The scenic White Sands National Park is known for having the largest gypsum dune field in the world that is visible from space. This 176,000 acres park is found in the Tularosa Basin nestled between the Sacramento and San Andres Mountain ranges of Southern New Mexico. The park's glistening and crystallized gypsum deposits cover the mountains and the wavy, snow-white sand dunes. The park has over 300 plants, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles,  250 birds, 7 amphibians, and 1 fish species.

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What to do at White Sands National Park

Annually the White Sands National Park attracts many visitors and in 2021, it had 782,469 visitors. There are plenty of recreational activities that await visitors of all ages to this park. These include:

Hiking

White Sands National Park has five hiking trails for exploring the stunning, snow-white gypsum dunes in serenity. Each trail has a level of ease and difficulty and unique scenery to see. That's why new visitors need to consult rangers at the visitors' center before hiking. Hikers are advised not to hike if the temperature is at or above 30 degrees celsius. Except for the Interdune Boardwalk, the other trails are marked with colored posts and symbols that help lost hikers find their way. The hiking trails at the national park are:

  • Interdune Boardwalk
  • Playa Trail
  • Dune Life Nature Trail
  • Backcountry Camping Trail
  • Alkali Flat Trail

Dunes Drive

This 8-mile trail starts at the visitors' center and goes into the heart of the stunning gypsum dune field. A 16-mile round trip on this trail takes about 45 minutes to finish. The first five miles of Dunes Drive are paved and the last three miles are a hard-packed gypsum sand road. Visitors on this trail can take photos and learn about the natural and cultural history of this gypsum dune field. Along this trail, are hiking trails, picnic sites, outdoor exhibits, vault toilets, and parking sites. The driving speed limit ranges from 15 to 45 miles an hour depending on the visitor population. Drivers are advised to watch out for ice sledders, pedestrians, and wildlife on the road mostly in the early morning or evening on this trail.

They also need to not drive during dust storms due to low visibility. Before driving on this trail new visitors can seek advice from rangers to know the precautions to take and hazards to watch out for. On Dunes Drive riding bicycles or motorcycles allows for unobstructed views of the park. Still, riders need to watch out for vehicles and buses to prevent accidents and wear appropriate protective gear like helmets. Riders who venture into hiking trails and off-trails are fined $80 since it's prohibited. Fat tire and mountain bikes are suited for riding on Dunes Drive.

Sledding

Sledding downslope on the soft sand dunes is a popular and thrilling fun activity at White Sands National Park ideal for families with children and adults. Since sand is not slippery like snow, it takes some practice for new sledders to grasp it. At the national park's gift, shop waxed plastic snow saucers can be bought. The safest sledding dune is one with a gentle slope and a level runoff at the end where one can stop safely. Sledding injuries like gashes occur where the dune slope meets the hard desert floor so precautions are necessary. To prevent accidents sledding paths need to be away from roads, parking spots, trees, rocks, and other obstructions. Adults are advised to supervise children and not let sled alone especially those ages 5 to 9 years.

Horseback Riding

Horse riding on the white sands of White Sands National Park helps visitors to enjoy the scenic views of the mountain ranges and the vast dune field. Private individual use of horses and other pack animals is allowed and visitors can bring their own horses and ride them there. For that, a free day-use horse and pack animals permit has to be completed at the entrance fee station on Dunes drive. To avoid delays downloading and filling the permit in advance speeds up the processing time. Up to 10 animals are the ones permitted for horse riding and other activities. Horse racing, unsafe riding, and grazing on plant life are prohibited and riders must control and tether or leash their animals in designated spots. Horse feed remains and dung has to be cleaned up and disposed of outside the park by owners to minimize fostering and spreading infections and incidental diseases. Consult park rangers on the routes where horses are ridden.

Photography

With its sprawling, glistening dunes and mountain ranges, White Sands National Park is a photographer's paradise. The shifting light, reflections, landscape, sunny hues, and shadows result in great photos even from an ordinary camera. Sunset and sunrise are the best times to capture the park's beautiful photos that are imbued with dynamic light hues from the sun and clouds. Since the dune's tiny sand grains cause irreparable damage if blown into the camera's lens and inner electronics, photographers need to watch out for them. When the camera is not in use pack it in a bag. A microfiber cloth can be carried to wipe any sand on the camera. The best trails for capturing beautiful photography at the White Sands National Park are:

  • Playa Trail
  • Dune Life Nature Trail
  • Backcountry Camping Trail
  • Alkali Flat Trail

Picnic

At White Sands National Park the Yucca, Roadrunner, and Primrose are three picnic spots named after the iconic wildlife and plant species found at the park. The spots are located off Dunes Drive and are about, up to 7 miles from the fee station. At the three spots, there are 62 shaded tables situated in three public picnic sites availed on a first-come-first-served basis. The park has grills visitors can use although they are allowed to bring personal grills. Large groups of up to 20 people can picnic at the Roadrunner spot. Groups larger than 20 are hosted at Group Use Area which caters for ceremonies like weddings, parties, and private functions and has amenities for that.

Ranger Programs

White Sands National Park has ranger programs that educate adults and children about the park and its diverse biodiversity.

Junior Ranger Program: This educates children under 5 years, ages 6 to 8, 9 to 12 plus 13 years and over about White Sands National Park's natural resources.  This program has puzzles and mascots that make learning fun for the children.

Ranger Program: This has unique activities that help visitors explore White Sands National Park at a deeper level. These Park Ranger Programs are:

  • Sunset Stroll
  • Full Moon Night
  • Full Moon Hike
  • Lake Lucero Tour
  • MothaPalooza- Habitat for 40 endemic moth species
  • Community Events
  • Perseid Meteor Shower-Occurs July to August
  • Community Events
  • 19th Amendment Audio Program

White Sands National Park is open daily all year except on Christmas day. Tradition operation hours are 7 AM to 8 PM but change depending on the seasons. The basic park's entrance fees are as follows:

  • $25/Vehicle
  • $15/Person
  • $20/Motorcycle

The nearest city to White Sands National Park is Alamogordo which is 15 miles away from the park's visitor center and the administrative center of Otero County.

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