From the first time I saw the glistening white sand dunes on Instagram, I knew I had to spend one day in White Sands National Park. It’s my goal to visit all 63 national parks in the U.S., and these struck me as so unique, so I started planning my trip there. Although it took a few years longer than I thought, I finally made it to the largest gypsum dune field in the world.
Every year, my friend Valerie and I pick a new national park to visit. We started with Joshua Tree in 2018 and have been to Zion National Park and Death Valley National Park since then as well. We decided to up the ante this year and go to not one but three national parks on our annual trip. To say we were tired at the end was an understatement, but I was so happy that we were able to spend one day in White Sands.
To be honest, I thought visiting this park was pretty straightforward, but as you’ll see in this article, there are actually multiple items you’ll want to check before you go and reservations you need to make depending on what activities you want to do. I wrote this lengthy guide to help you avoid my mistakes and make the most of seeing White Sands in one day.
Tips for Spending One Day in White Sands National Park
A quick history lesson about the park – located in southern New Mexico, President Hoover made the land a national monument in 1933, becoming the first step in protecting the land. The monument was made to encourage scientists to study the geology, plants, and animals of the dune field and to protect the area’s unique features for future generations.
The 62nd U.S. national park, White Sands National Monument, was officially upgraded to national park status in 2019. The park’s white gypsum sand dunes, which occupy more than 275 square miles, contributed to its selection as a World Heritage Site.
Gypsum sand is the unique type of sand found at White Sands National Park. Unlike most sand, which is made of quartz, gypsum sand is made of gypsum crystals, giving it a distinctive white color and a softer texture than traditional sand.
How to Get to White Sands National Park
White Sands only has one entrance that you’ll find off I-70, so it’s easy to get here. I flew into the El Paso International Airport for my trip and was easily able to get back without too much traffic.
Here are the closest major cities:
- Las Cruces, NM: 52 miles, approximately 1 hour
- El Paso, TX: 85 miles, approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes
- Roswell, NM: 90 miles, approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes
- Albuquerque, NM: 225 miles, approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes
White Sands Missile Testing
While the park normally opens at 7 am, the White Sands Missile Range is nearby, which means they periodically close the park to do missile testing. I only had one day where I could visit the park that worked with my schedule, and sadly, missile testing was scheduled from 7 am to 9 am that day, so we couldn’t do sunrise at the park as planned.
Always make sure to check the park closure website before you go so you can plan around it. Unfortunately, they sometimes only give a week’s notice before announcing the closures, so it’s best to be flexible if possible if you only have one day in White Sands National Park.
Best Time to Visit White Sands National Park
Contrary to Pacific Northwest national parks, where summer is the best time to visit, summer is the worst time to visit White Sands. There is absolutely no shade anywhere in the park, so you’ll quickly overheat when exploring during the day. In fact, I saw signs on the trails that said if it got above 85F, it was too hot to be out hiking.
We had a perfect day weather-wise when we visited in the spring, so I recommend going then or in the fall. It can get cold during the winter, and one disadvantage is they winterize the water fountains, meaning you won’t have any water available in the park.
Make sure you have your America the Beautiful Pass! For only one price, you can visit all the national parks over and over throughout the year. I renew mine every year.
How Much Time Do You Need at White Sands?
I’ll be honest – in most parks, I would encourage you to stay for at least a few days to fully explore them, but there’s just not enough to do here for more than one day at White Sands National Park. Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely loved visiting it and enjoyed my time here, but you can easily do all of it in a single day.
Where to Stay in White Sands National Park
There is nowhere to stay directly in the park, but the city of Alamogordo is only 15 minutes away and has plenty of hotels to stay at. I was on a pretty tightly-packed schedule exploring three different national parks in only a week, so I actually stayed in Carlsbad and drove here before the sun came up.
I don’t recommend that, though, mainly because you’ll likely be half asleep, so here are some hotels in Alamogordo that would work for your trip:
- Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Alamogordo: This hotel offers comfortable rooms with a free breakfast buffet each morning and access to the indoor pool and fitness center. (rates start at $127 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Alamogordo: This hotel has free Wi-Fi, microwaves, mini-fridges, an outdoor pool, a hot tub, a fitness center, and complimentary breakfast. (rates start at $127 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- White Sands Motel – I tend to stay at cheaper motels when I travel because I’m barely there, and this is a great one to save money and be close to the park. (rates start at $97 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
10 Things to Do in White Sands National Park in One Day
If you’re ready to go first thing in the morning and willing to stay out until the stars come out, you can see everything there is to see in just one day at White Sands.
