The 5 Best White Sands National Park Hikes You Won’t Want to Miss

white sands national park hikes
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When you’re looking. for a unique hiking experience, you’ll want to visit White Sands National Park in New Mexico. This stunningly beautiful park lets you experience the desert climate while hiking on sand dunes. If you’ve never done this before, you’ll want to put White Sands National Park hikes on your bucket list.

I’ll be honest – this title is a bit of a joke, as there are only five hikes in White Sands National Park. However, I thought this topic was worth an article because, unlike a typical national park, you have to do some preparation in advance due to the weather and permits required. I also loved hiking White Sands and wanted to share my experience with you.

I came here as part of a whirlwind Texas and New Mexico road trip, and I made a few mistakes by not researching ahead of time. There are definitely a few things I would’ve done differently, which is why I’m here to share my mistakes with you so you don’t make them as well.

Here is everything you need to know about hiking in White Sands National Park.

Tips for Hiking White Sands National Park

one day in white sands national park

There is no shade at this park, so you’ll want to follow my recommendations below closely to stay comfortable. Here are some tips for hiking at White Sands National Park:

  • Bring plenty of water: The only water station is at the visitor’s center (outside the back parking lot), so you’ll need to refill multiple times here. I always bring a 3-liter Camelbak when I explore National Parks to have plenty of water for the day.
  • Wear sturdy shoes: The sand dunes can be tough on your feet, so wear supportive hiking shoes or boots with plenty of grip. I saw plenty of people going barefoot, but with having a background in physical therapy, I promise you that your whole body will thank you at the end of the day if you wear supportive shoes.
  • Dress in layers: Temperatures can change quickly in the desert, so dress in layers that you can easily take off or put on. I always start each morning with a long-sleeve shirt, wear just my Merino wool t-shirt during the day, and put a jacket on at night when I explore parks.
  • Wear a hat and sunglasses: The sun is intense at White Sands, so don’t forget to bring a wide-brimmed hat and polarized sunglasses for your hike.
  • Know when to quit: Because all the hikes here are exposed, you may get hotter or dehydrated quicker than usual. If you’re not feeling good, just turn back around – don’t risk your health.
  • Pets are allowed: However, they have to stay on a leash the whole time, and I wouldn’t take them midday when it’s hard to cool off.

Whether you are a beginner or an experienced hiker, there’s a White Sands National Park hike for everyone. I have an article on how to spend one day at White Sands National Park if you want to plan out your day better.

Stop at the visitor’s center to ask a ranger about any closures and pick up a White Sands National Park trail map to visually see where you’re going.

White Sands National Park Hours

The park is open every single day with the exception of December 25th, from 7 am to 6-9 pm (closing hours vary based on the season, so check them ahead of time). However, if you want to come early to watch the sunrise or go stargazing at night, you must apply for a permit

In addition, they need it at least 21 days in advance to approve it. I didn’t send mine in time and sadly got denied early entry for sunrise. Don’t make this mistake, and apply for your permit early so you can hike White Sands National Park as the sun comes up.

White Sands National Park Weather

Checking the forecast for White Sands National Park hikes is a must before setting out on a hike because the weather can change drastically at any time of year. The park is at its most pleasant for hikers between October and April when temperatures are often at their lowest. 

Hiking in the summer, when temperatures often go above 100°F, can be difficult and even deadly (similar to visiting Death Valley National Park). In fact, signs all over the park say don’t hike when it’s above 85°F.

Be ready for everything, including sudden wind gusts and rainstorms, at any time of year, even in the milder months. I’ve done tons of hikes over the years where the day was perfectly clear and sunny and then suddenly turned to a downpour (Zion National Park, in particular, is known for sudden weather, like flash floods).

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.

Where to Stay for White Sands Hiking

There is White Sands National Park camping available, but you’ll want to apply in advance to get your permit approved. As of the time of this writing, backcountry camping is unavailable due to them restoring the sites.

Otherwise, your best bet is to stay at a hotel in nearby Alamogordo. Here are a few options:

The 5 Best White Sands National Park Hikes

I’ve listed all 5 hikes in White Sands National Park in order of shortest to longest, so you can pick which ones you want to do (if not all of them!). I also put the estimated time, but this accommodates every hiking level, so I’d say it’s an overestimate.

With the exception of the boardwalk hike, the trails can be a bit confusing to follow at first because you’re just walking up and down dunes. However, each path has its own color marker that you’ll see marking the entire trail, so just follow those when doing your White Sands National Park hiking.

If, for some reason, they’ve fallen down due to wind and you don’t see any anymore, it’s safest to just head back so you don’t get lost. I went hiking during the middle of the day and was able to see plenty of people also out on the trail, which made it easier to follow.

1. Interdune Boardwalk

interdune boardwalk

Mileage: 0.4 miles RT

Estimated time: 20 minutes

Difficulty: Easy

Restrooms: Yes

While I don’t quite consider this a White Sands National Park hike, the park lists it as an official one, so I put it on this list. I do like that this is the only stroller-friendly and wheelchair-accessible hike here, so everyone can get out and see the dunes. This reminded me of some of the boarded walkways you’ll find when visiting Yellowstone National Park that can accommodate everyone.

