U.S. National Parks

White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park

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It’s National Park Week! How fitting that our first travel post is about a National Park: White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

Formerly a National Monument, White Sands was upgraded to the National Park designation in December 2019, thereby increasing the number of National Parks to 62. 

We visited White Sands National Park in February 2020. Many of the signs and brochures still referred to it as a National Monument, including the large welcome sign at the Visitor Center. In fact, the Visitor Center advertised the last of its National Monument merchandise.

White Sands National Park historic visitor center
White Sands National Park Visitor Center

Logistics

  • Transportation: White Sands National Park is located near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Driving time is about 1.5 hours from El Paso International Airport or 3.5 hours from Albuquerque International Sunport.
  • Lodging: We flew into El Paso, rented a car, and drove to our hotel in Alamogordo. Alamogordo has several reasonably-priced hotel options within a 15-minute drive from the park. We chose to stay at the Hampton Inn Alamogordo using our Hilton Honors points.
  • Time of year to visit: The park is open year-round, but summertime can be hot. We had perfect weather in mid-February: sunny and in the mid-70’s.
  • What to bring: Snow saucer sleds and wax if you have them and are driving. Don’t forget sunscreen and lots of water! The Visitor Center has water filling stations but, shockingly, did not have sunscreen for sale when we were there.
  • Amount of time needed: We arrived in Alamogordo late Friday night and flew back home Sunday afternoon. That gave us all day Saturday and Sunday morning to explore the park and surroundings, which was plenty of time for us. We ended up heading back to El Paso Sunday morning and had a few hours to kill before going to the airport.
  • Other tips: Beware that the park sometimes closes for missile testing in the area, so check the park’s website or call the Visitor Center in advance to ensure the park will be open.

Activities at White Sands

Stop at the Visitor Center to pay the entrance fee, pick up a map, buy sleds, and view and read (or if you’re like us, quickly skim) the exhibits.

Sledding

Our main activity at White Sands was sledding on the sand dunes. The white, gypsum sand looks like snow from a distance, and the wet, dense consistency allows for sledding. Sledding in 70-degree weather in February isn’t too shabby!

We couldn’t very well fit sleds into our suitcases, but thankfully the Visitor Center sells used and new sleds. They will even buy back the sleds when you’re done with them (not at full cost, of course).

We arrived at the park’s Visitor Center around 9:30 AM Saturday to purchase our sleds and wax. Unfortunately, they had run out of used sleds (which would have cost $10 each at the time of our visit), so we purchased two new sleds ($18-$19 each) plus a block of wax ($1.50).

One block of wax was more than enough for both sleds, and the Visitor Center bought back our unused wax at the end. We later overheard an employee at our hotel say a bar of soap works just as well as wax. Try at your own risk!

The Visitor Center was very busy, but they had plenty of adult and child sleds available. You can call in advance to check availability.

Sledding in T-shirts!

We drove along the park road to locate the perfect sledding spot. The road had recently been plowed, and white sand banks–just like snow banks–lined the road.

We hauled our sleds up and down the slopes until we found our ideal spot. No matter the number of cars in the parking lot, it’s easy to find a dune all to yourself. Social distancing at its finest!

The very act of hiking up and down the dunes was quite the workout, but in case that isn’t enough, there are also designated hiking trails through the dunes.

Hiking at White Sands

The White Sands National Park website lists five hiking trails, three of which we did.

The Interdune Boardwalk (0.4 mi) is an easy, accessible trail with interpretive signs along the way describing the area’s flora and fauna.

The Playa Trail (0.5 mi) is another short, flat trail with interpretive signs describing the geology and history of the area.

The Dune Life Nature Trail (1 mi) is a self-guided loop trail across the dunes. You will follow a cartoon kit fox named Katy as she shows you her domain and introduces you to creatures she will later devour. The trail is marked with sign posts, which are mostly easy to find, though we managed to take the wrong turn a few times. This trail will get the blood pumping; walking on sand, especially uphill, is tiring after a while. Pack along sunscreen and water!

The remaining two trails are longer and more strenuous, and we were beat, so we passed on them.

Watching the Sunset

We had so much fun sledding during the day that we returned right before sunset to sled a bit more before dark. Watching the sunset is highly recommended. The pink, purple, and orange hues reflected off the dunes and highlighted the ripples in the sand.

White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park at dusk
White Sands National Park at sunset
White Sands National Park at sunset

Nearby Attractions

There was only so much sledding we could handle, so we took a break and drove around the area.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

We drove through Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, which is about a 50-minute drive from White Sands National Park. There are a couple entrances to the National Monument, and while we noticed hiking trails, we did not go on any of them. We discovered a cool-looking campground, Aguirre Spring Campground, at the end of the main road into the monument.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument: road to Aguirre Spring Campground

El Paso-Area Attractions

We had time to kill in El Paso before our flight home, so we visited Chamizal National Memorial, which celebrates the settlement of a border dispute between the U.S. and Mexico.

We also embarked on Scenic Drive to an overlook of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.

Border boundary marker at Chamizal National Memorial
Border boundary marker at Chamizal National Memorial

Honest Assessment of White Sands

We didn’t have high hopes about this park but were pleasantly surprised by its beauty. We had a blast sledding down the dunes and greatly enjoyed our time there. It didn’t hurt that we had amazing weather.

We would return to White Sands National Park if we found ourselves in the area again. Next time, we would try one (or both) of the trails we didn’t do.

Visit White Sands National Park’s website for more information about the park.

So, how much did this trip cost?

The costs below are for two adults flying from San Diego, CA (SAN) to El Paso, TX (ELP). We did not include meals, as dining preferences can vary. We will say that Alamogordo has several reasonably-priced dining options and about every chain restaurant imaginable.

Since we used points for the hotel and airline miles for the flight, we assigned dollar values to those points and miles as described in our loyalty rewards programs post.

PointsPoint ValueCash CostTotal Cost
Airfare 
 Southwest (SAN-ELP) 10,272$154.08$0.00$154.08
 Southwest (ELP-SAN) 10,160$152.40$0.00$152.40
Total airfare$306.48
Lodging 
 Hampton Inn Alamogordo
(2 nights) 
40,000$160.00$0.00$160.00
Total lodging$160.00
Car rental
 Advantage-ELP Airport   $60.32$60.32
Total car rental$60.32
Activities 
 Sled and wax purchase$42.49$42.49
 Sled and wax refund -$11.16-$11.16
Total activities$31.33
TOTAL COST$558.13

Looking for more National Park inspiration?

Check out our post about virtual visits to National Parks to plan out where you want to travel to next or read about how to spend one day in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Have you been? Would you go?

Have you been to White Sands, whether as a National Park or a National Monument? Did you sled down the gleaming white sand dunes? Tell us in the comments!

If you haven’t been there, would you go? Anything more you want to know? Let us know in the comments or contact us!


White Sands National Park, New Mexico

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