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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.
It 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.
New Mexico’s 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.
The 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.
After 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.
This is why it is nearly impossible for any plants to grow in White Sands New Mexico – if the plants are not very resistant and fast-growing, they get blown over by the moving sand quickly and don’t survive.
We 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.
We 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.
We 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.
We 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.
At 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.
Looking 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.The vastness of the dunes was simply stunning.
Many 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.
How to visit White Sands, New Mexico
White Sands, New Mexico 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.
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.
Make 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.