The Beauty of White Sands National Park

Shadow of Soaptree Yucca plant on the White Sands

The dichotomy of the pristine white sand dunes and the endless barren desert of the white sands missile range it lies next to is not lost on me. Driving through the White Sands Missile Range with its warning signs that you are entering an active test range and the area is potentially contaminated with explosive devices is more than a bit intimidating. But, the landscape changes as soon as you exit the missile range and enter the White Sands National Park. It becomes pretty and more serene in its simplicity as you drive further into the National Park. Follow me through this wonderous National Park, and you’ll be able to see through my camera lens all the beauty of the White Sands National Park.

Shadow of Soaptree Yucca plant on the White Sands

Directions to White Sands National Park

The sand dunes at White Sands National Park

The entrance to White Sands National Park is off of US 70, 15 miles southwest of Alamogordo and 54 miles east of La Cruces, New Mexico. The National Park is on the west side of US 70, with the visitors center close to the entrance. The road leading into the National Park is paved up to and past the guard shack. White Sands National Park Entrance Fee per single vehicle is $25. Entrance fees are valid for reentry for seven consecutive days from the date of purchase. You can also get an Interagency Annual Pass for $80, which covers the entrance fees for other national parks for one year. If you plan well in advance, choose to go on the National Park Entrance Free Days.

White Sands National Park Visitors Center

Driving on the sand through the White Sands National Park

The first thing to do at White Sands National Park is to stop at the visitors center. Make sure to get your National Park passport stamp and pick up a map of the National Park. Wander through the museum to learn how the white sand dunes were created, how the animals living in the dunes are a lighter color than their relatives just a few miles away, and all the things you can do in White Sands National Park. You can also rent sleds for your kiddos to slide down the white sand dunes, which happen to be firmer and cooler than other types of dunes.

Did you know that these dazzling white sand dunes are the largest gypsum dunefield in the world, covering 275 square miles?

How the White Sands Dune Came to Be

White Sands National Park Landscape by San Andres Mountains

White Sands owes its existence to a unique confluence of natural forces such as wind and water, the perfect climate, and its location in a vast basin wedged between the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. Within the rock layers in the surrounding mountains, you can find the mineral gypsum. Rain dissolves the gypsum rock and washes it into the basin below. The bowl-like shape of the basin keeps the dissolved gypsum from flowing into the sea. Instead, the water evaporates, and the gypsum is left behind in the form of selenite crystals. Water and wind then break up the crystals and leave the mounds of gypsum sand that you see today.

From Rock to Sand to Dunes

Panoramic View of White Sands National Park

When you drive farther into the park, you will find yourself surrounded by a vast field of white sand dunes, extending for miles in every direction. You can’t help yourself as you bend down to pick up a handful of sand and let it slip through your fingers. Knowing that this sand was once high in the surrounding mountains. It is an amazing world we live in!

Sand dunes by the side of the road in White Sands National Park

Driving through the sand dunes reminds me of being in Houghton, Michigan, during the winter. With mounds of snow piled high left from the snowplows. What makes this place so unique is that it has the look of snow, but the minute you step out of your car, you feel the heat of the sun. Do not forget that this is the desert and it gets hot, so make sure that you are prepared with plenty of water.

Dunes Drive

Entrance road to the White Sands National Park

The Dunes Drive allows you to drive 8 miles into the White Sands National Park. The first portion of the Dunes Drive is paved. You can stop and explore the Dune Life Nature Trail, the short Playa Trail, or the Interdune Boardwalk within this paved section. When the pavement ends, you will be driving on the sand for the rest of the route.

Driving in White Sands National Park

There aren’t any lines, so make sure to stay on the correct side of the road depending on which direction you are driving as the road going in is the same going out. As you venture further into the National Park, you will see the vegetation growing in the sand dunes thin out to where you will only see white sand. There will be areas where you can pull over to do more sightseeing and take photos throughout the drive.

The sandy road through the White Sands National Park

Things to do in White Sands National Park

A hiker in the White Sands National Park

There is quite a bit to see and do while you are visiting the White Sands National Park. Plan on spending a couple of hours or longer visiting this natural wonder. There are several trails for the adventure seekers to choose from, depending on how long you want to hike. In order from the entrance to the park, there are:

  • Playa Trail (1200ft)
  • Dune Life Nature Trail (1 mi)
  • Interdune Boardwalk (2000ft)
  • Backcountry Camping Loop Trail (2.2 mi)
  • Alkali Flat Trail (5 mi)
White sands dune in White Sands National Park

Besides the hiking, this is a very family-friendly National Park. You can rent sleds for your kiddos to fly down the sand dunes. While exploring the white sand, I saw several families enjoying a ride down the large sand dunes. Like in snow, the ride down is so much faster than the walk back to the top. Walking in the sand does take a bit to get used to. I didn’t have the best shoes for it and found myself climbing slowly up the sand dune. Although, I did have a lot of fun laughing as I ran swiftly down. When I got back to my car, I had to take off my shoes to empty all the sand accumulated during my short hike. This is very important to remember…You cannot take any sand from the National Park, so make sure to empty your shoes before entering your car. The white sand is very fine and gets into any hole it can find.

Picnic Spots in the White Sands National Park

After all that sledding down, climbing back up, or hiking the trails, head over to the numerous picnic areas along the Dunes Drive. You can relax and spend some quality time with your family before getting back on the road again. There are also restrooms throughout the drive if needed. And another unique activity at White Sands National Park is a horse area for those who bring in their own horses. What an incredible experience that would be to go horseback riding on the white sand dunes!

The Vegetation in the White Sands Dunes

Soaptree Yucca at the White Sands National Park

This was fascinating for me to see all the vegetation popping up through the white sand. But, I found out that the vegetation was there first, and the sand had blown in around it. The plants grow fast here. Sand verbena survives because it flowers and disperses seeds in one growing season. It also quickly spreads shallow roots. New plants emerge as the wind moves the sand and buries the older plants. One of the more prominent plants growing in this environment is the Soaptree Yucca plant seen above. Another sight you will see is the giant rock pedestals left after a sand dune moves on from the skunkbush sumac shrub.

Pedestal formed from a skunkbush sumac


Waves of white sands

I hope you enjoyed exploring White Sands National Park with me through my photos. White Sands National Park is a fabulous place to photograph. The white sand looks like snow and water, depending on which direction you look, and has all the fun of playing in the sand dunes like the ones found at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park in Michigan. Have you visited this majestic National Park before? What did you think of it?

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Further Reading

If you are exploring the National Parks in the Southwest, check out these posts for extra travel inspiration:

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