A Guide to White Sands National Park

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

If you've followed along with the blog you are no stranger to the nerves I brought with me from Ohio when we loaded up our RV and drove to New Mexico to start our adventure travel nursing. My first contract is located in Alamogordo, a stone's throw from the newly dubbed national park, White Sands! During our stay here we have visited countless times (with and without the dogs), completing nearly all of the hikes the park has to offer!

White Sands has become a sort of haven for me. Most travel nursing contracts are 3 months long, meaning I haven't seen family, friends, or a familiar face (besides Colton) since the end of August. We took this leap to hike and see as much of the western U.S. as possible, and while we've been able to explore a handful of incredible nearby wonders, I am always drawn back to White Sands. I'm going to use this post to share about the park (and hopefully) convince you to visit as well!

If you're an outdoor lover like myself, you've most likely also heard of Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Colton and I have had the opportunity to visit in July of this year, but we actually prefer White Sands! The highest dune at Great Sand Dunes scales to 750 feet while at White Sands, the highest is just 60 feet. Both parks seem to appear out of no where, but it's the shear white of White Sands that has me in awe.

What Makes White Sands Unique?

White Sands National Park is home to the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Located within southern New Mexico's Tularosa Basin, the dunes cover nearly half of the 275 square mile, Chihuahuan Desert.

Inches under the surface, water remains, which allows for the dunes to stay cool and moist (and not blow away). Gypsum is a mineral made up of hydrated calcium sulfate that forms a plaster when exposed to a very strong heat, making it completely unlike the common sand we'd find on beaches. Gypsum is used in common everyday items such as toothpaste, casts, and drywall!

Our First Visit- A Lesson, Learned

It should come as no surprise that when we rolled up to our RV park in late August, one of the first places I wanted to visit was White Sands. After some quick research on AllTrails, I set my sights on the longest trail in the park, Alkali Flat. At the time, the daily temperatures in Alamogordo were still reaching close to 100, but we naively ignored warnings to avoid the trail at that time of year.

Don't be like us.

The trail itself is a 4.9 mile loop, which may seem like a walk in the park for an experienced hiker like myself, but man was I wrong. And don't let the "flat" in Alkali Flat fool you, either. The trail is filled with dunes to scale and descend. About a mile into the hike, I was struggling. The heat took a toll on my body I had never felt before (and I've hiked Grand Canyon in mid July!). I found myself falling behind Colton and at one point, completely laid down, defeated, in the sand.

At first Colton was annoyed with me, thinking I was merely being dramatic. Quickly we made the decision to retreat to back to the car. And even getting back there was a struggle. We both laid down in the sand after basically rolling down a tall dune and stayed there for a long time with our legs in the cool sand.

When we finally returned to the car, I was frustrated and angry. I am not someone who backs down from a hike. But I also didn't want to put myself through it again. It honestly took me a month and a half to decide I was up for the challenge of Alkali Flat again.

The temperatures have been much cooler lately. (We even got snow 3 weeks ago....which I left Ohio to avoid). We packed the dogs up in the car and decided to make our second attempt of Alkali Flat an entire Hale family affair.

Long story short, we all survived and had a great time. I did not feel an ounce of the exhaustion I originally felt when hiking the trail in August- which goes to show you just how important hydration, heat, and planning can be when it comes to hiking!

I also just HAVE to share the pictures of the pups at White Sands. These two rescue girls love hiking and adventuring just as much as we do (if not more) and it was so much fun watching them play in the sand. Their initial reaction to the sand was to try and eat it- and being from Ohio, I can only assume they thought it was snow!

There is a truck that plows the main road, Dunes Drive, and the sand that builds up on the edges of the road really did remind me of those dreaded Ohio winters!

(If you aren't up for hiking, but still want to visit- consider driving Dunes Drive. It is gorgeous!)

When adventuring with the dogs, we make sure to keep them hydrated too! Browse some water bottles for dogs, here!

Trail Recommendations

Alkali Flat Trail

Length: 4.9 miles

Elevation Gain: 52 feet

Trail Type: Loop

Difficulty Level: Moderate

AllTrails Link: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/new-mexico/alkali-flat-trail

This is simply the best trail in the park, in my opinion. In my first attempt, I hated it because of the heat exhaustion. But it showcases the dunes better than any other trail. Just about a half mile in, hikers will be surrounded by white dunes, making it seem like they've crossed over to another planet entirely. I was taking pictures left and right while trekking along the trail. It really is that beautiful.

*The trailhead emphasizes the importance of following and not deviating from trail markers due to the ease of becoming lost in the dunes. Though we followed the rules and had no issues, I can only imagine how scary being lost would be. The dunes appear to go on for miles in every direction when hiking Alkali Flat.

Here's a picture of Bonnie and a trail marker, for reference. (I can only assume the trail got it's name from this section of the hike...which we never got to during our first attempt).

We never had a problem spotting the next trail marker off in the distance while hiking.

Dune Life Nature Trail

Length: 1 mile

Elevation Gain: 0 feet

Trail Type: Loop

Difficulty Level: Easy

AllTrails Link: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/new-mexico/dune-life-nature-trail

This trail has a few small dunes to maneuver over, but it's really child's play in comparison to Alkali Flat. Dune Life Nature Trail is on my list of recommendations because there are multiple stops along the way offering education about the animals and plants that call White Sands home. Unlike Alkali Flat, along this trail there are tons of plantlife growing on and around the dunes. This trail is also guided by posts, but in this case, they are bright blue.

Important Factors When Planning A Visit

White Sands National Park is surrounded by White Sands Missile Range. During testing times, the park is closed to visitors. These closings average twice a week for several hours.

Dogs are allowed in the park, but must be on a leash.

The only available place to get water is at the visitor's center.

Fees are $25 per vehicle or $20 per motorcycle. If entering on foot or bike the fee is $15 per person. Park specific annual passes are available for $45. We recommend buying the $85 national park pass, which gets visitors into any national park or monument for free. The annual national park pass ultimately saves us money because we visit so many parks over the course of a year!

Well, I hope I've convinced you to put White Sands on your bucketlist if you haven't already. I'm definitely going to miss the park after we pack up and head to our next travel nursing destination in a few short weeks. Time really does fly when you're having fun!

"Travel far enough, you meet yourself" -David Mitchell

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