Sand Sledding, Desert Flowers, and Perseid Showers: All the Beautifully Surreal Things to Do in White Sands National Park
Our newest national park, White Sands, is known for its powdery white gypsum dunes, and its activities are wonderfully surreal.
Note: Due to COVID-19 restrictions, camping is not currently permitted in White Sands National Park. Just about everything else is on offer in this wide-open space made for social distancing.
White Sands, our newest national park, is an already massively popular destination. This jewel of southern New Mexico in the Chihuahua Desert, known for its 275 square miles of dazzlingly white gypsum dunes, got an upgrade from national monument to national park status on December 20, 2019.
If you’re planning a visit, there’s a lot more to White Sands than gazing out at the dune field and snapping an impressive Instagram series. What’s cool about White Sands is that, for the most part, you’re on your own when it comes to activities. Tours are self-guided, there are no bikes to rent (BYOB!), the only camping is backcountry, and you’ve got your work cut out for you finding a horse outfitter willing to bring horses to the park, even though they’re allowed (we called 12 of the nearest stables, and none do tours in White Sands). Plus, there’s an almost reverential silence that the dunes inspire—a quietude that few national parks have. Hop in your magical dune buggy, because it’s time to ride through a beautifully surreal land.
Zoom Down the Dunes
If you couldn’t wait to hit the snowy slopes with your red flyer sled as a kid, dune sledding is going to be your jam. There is an important difference between the two types of sledding, though: sand isn’t slippery the way snow is, so you’ll need to practice getting the hang of your start and keeping your momentum. Pick a gently-sloped dune with a flat landing and no obstructions or roads at the end so you can end your slide safely, and be aware that though the dune sand is soft, the base of a dune is hard and it’s easy to get injured. You can rent round saucer sleds at the museum gift shop or bring your own—something that will slide, rather than a classic red flyer, is best.
Howl at the Moon and the Meteors
Nighttime in White Sands offers the kinds of rare experiences to inspire FOMO in your friends sleeping under an actual roof. Sure, you can watch a Perseid meteor shower from a Las Cruces rooftop or from the comfort of your home, but when you’re camped out on the Dune Life Nature Trail with fellow adventurers, surveying 360 degrees of dark sky lighting up with actual fireballs and 50 to 100 meteors per hour, the evening takes on a special experiential meaning. Aside from epic stargazing, the park’s special nocturnal events range from scoping some of the 60 species of local moths at Mothapalooza to Full Moon Night, a celebratory evening complete with yoga, live music, ranger education, and special guest artists.
Hike the Longest Trail
If blue skies, white dunes, and very few people sound like a peaceful morning to you, find the Alkali Flat Trail, the longest trail in the park. It will take you to the deepest of the dunes, and to the spot where the dunes are born at the edge of an ancient lake bed. Wear sandals, walking shoes, or hiking boots on the way there, but to walk up the dunes, you’ll probably want to be barefoot because scaling them can be a challenge otherwise. Bring a hiking partner, plenty of water, and a snack on this 4.9-mile hike, follow trail posts, and look for the water towers if you’re disoriented by the shifting dunes.
Go Backcountry Camping
Hiking a mile into your campsite means you can pitch a tent amongst the quiet dunes and the dark skies that light up with twinkly stars, rather than outside the park in more populated environs. You’ll also be the early bird on the trails and at the park’s garden, since you’re already staying in the park. But be ready for southern New Mexico’s blazing hot sun reflecting off the white gypsum dunes and little to no shade. Since spots are limited, get a permit as early as you can at the entry booth on Dunes Drive; you’ll have to renew every day since camping can be canceled if there is any planned missile testing nearby. Arrange to arrive safely at your campsite or hotel before cold temps hit at night. It’s a pristinely beautiful landscape at White Sands, so follow Leave No Trace principles and make sure your campsite is clean when you leave (hint: Use these essential tips). Backcountry camping is the only option at White Sands, but if you’re not ready to pack in and carry all your gear on your back, check out these area campgrounds.
Stop and Smell the Desert Roses
If you’ve heard of forest bathing, you know that nature is one of your best friends when it comes to relaxing. So head to the garden for some—shall we call it—”desert bathing”? Immerse yourself in the self-guided audio tour of the Native Plant Garden. There’s something mystical and spiritual about plants that have managed to survive in such an arid, seemingly lifeless area. Learn about the stubbornly resilient powers of the agave and yucca, and stop to smell the various flowers, including that of the desert willow. Admire edible delights like the purple prickly pear cactus and the yucca flower, both of which have helped native populations survive. Gawk at the showy red flowers of the ocotillo plant and the long, dangly pods of the honey mesquite tree.
Where to Stay and Eat
If you can’t snag a backcountry camping reservation and want to stick close to the park, look to Alamogordo first, where the tiny Tavares Inn lets you cap the dry, hot day with a swim in the indoor pool. In Las Cruces, which is an hour away, hang your hat at Hotel Encanto for a more upscale experience featuring a pool. Hipcamp and Airbnb also play host more than a few stays near enough to drive daily to the park.
For road food, the pickings are slim in Alamogordo, but spy the world’s largest pistachio sculpture above your dash and you’ll soon find yourself sampling red and green chile pistachios at a farm called Pistachioland, where you can tour the trees heavy with the desert candy. Trip down Highway 25 an hour and change from Las Cruces in the direction of Albuquerque, and you’ll find Hatch, site of the world-famous late-August Hatch Chile Festival, and Sparky’s, a beloved institution of Americana featuring the nightshade in everything from lemonade to their renowned burger. If you want more, let your nose lead you down the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. You deserve it after a long day hiking through the world’s most beautiful gypsum dunes.
Read the 2021 Gardening Issue
To read: Click on the right and left arrows at the edge of the box to turn pages; to make the text larger, click on the fullscreen icon in the lower-right corner (desktop) or in the center (mobile).