Here are the top things to do at White Sands National Park:
1. Hike the Dunes
You all know that hiking is my absolute favorite activity when visiting national parks, and I loved that there were unique trails to do here (I also have a more in-depth article on the White Sands National Park hikes if you want to read more about them).
The only downside about this park is that there are only four trails (technically five if you count the boardwalk), but the good news is you can easily do all of them during a one day trip to White Sands if that’s your goal.
You’ll also want to dress appropriately for the heat, as there’s zero shade here. I wore a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves and pants to protect me from the sun, in addition to putting on sunscreen. The sun can reflect off the sand and burn you, which you don’t want during your visit.
Here are the White Sands hikes listed in order of easiest to hardest:
- Interdune Boardwalk (0.4 miles): Wheelchair and stroller users can use the Interdune Boardwalk without any problems. Learn more about the science, geology, plants, and animals that make White Sands a unique natural wonder. The boardwalk is a good spot to relax in the shade, as it’s a rare place in the park with cover.
- Playa Trail (0.5 miles): If you want to get to a small playa (a dry lake bed), just follow the green heart-shaped path signs. Learn about the significance of a dynamic playa on this self-guided hike.
- Dune Life Nature Trail (1 mile): This hike is moderately challenging due to climbing two steep dunes covered in loose sand. The club-shaped blue path markings are the way to go. You can get to know Katy the Kit Fox and her pals on this kid-friendly path. Find signs of the animals that live in these dunes by looking for their footprints.
- Backcountry Camping Trail (2 miles): In a region of diversified dunes and plants, find your way by following the orange trail markers marked with a spade symbol. The trail crosses multiple sand dunes, some of which are somewhat steep.
- Alkali Flat Trail (5 miles): Keep to the red diamond-shaped path markings to see what’s left of Lake Otero can be seen from the Alkali Flat Trail. The entire hike will consist of climbing and descending sand dunes. Three hours is the typical time required to finish.
2. Sled Down the Dunes
One of the most unique things to do at White Sands National Park is going sand sledding! We saw tons of kids and adults going down the dunes on the colorful sleds, which looked like a blast. You can rent a sled for $25 at the gift shop when you first enter the park.
However, sand sledding is a lot harder than it looks and isn’t the same as snow sledding. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- The best snow saucers are made of waxed plastic and can be purchased at the park’s gift shop. You’re also welcome to bring your own sleds if you prefer.
- Pick a dune with a gently sloping face and a level run-off at the end to safely stop.
- Watch out for the point where the dune slope ends and the sand dunes begin. Dune sand is soft, but the ground near its base can be quite hard, making accidental injuries all too common.
3. Have a Picnic
There isn’t anywhere to buy food in the park during your one day White Sands trip, so your best bet is to pack a lunch from somewhere in Alamogordo and bring it into the park. I highly recommend having a travel cooler with you so your food stays nice and cool during the morning while you’re exploring.
There are various picnic tables with shade that you can sit under and enjoy one of the few covered areas in the park. However, I will warn you that the shade only faces one way, so it might not be effective depending on the time of day and where the sun is in the sky.
You will also want to fill up on water at the visitor’s center multiple times throughout the day. This is the only water you’ll find (a fountain by the back parking lot), and it’s a short drive back there, so staying hydrated is worth it. I also swear by Liquid IV and only put one in my water bottle to stay hydrated when I hike.
4. Watch the Sunrise
One of my biggest regrets during my one day at White Sands National Park was not being able to watch the sun come up, as this is a tradition I always do in new national parks that I visit. However, I’m here to explain my mistake so you don’t make the same one and are able to enjoy this experience.
If you want to get to the park before it opens at 7 am, you must apply for an early entrance permit 21 days before your expected visit. You will need to fill out the online application, email it to the listed address, and then pay the $100 deposit via phone once they confirm they have your application.
I’ve never experienced a process like this before, so I didn’t see it as a potential issue until it was too late. We sent in our application maybe 1.5 weeks before our visit and got denied, saying they needed a full 21 days. To top it off, they had missile testing scheduled until 9 am, so we ended up getting to the park way later than we preferred.
5. Stop at the Visitor’s Center
When I was younger, I always skipped the visitor’s center and went straight into the park, but I don’t recommend this for multiple reasons. First of all, it’s crucial to check in with a ranger to make sure any hikes you’re planning are open and safe to do. Even if you looked at the park’s website the night before, things that can close a trail happen overnight.
Second, learning about the park’s history before visiting it is fun and educational. White Sands has a small museum where you can learn about how it became a national monument and eventually a national park. There’s also a 17-minute film you can watch to see old footage and learn more about the area you’re going to go out in.
