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New Mexico’s White Desert: The bright and beautiful White Sands

It didn’t happen gradually, but all of a sudden. The paved road we had been following for the last 30 minutes was walled by tall, hilly sand dunes, as far as the eye could see.

White Sands New Mexico streetIt was somewhat surreal, since we had been driving through the barren desert of Southern New Mexico for a while without even seeing any sand dunes yet, and within a couple of minutes, we were surrounded by them completely.

White Sands New Mexico sand dunesThe further we drove into the dunes, the less we could see of the road, and at some point it was covered in sand completely. We were driving through a sand desert.

White Sands New Mexico sandy streetThe Sand Dunes were one of the things we were most excited about when we planned our New Mexico road trip – you might have seen them in music videos like Boyz II Men’s Water Runs Dry or P. Diddy’s Best Friend – and while sand dunes are certainly not uncommon, there are only very few that are bright white.

White Sands New Mexico sand duneTogether with the azure blue New Mexico skies, the constellation of just white and blue as far as the eye can see is incredibly beautiful.

White Sands New MexicoThe dunes sit at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert in the Tularosa Basin, a mountain-ringed valley. In total, they comprise of an area of 710-km² (275-mi²), and we learned from our visitors brochure that they had actually all been part of a massive lake during the last ice age.

White Sands New Mexico waterAfter the lake dried out, it left a large area of selenite (gypsum in crystalline form) on the surface, which were broken into sand-size grains over thousands of years through erosion and weathering. The winds that blow over the basin eventually formed the sand dunes.

White Sands New Mexico white dunesDepending on wind and weather, they actually change their shapes all the time.

White Sands New Mexico flowersThis is why it is nearly impossible for any plants to grow in White Sands – if the plants are not very resistant and fast-growing, they get blown over by the moving sand quickly and don’t survive.

White Sands New Mexico dry flowersHence, you don’t see any plants in the middle part of the dunes – only sand.

White Sands New Mexico jess hikingTowards the edges, there are some plants and flowers, but they are likely to get covered in sand sooner or later, as the dunes change their shapes and the sand moves further.

White Sands New Mexico yellow flowersThere is just as little wildlife as there is flora and fauna – it is barely impossible for anything to survive in this dry, sandy environment.

White Sands New Mexico dunesApparently, there are some mammals, such as foxes, coyotes, rabbits, rats and mice, and several kinds of lizards, but the only sign of life we saw was a lonely black little beetle.

White Sands New Mexico beetleWe loved how empty the dunes felt – even though there were quite a few other cars in the park with us, once we hit one of the hiking trails that led away from the street into the dunes, it felt like we were the only ones in White Sands.

White Sands New Mexico dani hikingWe had planned to hike the Alkali Flat Trail (4.5 mile / 7.2 km round-trip), the longest possible hike in White Sands. By the time we reached the trail head though, it was close to noon and the desert sun was burning down on us with over 100 °F / 38 °C.
White Sands New MexicoWe had already done two hikes under similar conditions through Arizona’s desertscape before heading to New Mexico though, so we still set off on the hike, ignoring the hot, relentless sun.

White Sands New Mexico jessWe followed the posts with orange tape that marked the trail and after five minutes, we were encircled by white sand dunes, there were no people, and we couldn’t see the street anymore.

White Sands New Mexico jess and daniThe further we walked into the dunes, the quieter it got. It got to a point where the tranquility felt almost spooky.

White Sands New Mexico sandWe saw how easy it was to get lost in those dunes – a horrible thought considering the heat and that there was absolutely no shade – if you didn’t look for the trail markers. In fact, several hikers have gone lost in White Sands, overestimating their ability to walk without water or underestimating the heat.

White Sands New Mexico sand dunesAt the 1.5 mile marker, we made the decision to turn around. The hike through the sand was beautiful, the peace and quiet was relaxing, and the solitude felt liberating, but the burning heat had finally defeated us. We knew that we didn’t have enough water to fully enjoy the hike, so we headed back to the car.

White Sands New Mexico daniLooking around us, it was easy to think that we were walking through a huge snow field – had it not been so hot that sweat was dripping off our forehead constantly.White Sands New Mexico jess layingThe vastness of the dunes was simply stunning.

White Sands New Mexico panoramaWe returned to the parking area where there is also a huge picnic area with silver-roofed futuristic-looking picnic tables – the only shaded areas in the dunes!

White Sands New Mexico picnic areaMany of the sand dunes are tall enough to enjoy a ride down on a sled or even a sand board. Sadly, we had missed our chance to pick up a sled at the visitor center, but it was fun to watch other visitors boarding and sledding down the dunes.

White Sands New Mexico sleddingIf you’re planning to sled down the dunes, don’t forget to stop at the visitor center BEFORE entering the park!

White Sands New Mexico sand boarder

Details:

White Sands is a 30 minute drive from Alamogordo. We stayed at the Suburban Extended Stay Hotel, for which we found a great rate ($49 per double room per night) on Booking.com, and which we found clean and comfortable (the room had a kitchenette and free wifi and the hotel is close to all restaurants and supermarkets).

