Travel Guide to White Sands National Monument

 The sun sets over the gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.

The sun sets over the gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.

I can't exactly remember how I first heard about White Sands, but after we were stationed to Fort Bliss Army Base in El Paso, Texas, it didn't take long for my research to pull up this place that draws photographers, travel bloggers and outdoorsy folk. 

Upon my first time there, it did live up to the hype with it's white dunes that looked like snow piles, but what I didn't expect was the solitude.  I kept driving and driving further into the national monument as white sands began to cover the road and it looked like I was driving on snow. But that silence..... it was both eery and emotionally intoxicating. 

I was going through some pretty tough things in my personal life and once I started walking through the sand dunes, feeling the warm air and hearing that defening silence, it began an ongoing series of therapy sessions for the soul. 

Hoping that more people will turn White Sands into their happy place, I offer these helpful hints and facts about the park to assist in your visit.  

Described as being “like no place else on Earth,” the monument is in the center of the Tularosa Basin, surrounded by the San Andres Mountains and is the world’s largest gypsum dune field. That means it is the biggest white-sand dune area on earth, making it one of the world’s great natural wonders.

It’s a very tolerable 90-minute drive from Fort Bliss to White Sands, New Mexico – a ride on US-54 East toward Alamogordo, New Mexico, with only one left turn onto US-70 West. It really is that easy to get to this amazing location.

The dunes are accessible by automobile on Dunes Drive into the park. It’s about an 8-mile drive to the end before it loops around for the return trip, but along the way there are a variety of nature trails, a boardwalk, picnic areas, spots for horseback riding, places to sled, and of course, lots of white, sparkling dunes. Most amazing is the perception that a blizzard just swept through the park as everything is covered in white sand. The sight is surreal, particularly when the weather is warm, making what the eye sees so completely different from what the senses feel. The dichotomy is quite fun.

One of the best features of the park is its tangibility. Visitors are not discouraged from hiking or walking on the dunes. To the contrary, they are encouraged to explore, walk, play, ride, hike and climb. You can sled down the dunes. These white hills of sand don’t need to protect the locals from an impending hurricane or the shoreline from erosion, so there is freedom to wander without worrying that the human impact is destructive. Whatever footprints are left behind will be taken care of by the strong winds.

Things to know:

– There is a visitor’s center at the entrance, but the area is quite secluded. There are no restaurants or gas stations before turning left onto US-70 West from US-54 East in Alamogordo, which is about 20 minutes from the park’s entrance; consider turning right onto US-70 East where you’ll find fast food, grocery stores and gas stations. At the very least, bring food and drinks from home to last the day. The center does have a small snack store next to the gift shop, but you won’t find enough food for a decent meal.

– There is no water inside the park except at the visitor’s center, so it is a good idea to stock up at home or bring a Camelbak, especially if hiking is on the agenda.

– Pets are allowed, but they must stay on a leash the entire time.

– Bring a camera. The photo opportunities are incredible, particularly at sunset.

– Bring a compass. It is possible to get disoriented in the middle of the white dunes as everything begins to look the same.

– Sleds can be rented from the visitor’s center.

– The entrance fee is $3 per person ages 16 and older and anyone under 15 is free, but anyone with a military ID gets in free with a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass. They are available upon request at the fee station and are good for any national park, national forest or other federal recreational areas in the United States.

Visit www.nps.gov/whsa for more information, including park hours, special events and map information.