If you collect national park stamps, this is also the area to get them and buy any souvenirs you may want. It’s also a good bathroom stop before you enter the park (although there are a few toilets throughout the area).
6. Go on a Ranger-Led Hike
If you have the time during your day trip to White Sands, I highly recommend joining a ranger-led hike during your one day at White Sands. Depending on what’s offered that day, you can attend a sunset stroll or a full moon hike. You’ll have a ranger inform you about what you see on your one-mile hike, which is more informative than hiking alone.
The full moon stroll is also helpful with a ranger, so you can experience it without worrying about getting lost on the dunes at night. You do need to make a reservation for this hike, but you can just show up for the sunset hike.
7. Stargaze at Night
Related to this, I highly recommend stargazing at White Sands if you have the chance during your one day in White Sands National Park. The park was officially designated an International Dark Sky Park a few years ago, making it perfect for stargazing. This is my friend’s specialty, so over the years, I’ve slowly started to appreciate stargazing more and learn about how to find different constellations from her during our trips.
If you don’t know much about the dark skies, you’ll want to join one of the stargazing programs that the park holds to educate yourself about them. I also recommend bringing your camera and tripod if you want to get into astrophotography, which is really rewarding once you get the hang of it. There are several astrophotography guides to check out before you go to prepare yourself.
A few other important essentials I’ve learned over the years are a red light flashlight and warm clothes. The red light flashlight is a very low light that allows you to see while walking around but also doesn’t bother your adjusted night vision. Warm clothes are also a must because it gets really cold at night in the desert, so don’t cut your time short just because you’re cold.
8. Take a Scenic Drive
While I always get out when I can at parks, I get it if you’re not quite in the mood to hike. If that’s the case, you can take a scenic drive on Dunes Drive instead (or maybe this will help you pick where you want to get out).
This is a 16-mile roundtrip drive that goes through the entire park. Starting at the park’s information center, the drive winds through the dunes and gives you beautiful views. You’ll pass several rest stops, including overlooks, picnic spots, and bathrooms, which are conveniently located along the route. I advise driving slowly because there are some blind turns as well
9. Camp Overnight
You can’t camp overnight at all national parks, so I always advise people to take advantage of it when possible. That way, you’ll be right in the park for stargazing at night, and you just have to crawl out of your tent in the morning for the sunrise.
Select spots are available on the backcountry trail, but you’ll need to get a permit for your spot in advance. You should also make sure you pack appropriately for the desert – it gets pretty cold at night, but it can get scorching during the day. As long as you have enough layers, it’s a great way to experience the park.
As of March 2023, backcountry camping is currently unavailable as the park is working on improving the campsites.
10. Learn About Wildlife on the Dune Life Nature Trail
I mentioned this hike earlier, but I wanted to expand on it more because I thought it was unique because there are numerous signs throughout the trail about who lives there. While it’s partially geared towards kids and their families, my friend and I loved reading every sign they had to learn about all the life you can find in the dunes. It was educational and a great motivation to keep hiking to the next sign.
Due to its location on the edge of the dune field, this path has features that aren’t found in the middle of the dunes. Along the Dune Life Nature Trail, you’ll find 14 signage featuring the trail mascot, Katie the Kit Fox. Find out what kinds of foods the park’s resident animals prefer.
The gypsum sand dunes and the desert scrub community coexist here, forming one of the park’s most unique habitats. Despite the abundance of wildlife in the area, we didn’t actually see any during our one day in White Sands National Park. Most desert creatures are nocturnal, and most wild animals are timid and avoid humans. However, we saw many footprints in the sand, which was fun trying to guess who made each one.
White Sands National Park Itinerary: One Day
I’ve put together a quick one day itinerary at White Sands so you can see how to combine all these activities to make the most out of your day.
You should begin your day by watching the sun come up over the dunes. After that, take advantage of the cooler temperatures and go on one or two a hike through the sand dunes. When the visitor’s center opens, rent a sled and head back out to slide down the dunes on one of the sleds you rented or purchased from the visitor’s center after your hike.
You can either have lunch in the park with the picnic you brought or head out to Alamogordo to get something to eat.
Mid-day is the perfect time to return to the visitor’s center to beat the heat. You can watch the film about the park and go through all the exhibits in the museum. Now is also a good time to do an easy hike, such as the Interdune Boardwalk.
In the evening, join a ranger-led hike at sunset to learn more about the dunes. You might want to leave the park to get dinner and then come back for stargazing. If you’re lucky, they’ll have a ranger-led program to help you spot constellations in the sky.
Although it may be a smaller park, there are plenty of things to do when spending one day in White Sands National Park!