Before you go, check on the White Sands National Park website if the park is open at all – when there are missile testings (which happen up to twice a week at certain times throughout the year), the park stays closed (usually only for a couple of hours though).

A car is absolutely essential to visit White Sands, the National Park is not served by public transportation.

White Sands New Mexico carAdmission is $3 per person, and valid for seven days. You could go one day for sunset and come back the next morning for a hike.

There are guided sunset walks at 6pm. Look out for the meeting point inside the National Park, near one of the parking lots.

If you want to sled down the dunes, the gift shop in the visitor center lends sleds for a fee of $7 (you pay $10 but get $3 back if you return the sled). Make sure to stop there BEFORE you enter the park. The best place for sledding are the dunes near the picnic area (they’re the steepest ones).

The easiest way to see the dunes is by following the 8-mile scenic drive through the National Parks. There are several hiking paths (ranging from the short 0.2mile / 0.3km Playa Trail to the more challenging 4.5mile /7.2 km Alkali Flat Trail)  throughout the park and enough parking available.

Dani running in White SandsMake sure to bring sturdy shoes, enough water, sun screen and sun glasses – it is extremely bright. A hat would also be recommendable, especially if you’re planning to visit around noon and/or going for a longer hike.

You are not allowed to enter the Missile Range that is located in White Sands, but there is a ranger-led hike to Lake Lucero in the Missile Range once a month ($3 per person). You can check the schedule for the tours and make your reservation here.White Sands New Mexico dani and jess

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51 Comments

    1. Tanya – I’d never seen anything like that before, either! I wonder how many white sand dunes there are around the globe – I’m sure there aren’t many 🙂

    1. Jen – I took hundreds of photos that day, I couldn’t stop myself 😉 Loved the white and blue together. Definitely add White Sands to your US road trip!!

    1. Thanks, Agustin! I had never heard of Cuatro Cienegas, thanks for telling us about it 🙂 Will definitely keep it in mind for our next trip to Mexico 😀

    1. Rachel – it is scary to think to get lost in that heat with no water at all, and maybe having the soldiers who are stationed there go look for you 😉 All the hikers have to sign into a book with the time they leave and also when they return. So I guess at least they’re keeping track of the crazies who go for a hike in that heat 😀

  1. Great gif of you running up the dune! I have to go here; it’s so surreal. I’ve actually not seen this place in any music videos, but in some sci-fi TV shows and movies (says a lot about my tastes, right there!), but I can see why it’d be seen as a great location for either. Even though you ended up turning back, I’m impressed you managed to stay out as long as you did with 38C heat – you’re hardcore!
    Sam recently posted..Why Would We Visit Budapest in January?

    1. Thanks, Sam 🙂 I always appreciate it when somebody appreciates my gif efforts 😉 And you’re right, White Sands has been featured in quite a few movies. I actually saw one movie which features it – Tank Girl. Don’t think anyone but a few lesbians saw that one, though 😉

    1. Thanks, Poi! The sand there was actually not too hot, for some reason – something about the kind of crystals that it’s formed of. Apparently you can even walk barefoot without burning your feet! Didn’t check if that’s true though 😉

    1. Thanks so much, Oliver! It is such a surreal place… looks like snow but doesn’t feel like it at all 😉 I am dying to get to the Sahara Desert now!!

    1. I wasn’t brave enough to try sandboarding even though I said I would in the Atacama Desert… I was just too scared to hurt myself 😉 I would’ve loved to sled down the dunes though – a shame that we missed our chance to pick up sleds before we entered the park.

  2. Gah, it looks SO PRETTY!

    I’m hoping to do a mini New Mexico road trip sometime this spring with a friend of mine who recently moved to Santa Fe, and White Sands is DEFINITELY on my list! Thanks especially for the tips!
    Amanda recently posted..An American in Vietnam

    1. Oh I hope you’ll get to go on a mini New Mexico road trip, Amanda!! So so so worth it! Look out for more posts about the places we loved most in the next couple of weeks 🙂

    1. Shikha – most people don’t know about them, which surprised us! We’d definitely recommend visiting them if you ever find yourself in New Mexico 🙂

  3. I saw a post on Instagram yesterday and had to google this place – it looks INCREDIBLE. It’s now officially on my must-do-in-america list. S x

    1. There are probably some scorpions around, and apparently there are snakes, too 🙂 We also drove right through a tarantula migration in New Mexico!! Fun times 😉

    1. Anna, you could go for a sunset hike instead 🙂 Much more bearable 😉 White Sands is definitely worth a visit any time of day!

    1. Well worth it, Jonny! It is very peaceful indeed – I will never forget how quiet it was once you walked a little deeper into the dunes. A remarkable place!

  4. WOW! what a nice place!
    i did never seen white desert before, yellow desert is nice but i think white desert is very nice! Thanks for post and many alive picture! life is beautiful and most enjoyable with ‘Tour, hope to enjoy for all!

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