Like a sea of sand, White Sands rises glittering from the heart of the Tularosa Basin in the New Mexico desert. The huge undulating dunes are composed of gypsum sand – making this national monument one of the great natural wonders of the world. The dune field in White Sands National Monument is very dynamic, with the most active dunes moving northeast at a rate of up to nine meters per year. The more stable sandy areas, on the other hand, show very little movement. Of the total of 712 km² of dune fields, 297 km² (about 40%) are within the White Sands National Monument. The rest is on military territory that is not open to the public.
The pure gypsum (hydrous calcium sulphate) that forms these unusual dunes comes from the western part of White Sands from an ephemeral lake with a very high mineral content. When the water evaporates, the minerals remain, which subsequently form gypsum deposits. These are tolerated by the wind and form the white sand dunes that are so typical here. The plants and animals living here have special techniques to survive here. The living conditions are harsh: the winters are cold, the summers very hot, there is hardly any surface water and the groundwater is highly mineralized.
The gleaming white dunes range in altitude from 1,185 m to 1,254 m above sea level.
White Sands National Monument information
Location and Size
According to usaers, White Sands National Monument is located in the heart of the 16,834 km² Tularosa Basin, at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert – in southern New Mexico. It is located between the cities of Alamogordo (16 miles away) and Las Cruces (53 miles away). White Sands covers an area of 712 km².
From Alamogordo, NM : Head west on Highway US-70. The Visitor Center is approximately 24 km (15 miles) west of Alamogordo on the right-hand side of the road. Journey time: approx. 15 minutes
From Las Cruces, NM: Drive east on Highway US-70 to Alamogordo. The Visitor Center is located 84 km (52 miles) east of Las Cruces on the left side of the road, 1.6 km (one mile) past the Border Control Post. Journey time: approx. 1 hour
GPS coordinates: 32° 46′ 45″ North, 106° 10′ 19″ West
There is no public transport to White Sands: the park is not accessible without a rental car. Rental cars are available in Alamogordo and Las Cruces.
Opening times and seasons
White Sands is open all year round, closed on Christmas Day (25/12). Depending on the weather, the park can be closed at short notice in both winter and summer.
The Visitor Center is located on Highway US-70 between the cities of Las Cruces and Alamogordo.
Opening hours of the visitor center
In winter: 03.11 – 20.12. & 01.01.-08.03. from 09:00 to 17:00. From 21/12 to 31/12 from 08:00 to 17:00; In spring (09/03-18/05) it is open from 09:00 to 18:00, in summer (19/05-18/09) from 09:00 to 19:00 and in autumn (29/09-21/12) from 09:00 to 17:00.
Dunes Drive can be used from 09:00 (03/11-31/12 & 19/ 05-02 /09 from 08:00) until sunset. No vehicles are allowed on Dunes Drive after sunset. All visitors must leave the park no later than one hour after sunset. The visitor center is closed on Christmas Day. Check the National Park Service website for exact times (which also includes sunrise and sunset times)
Due to missile testing at the neighboring White Sands Missile Range military area, Dunes Drive is occasionally closed for up to three hours for security reasons.
$10 per person, $20 per vehicle, $15 per motorcycle, valid for 7 days. Children under the age of 16 have free entry. The lower amount will be charged.
America the Beautiful Annual Pass
The annual pass costs $80 and entitles you to visit over 2,000 US federal recreation areas and national parks for one year from the date of purchase. The entrance fee applies to the driver and all passengers of a private, non-commercial vehicle (or up to a maximum of 4 adults in total if per-person entrance fees are charged). Children under 16 are free. If you visit more than 4 national parks, it is usually worth buying the America the Beautiful Annual Pass.
The pass can be purchased at many stores across the US and is also available in advance from various tour operators.
Numerous campgrounds are available in the White Sands area.
The Tularosa Basin is a desert area that is approximately 4,000 feet (1,200 m) above sea level. It is subject to sometimes very rapidly changing weather conditions. The summers are hot with an average of 35° to 38° C in July and August. The winters are relatively mild. However, nighttime temperatures often drop below freezing. Snowfall is rare, although occasional heavy snowfalls can occur. Rainfall averages around 200mm per year, with most rain falling in summer, which is often accompanied by thunderstorms with lightning and hail.
The wind is a predominant climate factor, especially from February to May. The prevailing southwest winds blow unhindered through the desert, sometimes reaching gale force. Wind storms can last several days in spring. This is the time of the greatest dune movement and living conditions become extremely harsh for the animal and plant world.
|Average temperatures in White Sands National Monument in °C
Good gear, clothing appropriate to the season and sound planning are essential to ensure a safe and enjoyable stay.
Dunes Drive is a 13 km (8 miles) scenic drive that leads from the visitor center into the heart of the dunes. The solid surface of the roadway is suitable for cars, trailers and buses.
Allow 40 minutes driving time for the total 26 km (return) – plus additional time for hiking, photography or other stops. Along the drive there are information boards about the park’s natural history. Plenty of parking allows visitors to stop and walk into the white desert.
Picnic areas and restrooms are located towards the end of Dunes Drive. There is no water in the dune area. Water tanks can be refilled in the visitor center.
The Dune Life Nature Trail is a 1 mile easy hike. The Interdune Boardwalk offers great views of the Tularosa Basin. Explore the dune landscape on the 1.6 km long Backcountry Loop Trail. The 7km Alkali Flat Trail circular route leads into the center of the dunes, but the trail is only recommended for experienced hikers.
Dune Sledding Sledding down
the dunes on snowshoes is a popular activity at White Sands National Monument. Most sledders use waxed plastic snow saucers (can be purchased at the park gift shop). You should choose a dune that is free of vegetation and away from roads and parking areas.
It is very easy to take great pictures here. The best times to take photos are two hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset. The Sacramento Mountains to the east are especially beautiful when the sun dips below the horizon. The pink light is followed by the rise of the earth shadow. VUSA TIP: Set your ISO high enough, shutter speed to 125 and hold your breath before you press the shutter button!
The night sky at White Sands National Monument is ideal for stargazing. There is very little light pollution. A special night sky ordinance was enacted in Alamogordo to reduce light pollution for the surrounding Sun Spot and Apache Point observatories. This ordinance also benefits White Sands National Monument.
Backcountry Camping (Backpacking)
For those who would like to spend a night under the stars in the dunes, White Sands National Monument offers ten primitive backcountry campgrounds. The principle “first come – first serve” applies here. Campgrounds are accessible via the backcountry trail and are between one and two kilometers from the trailhead. There are no water or toilet facilities here. Campfires are forbidden, camping gas stoves are allowed. A permit is required, which is available at the visitor center up to one hour before sunset.