. Upon arrival, check in with the visitors center for current conditions, to obtain a map and additional advice about the trails.
Each of the trails is marked with a specific colored post and a symbol such as hearts, clubs, spades, or diamonds.
The Interdune Boardwalk is the only trail with no colored posts or symbols. Knowing the color and symbol of the trail you’re hiking will help you navigate.
1) Interdune Boardwalk Trail
The Interdune Boardwalk is fully accessible for people using wheelchairs and strollers. It’s 0.4 miles (650m) round trip. This trail is along an elevated boardwalk that leads you through the fragile interdune area to a scenic view of the dune field and the Sacramento mountains.
There are 10 outdoor exhibits along the boardwalk that will teach you more about the dunes and the plants and animals that live in them. You can stop and read them along the way!
2) Playa Trail
The Playa Trail is 0.5 miles (800m) round-trip and rated as easy.
The trail has outdoor exhibits along the way to help you learn more about the area. The trail may be brown, white, filled with water, or have growing crystals!
3) Dune Life Nature Trail
This is a 1-mile loop hike that’s rated as moderate. You do need to climb up steep dunes along this hike, so be prepared for that!
4) Alkali Flat Trail
This trail is 5 miles (8km) round trip and rated as strenuous.
Don’t underestimate the challenge of hiking in the sand! It’s a lot harder and slower. In addition, the dunes are steep and it’s a challenge to climb up and over them. Despite what the name implies, this trail is not flat.
5) Backcountry Camping Trail
This trail is 2 miles round trip and is mostly used by backpackers. More on backcountry camping is below. The trail requires hikers to climb over several steep dunes and loose sand.
Like most hikes at White Sands, there’s no shade.
Remember, bring enough water to survive. Have at least one gallon (4L) of water per person per day in addition to high-energy snacks such as trail mix, fruit, and protein bars.
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You can fill up water containers at the visitor center.
There’s no water available in the dunefield. Since the dunes are hot and it’s a physical challenge to hike around on them, you’ll need more water than you think. Take a minimum of two 32-ounce (1 L) bottles of water per person on every trail. Double that amount for longer hikes.
I recommend using a water reservoir in your backpack so you can easily carry enough and sip water frequently as you hike. Most of the time people bring water bottles and then never stop to drink from them.
My Hiking Gear Recommendations:
It’s very important that you drink water frequently. For more information about hot weather hiking, check out these tips for hiking in the desert.
Hiking on the Sand Dunes is much more challenging than hiking on a normal trail.
Steep sand dunes with loose deep sand make hiking slower and more strenuous. Make sure to account for this when you’re planning.
Backcountry Camping at White Sand Dunes
There’s very little light pollution from surrounding cities, so the night sky is incredible at the dunes. When you’re backcountry camping, you can really enjoy the night sky.
Backcountry camping is the only type of camping allowed at White Sands National Park. It requires you to hike at least one mile to a campsite with all of your gear.
Car camping and RV camping is not allowed in the park.
Getting a Permit:
A permit is required for backcountry camping. There are ten primitive backcountry camping sites available on a first-come-first-serve basis. No advanced reservations are allowed.
You must obtain a backcountry camping permit in person at the Entrance Booth on Dunes Drive.
Permits are issued from 7:00 am until 5:00 pm or until all the sites are taken. A specific campsite will be assigned when the permit is issued. You must leave your site by 1 p.m. the following day.
Groups are limited to no more than six people per site. If you have more than six people in your group, you’ll need to get another permit.
Backcountry Camping Weather Considerations:
The weather can change quickly. During the summer months, daytime temperatures can exceed 100°F (38°C) and drop to approximately 65°F (18°C) at night. There’s no shade and no water. During the summer, thunderstorms can move into the area and tents will not protect you from lightning.
In winter, nighttime temperatures frequently drop below freezing. The daily temperature difference can vary from 30°F to 60°F, especially once the sun sets. Just because it’s hot during the day, doesn’t mean it will be hot at night.
As mentioned above, Spring is usually very windy. On very windy days, white-out conditions can result from blowing sand and dust. This can make it hard to see and hard to navigate.
Backcountry Camping Fees:
The camping fee is $3.00 per person aged 16 and older. For anyone aged 15 and younger, the fee is $1.50. There is a 50% discount on camping fees for holders of the Federal Access and Senior passes.
You must also pay the park entrance fee which is $25 per vehicle. If you’re the only person in the car, the entrance fee is $15.
The entrance fee is good for seven consecutive days after purchase and you can come and go as much as you want in those seven days.
Other Things to Do at White Sands National Park
One of the most popular things to do at White Sands is to go sledding! This is what Nick and I did on one of the afternoons we were there, and it was so much fun!
You can see part of our adventure in the video below:
Tips for sledding on the dunes:
Waxed plastic snow saucers work best for sledding. They can be purchased at the monument gift shop. You can also bring your own sleds. It’s probably a lot cheaper to buy your own sleds before arriving.
TIP: If you’re staying at a nearby hotel, ask if they have sleds you can borrow. Most of them do!
When sledding, choose a dune that has a level run-off at the end so that you can stop safely. Be aware that the base of the dune can be very hard. Stopping on that can result in injury. Stay on the soft dune sand!
Obviously, make sure you don’t sled into roadways, parking areas, or vegetation.
Waxing the bottom of your sled can help you move a little faster.
I actually moved down the dune a lot slower than I thought I would. I envisioned it would be like the scene from Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation when he waxes his sled and then blows down the hill and through town. 😂
Don’t worry, it wasn’t quite like that! Nick and I spent a lot of time just wandering around the dunes sledding and having so much fun!
There you go – a round-up of all the important trip-planning information you need to know about White Sand Dunes National Park in New Mexico!
If you have any questions as you’re making plans, feel free to comment below.
Enjoy the wide open spaces, the beautiful white sand, and sledding down the dunes. It’s an incredible place to visit and somewhere I can wait to go again.