You can get a great view of the dune field and the Sacramento Mountains from up on the Interdune Boardwalk, which is an elevated boardwalk that winds through the vulnerable interdune area. There are ten unique outdoor displays all around the boardwalk that I recommend reading to educate yourself on (and this is the only way this will take 20 minutes total).

You’ll learn about the amazing research being done here on these White Sands trails, the tough animals that have adapted to this harsh climate, and the good weather and geological conditions that have allowed the largest gypsum dune field in the world to form and stay in place. 

This is also the only hike in White Sands National Park with shade, as there’s one covered area on the boardwalk to take a break under. You’ll also find benches here if you need to take a break.

One thing to note is that I saw a ton of people sledding off the boardwalk, but the NPS website strictly says to stick to the boardwalk. Any of the other White Sands National Park trails are open for sledding, so save it for then.

2. Playa Trail

playa trail white sands

Mileage: 0.5 miles RT

Estimated time: 30 minutes

Difficulty: Easy

Trail marker color: Green

Restrooms: No

This is the perfect easy hike in White Sands National Park for those who don’t want to go too far. You’ll see a playa here, which is a temporary body of water formed when precipitation fills a shallow dip or low-lying terrain. However, it was completely dry when I was here, so I didn’t see much. 

Depending on the time of year, the playa could be a variety of colors and textures, including brown, white, wet, or covered in crystals. You must also stick to the path on this one, as the biological soil crust is damaged by footprints. It’s very straightforward where the trail is on this one in this unique national park.

This short, flat trail is a very kid-friendly hike in White Sands. Along the path, you’ll find five signs with helpful explanations. When you reach the end, you’ll be rewarded with a scene from the Ice Age, complete with the ancient giants that once inhabited this very land.

I love using AllTrails to download maps and stay on the trail during all my hikes.

3. Dune Life Nature Trail

Mileage: 1 mile RT

Estimated time: 1 hour

Difficulty: Moderate

Trail marker color: Blue

Restrooms: Yes

While this hike is geared toward kids, I loved it because it was informative and many people consider it the best hike in White Sands National Park. 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. 

The Dune Life Nature Trail’s mascot, Katie the Kit Fox, will be there to greet you at each of the 14 signs you’ll find. She’ll go over all the different animals who live there, how they survive, and what they eat. My friend and I had a blast trying to guess the answer to each of her questions, plus it’s a great way to encourage kids to continue hiking White Sands.

The Dune Life Nature Trail is unique because it’s an ecotone or transition zone between two distinct ecosystems. One of the park’s most diversified ecosystems can be found at the intersection of the desert scrub community and the gypsum sand dunes. There are a lot of creatures in this area, but you might not see them on your trip (we saw none). 

Most desert creatures are nocturnal, and most wild animals don’t want to see humans anyway. Tracks in the sand are just one of the many ways in which these creatures leave evidence of their existence, and we saw tons of different footprints on our hike.

On this White Sands National Park trail, you’ll go through soft sand and ascend two steep dunes. After a level 300 yards on the desert plain, the trail begins its ascent onto the sand dunes.

4. Backcountry Camping Trail

white sands dunes hike

Mileage: 2 miles RT

Estimated time: 1.5 hours

Difficulty: Moderate

Trail marker color: Orange

Restrooms: Yes

Are you in search of miles upon miles of pristine white gypsum dunes? If so, you should check out this path, which was my favorite White Sands National Park trail. You can get a feel for the world’s largest gypsum dune field without straying too far from your car on the Backcountry Camping Route.

Although backpackers use this White Sands National Park hike the most, day hikers who are interested in exploring the dunes’ interior can also use it. You’ll have to scale multiple sloping dunes covered in soft sand, but I found it to be a comfortable loop trail that gives you some different views of the park.

5. Alkali Flat Trail

white sands national park hiking

Mileage: 5 miles RT

Estimated time: 3 hours

Difficulty: Strenuous

Trail marker color: Red

Restrooms: Yes

The ironic thing about this trail is it has flat in its name, but it’s not at all flat. It’s considered the hardest White Sands National Park hike, as you constantly go up and down sand dunes. This is also the longest hike in White Sands at 5 miles.

Envision yourself in awe-inspiring surroundings, surrounded by vast dunes where barely a footprint can be seen. The Alkali Flat Trail is perfect for you if you have been longing for scenery like this. 

On the edge of the Alkali Flat, this path leads straight into the heart of the sands, up and over steep dunes. Lake Otero, which flooded the Tularosa Basin at its base during the last ice age, left a dry lakebed known as the Alkali Flat.

I would start this hike pretty early in the morning so you can beat the heat as the day goes on. This isn’t one I’d recommend around sunset either, as the last thing you want when it gets dark is to be lost coming back. While I didn’t personally hike in the dark on this trip, I can imagine the trail markers are hard to see.

Which one of these White Sands National Park hikes are you most excited for?

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