Standing in the Albertsons parking lot in El Paso, surveying the mounds of plastic shopping bags that had overtaken the trunk of our rented SUV, it looked as if we might have bought out the entire store. Boxes of granola bars were stacked on top of boxes of crackers. The edge of a 12-pack of water balanced precariously on a bag containing Doritos, threatening to crush it if the bottles slipped just a bit. We were planning to spend the first part of our day at White Sands National Park, and we were guaranteed to be well-fed during our visit.
“How long is the drive from El Paso to White Sands?” my dad asked. I consulted my phone.
“About an hour and a half,” I told him. He looked perplexed as he studied our snack selection.
“It might have been a mistake to skip the donuts,” he observed.
Truth be told, we had no intention of consuming all of the food in our car that day; our visit to White Sands was the start of a weeklong American southwest road trip that began in El Paso and ended in Las Vegas. With stops in remote places like Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Four Corners, and Chaco Canyon, we didn’t want a potential lack of restaurants to dampen our spirts (or the search for them to slow down our pace!). While not the most remote place we visited, White Sands National Park does not boast more than a small convenience store for hungry visitors to grab a snack before retreating to nearby Alamogordo or Las Cruces for a more substantial meal. What it does boast, though, is spectacular scenery that has attracted travelers like us for more than 10,000 years.
If you have wondered what a visit to White Sands National Park can offer you, here is what we discovered during our visit to the sand dunes.
What Is White Sands National Park?White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dune field on Earth. Gypsum is a common mineral that can be found all over the world, but because it typically dissolves in water it is uncommon for it to turn into sand. At White Sands, the conditions defy expectations, as more than 250 square miles of soft, rolling gypsum sand dunes cover the expansive area.
White Sands became a national monument on January 18, 1933 by order of President Herbert Hoover, primarily to protect its supply of gypsum sand that is often used in construction materials like drywall. The supply of gypsum sand was regularly threatened by overzealous workers—whose mining of the gypsum sand was frowned upon by locals—and the national monument distinction put an end to what could have been destructive behavior over time. On December 20, 2019, White Sands officially became a national park as part of legislation included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which included protection for additional land now part of the park.
Located in New Mexico, the location has been populated by people and animals for close to 12,000 years. Some of the earliest evidence is fossilized human footprints that were discovered within the park’s boundaries, and over the millennia millions of native tribes and settlers have come and gone from the area. For many years the Apaches lived in and control the area; in fact, despite the fact Spanish settlers were in the area for many years, they did not officially begin to document the Tularosa Basin where White Sands is located until 1824.
White Sands National Park: Military Impact and the Trinity Site
In addition to a vast landscape and lengthy history, the location is impacted by the nearby White Sands Missile Range, the largest military installation in the USA. In 2008, White Sands was placed on a list of potential places to be named UNESCO World Heritage sites. A significant controversy erupted, leading elected officials to question whether ongoing military activity would be able to continue if it bordered a UNESCO site. Ultimately, support for naming White Sands National Park as a UNESCO site dwindled, and a local ordinance was passed to prohibit the creation of a UNESCO site within or adjacent to military land within Otero County, where the park is located.White Sands Missile Range is famous for serving as the location for the first atomic bomb test in 1945, and travelers can visit the historic Trinity site to learn about how the bomb—nicknamed Jumbo—changed the course of history. Part of the Manhattan Project, which set out to design and build the world’s first atomic bomb, the Trinity site served as the launching point for Jumbo, and the successful test both ended the war in the Pacific during World War II and announced the start of the atomic age in modern warfare.
North of White Sands National Park, the Trinity Site is open just twice a year—on the first Saturday of April and October. During this open house, visitors have the chance to visit Ground Zero and learn more about the history and significance of the Manhattan Project. If your visit does not fall on one of the open house days, it is not possible to visit the Trinity Site, which is within the active testing zone at White Sands Missile Range.
White Sands Missile Range remains active today, and regular testing can impact visitors who want to see White Sands National Park. When tests are conducted, the road to the park itself can be closed for several hours to ensure the safety of people traveling on nearby roads.
What Can You Do at White Sands National Park?
White Sands National Park is a great destination because it offers something for everyone. From historical lessons to physical activity to relaxing moments in nature, there is plenty to see and do.
► SleddingPerhaps the most iconic way to spend your time at White Sands is to slide down the dunes on a sled. While sledding most likely elicits images of rolling white snow hills, rolling white sand dunes provide just as good of an opportunity to experience the sensation of speeding down a hill. The sand dunes are constantly reforming and reshaping as the sand is guided by the wind, which means the dunes are naturally smoothed to make sledding a unique way to spend time during your visit. While many visitors plan ahead and take their own sleds, you can buy sleds onsite at the gift shop (as well as wax to coat the bottom, creating a slicker surface and generating more speed!). The best sleds to use are hard plastic with smooth bottoms; sand is not naturally slippery like snow is, so picking the right sled and using wax is important—and it might take time for you to master your technique!
