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There are some incredible natural wonders across the U.S., evoking the sensation that you’ve just stepped onto some alien planet; many of them are protected as national parks. Think of Joshua Tree and its weirdly alien trees. Or Badlands in South Dakota, with striated hills as far as the eye can see.
White Sands National Park in New Mexico is another one of those strangely alien landscapes: once you enter the dunes, you’re in another world, climbing up and sliding down the seemingly endless gypsum dunes.
But what is there to do in White Sands, and how long do you need to do it? As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I’m going to help you by sharing things to do in White Sands National Park in one day.
You might wonder: is one day enough at White Sands National Park? Short answer: absolutely. In fact – I think one 24-hour period is the perfect length of time to visit White Sands National Park. But… it might not be a “day” in the way you’re thinking of it (sunrise, day, sunset). Instead, White Sands lives up to the phrase that “half the park is after dark;” you should instead plan a day in White Sands as: afternoon, sunset, night, sunrise, morning. This way, you’ll get to experience all that White Sands National Park has to offer – and make the most of that time even though it is short.
Below I’ll break down all you need to know to plan your day – I mean half-day/night/half-day – at White Sands. Grab shoes you don’t mind having gypsum sand in for literally ever, and let’s go!
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Mescalero Apache, Tampachoa (Mansos), and Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Planning Your Visit to White Sands National Park
Before jumping into the step-by-step itinerary I recommend for one day in White Sands, here are a few important logistical details to cover first – and which make sense for my suggestions later.
White Sands National Park Entrance Fees
White Sands National Park is a fee-collecting site within the National Park System. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are your options:
- The cost to visit White Sands National Park is $25 per vehicle, good for seven days of access.
- You can also enter by walking or biking ($15 per person) or on motorcycle ($20 per bike).
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver. The America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it, and I buy one every year!
- White Sands also has its own annual vehicle pass for $45, which is great if you happen to be visiting from somewhere in the area and don’t want to pay for the America the Beautiful Pass.
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the White Sands NPS website.
Driving & Parking in White Sands National Park
There is one road in White Sands National Park: Dunes Dr. This 7.6-mile road (one way) is your primary way to access the dunes, and there are plenty of parking areas, trailheads, and picnic spots to put your car while you get out and enjoy the dunes. You probably won’t encounter any issues with parking.
The only area you might encounter difficulties with parking is at the Visitor Center; it’s obviously the first stop people make, and the southern parking lot fills up quickly. For a pro tip, there is a second lot on the opposite side of the building which doesn’t fill up as quickly since people can’t see it when they arrive.
In terms of driving, there are signs along Dunes Drive that advise you on driving onto the dunes – that is, the parts of the dunes which drift onto the road. (You cannot drive onto the dunes themselves, of course.) The first five miles of Dunes Drive are paved and the last three miles are a hard-packed gypsum sand road; most cars have no difficulty driving on the sand, though you should do your best to maintain your speed as posted to ensure you pass through any looser, wind-blown sand on the road.
Camping in White Sands National Park
If you want to camp in White Sands National Park, you have one option: primitive backcountry camping. The NPS has resources about this, but in short, you need a day-of first-come backcountry camping permit and will be able to choose any of the ten backcountry camping spots (along the Backcountry Camping Trail, more on that below) to set up your tent.
I cover other places to stay near White Sands National Park at the end of this post, if you’re not up for camping.
What to Do in White Sands National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)
I thought about being clever and titling this section “What to Do in White Sands National Park (When You Only Have One Night!” because I actually recommend spending two half-days at White Sands with a night in between. If you only have a day and are not planning a night in/near White Sands, you can just rearrange the suggestions below to make sense with the time you have.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the two ways you might arrange my suggestions for things to do in White Sands
If you have time for an overnight and two half-days:
- Start at the Visitor Center
- Hike the Dune Life Nature and Playa Trails, and the Interdune Boardwalk.
- Hike the Backcountry Camping Trail
- Admire Sunset
- Go Stargazing
- Stay overnight (camping or in nearby Alamogordo)
- Enjoy sunrise
- Hike the Alkali Flat Trail
- Enjoy a picnic before leaving
If you only have time for a full/half-day visit:
- Start at the Visitor Center
- Hike the Backcountry Camping Trail
- Enjoy a picnic
- Hike the Dune Life Nature and Playa Trails, and the Interdune Boardwalk or Alkali Flat Trail
- Admire the sunset before leaving (based on time)
As you can see, the opportunity to stay for sunset, stargazing, and sunrise are what makes the two half-days/overnight itinerary a better visit – but you can still have a great time if you can only visit for one day, as my friend Marissa and I did.
Apply for an Early/Late Permit
While I know you only have one day in White Sands National Park, the best way to make the most of it is with a bit of advance planning. In particular, I advise staying late for the sunset and stargazing and then arriving early the next day for sunrise – but unlike most national parks, you can’t just show up at White Sands.
To stay late or arrive early at White Sands National Park, you must apply for an Early Entry/Stay Late Special Use Permit from the National Park Service at least one month before your visit. If your application is approved, you’ll receive access to the park and must pay a special access fee ($75 per hour or fraction thereof). If you don’t receive approval, you cannot enter the park early or late. As such, you’ll need to just skip those parts of my suggested one-day White Sands itinerary below.