► Dunes Drive
Eight miles of gorgeous scenery await you at Dunes Drive, which weaves in and around the sand dunes. Driving along Dunes Drive is a great way to experience White Sands National Park; with ample spots to park along the way, it can be a nice way to seek solitude and admire the changing views. We stopped to stretch our legs at one spot, somewhat isolated from other travelers, and after climbing to the top of one dune I was amazed that I could actually watch as the dunes were formed and shaped every time a gust of wind blew across their surfaces. Self-driving along Dunes Drive is the perfect way to connect yourself to experiences like that. If you are seeking a quiet spot all to yourself, the drive will undoubtedly take you to just the place you want to find.
Numerous trails run throughout White Sands National Park, and depending on how much time you have during your visit you may be able to make use of one or more of them. Most routes are easy to moderate, offering sweeping views of the region. Travelers seeking a challenge might enjoy the Alkali Flat Trail, which is a complete misnomer in that the trail will have you traversing multiple dunes en route to the last remnants of Lake Otero. If a challenging hike isn’t your style, or if you have mobility concerns, the Interdune Boardwalk is a nice choice that will guide you through the dunes without requiring you to walk on the sand.
This video from ABC News shares some additional footage and information on the activities available at White Sands.
How Much Time Do You Need at White Sands National Park?
White Sands National Park is the kind of place you can spend an hour or a day, and any amount of time you have will be worth the investment. With just an hour or two, you will have time to stop by the visitor’s center and climb a dune or two. With half a day, pack a picnic and prepare for some sledding or the chance to hike one of the established trails. With a full day, the location is a great playground for extensive exploration, and you can incorporate many different activities into your itinerary.
Let your interests guide you: your visit can be as active, as educational, and as relaxing as you want it to be. If you’re looking for more ideas on how to enjoy your time, be sure to visit the National Park Service website to learn more about the activities, events, operating hours, and other information that will make your trip complete.
More Information: NPS.gov/whsa
Tips for Visiting White Sands National Park
Are you planning a visit to White Sands? Here are a few tips and recommendations to help you make the most of your trip.
► Seek solitudeDrive along Dunes Drive, stop at a place where no other people are exploring, and climb the highest dune you can. Pause for a few moments to look around, and take in the fascinating, peaceful landscape. One of my favorite memories from my visit to White Sands National Park was standing on top of a dune with my mom, neither of us speaking, but both of us amazed by the gorgeous views that completely surrounded us. Without another person around, and with our phones in our pockets, we left with incredible memories of the silence and the natural beauty of the area. In moments of chaos after our vacation ended, thinking about the quiet of White Sands can often bring me the same peace I experienced there that day.
► Prepare for the sun
The hot New Mexico sun is intense and unforgiving, especially at White Sands National Park. With limited spots to seek shade, wearing the right clothing can save your skin—and your vacation. Pack plenty of sunscreen with a high SPF, and consider loose clothing that will cover your arms and legs. Finally, a hat and sunglasses are key: the glare from the sun on the pristine white sand demands protective eyewear to avoid squinting and headaches!
► Time your visit
Temperatures can soar at White Sands, and you may find enjoying your visit is impacted by the time of day you arrive. Early morning and late afternoon often see the most comfortable temperatures; if it is possible to avoid midday, you will also avoid the strongest sun and hottest time of the day.
► Take plenty of water
Once you leave the visitor’s center there are no other opportunities to purchase water, so take plenty—even double the amount of water you think you will need. We learned this lesson when we visited Bolivia’s salt flats in Uyuni, and we received a strong reminder after riding camels across the sand dunes in Morocco, so we arrived at White Sands National Park with plenty of water—and we drank quite a bit of it. The region is very dry, and dehydration is very dangerous. A few extra bottles of water will be the best thing you pack!
► Take sandals
I was surprised to find that, even on a warm day, the sand was cool (a factor of the gypsum!), and I was glad to be able to kick off my sandals and dig my toes into the soft, white sand. If you are hoping to do the same, take a pair of sandals in addition to shoes with more structure and support. You will want some sneakers for most of your walking, but climb a dune and stand, barefoot, at the top if you have the chance.
Hotels near White Sands National Park
We visited the location as part of a southwest road trip, but you will find plenty of hotel options in nearby Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 15 minutes east of the visitors center. Here are a few deals to consider.
Enjoy White Sands National Park!
Whether it is a few hours as part of a day trip from nearby El Paso or Las Cruces or a destination in itself, White Sands National Park is a worthwhile stop to make and the perfect place to enjoy nature. We loved exploring and hiking along the massive dunes under a brilliant blue sky, and we left with a greater appreciation for its significance and a desire to return and make the most of another visit. If you are thinking of a visit to White Sands National Park, don’t hesitate to include it in your vacation itinerary.
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