Start Your Visit at the Visitor Center
Whenever you arrive at White Sands, your first stop should be the Visitor Center (as I recommend at all national parks even when you only have a day). Here you can learn any important information about your visit, as well as the geological history of the park and how the dunes formed. You’ll also get a sense of how much life there is in the dunes at the small museum in this building; it might not seem like much lives in the dunes, but there is actually a lot if you know what evidence to look for.
Like all great Visitor Centers, there’s also a gift shop and you can get your National Parks Passport stamped here.
Hike the Shorter Trails
Depending on your ability, you will want to adjust which and how many of the five White Sands National Park hiking trails you might want to do. Most people should be able to do at least two of the shorter trails – the Interdune Boardwalk (0.7mi out and back, flat, boardwalk) and the Playa Trail (0.7mi out and back, flat, hard-packed sand).
Near the Playa Trail, the Dune Life Nature Trail (1.0mi loop, <25ft elevation change, loose dune sand) is also a great option for families or those who want a little hike without too much challenge.
During our visit, we did all three within about 75 minutes, so it’s certainly possible to do them all too; they’re all great starter trails to give you a sense of the dunes, and to learn about them with informational panels.
Hike the Backcountry Camping Trail
If you’re up for a more “proper” hike, the Backcountry Camping Trail (1.8mi loop, <50ft, loose dune sand) is a great option – it took Marissa and me almost an hour because of the ups-and-downs of the dunes and the challenge of hiking in the sand. This is a wonderfully scenic trail from the perspective of seeing the dunes and getting a sense of their quiet beauty.
This trail also loops around the 10 primitive backcountry camping sites, so you’ll have to hike it if you have a backcountry camping permit and want to stay in the park overnight.
Whether you’re camping in White Sands or received a stay late/early entry permit, sunset is beautiful in White Sands – there’s just something special in the sky in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.
Find yourself a nice dune with a westward view and enjoy watching the sun sink behind the San Andres Mountains.
Again (as a reminder), you need a permit to stay late and go stargazing in White Sands – but this is one of the best things to do in White Sands, so I highly recommend it if you have the time (and the permit!).
While Marissa and I didn’t have time for this during our visit, I have a resource about stargazing in White Sands on my space site and my friend Nicole shared her personal experience spending the night in White Sands; both are worth reading if you are planning to spend the night and enjoy the stars too.
Camp in the Park (or Stay in Alamogordo)
If you are spending two half-days and a night in between, you’ll either be camping in the park or stay in nearby Alamogordo. Check out the section below with my suggestions for where to stay in Alamogordo/near White Sands.
If you’ve gotten that permit to visit the park early and late, take full advantage of it: rise early to visit the park and watch the sunrise too. This time, you’ll see the sky light up and the sun rise over New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains to the east; again, there’s some magic in the air as many sunrises are just breathtaking here.
Hike the Alkali Flat Trail
Finally, those with the ability will want to conquer White Sands’ last major trail: the 4.7-mile Alkali Flat Trail (<75ft elevation change, loose dune sand). This trail will probably take 2-3 hours, so be sure to plan ahead with the right shoes, plenty of water, and sun protection – it is absolutely open and exposed and you need to bring everything you need to stay safe and enjoy the trail.
Enjoy a Picnic
The last stop you could make in White Sands is to have a picnic at one of the iconic covered picnic tables. The best spot is the Yucca Picnic Area, where there are over a dozen of these structures available on a first-come basis. You’ll obviously need to bring your own food to do this, as there is no restaurant, cafe, or even snack bar in White Sands.
From there, it’s entirely up to you where you head next. Maybe you’re doing a Texas/New Mexico national parks road trip and head to Carlsbad Caverns, or you go west to Las Cruces. Southern New Mexico has lots else to offer!
Where to Stay Near White Sands National Park
The closest option for hotels near White sands National Park is the town of Alamogordo, a 20-minute drive. There are lots of options, especially if you love national chains. I prefer smaller and independent hotels, so here are two that caught my eye:
- Marissa and I were actually booked at The Classic Desert Aire Hotel originally but had to change our plans. I love the Southwest meets Mid-Century style, and rooms start from $76 per night. Book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- The White Sands Motel is another good option; it’s a bit more spartan but has that slightly-dated feel of all great national park hotels. Rooms start from $99 per night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
It’s further afield, but Las Cruces is only 50 minutes away and might make sense depending on the rest of your travel plans. There are even more hotel options to choose from there.
Final Note: Missile Testing & Your White Sands Visit
Before wrapping up, I have one last piece of advice: always check the White Sands NPS site several times before your trip (I suggest 2 weeks in advance, 1 week in advance, and in the last few days before your trip.). Why? Missles, baby.
In addition to being an incredible natural wonder, White Sands National Park sits inside White Sands Missile Range; as you might expect, the military gets first dibs if they want to take over to test all those super important explosives they love to have. (Getting a sense of my feeling about this?!)
Anyway, the point here is that missile testing can cause closures at the national park. Typically, it’s just in the early morning and then the park opens for the majority of the day, but the details are always listed on the NPS site if testing is planned. So again, check the site several times to make sure you know whether missile testing will occur during your trip and how that might affect your plans.
(We learned this first-hand during our trip; it ended up not affecting our visit, but we had to plan around it!)
Have any other questions about making the most of one day in White Sands National Park or the best things to do in White Sands? Let me know in the comments below!