White Sands - dune

Visiting White Sands National Monument (And Why You Need to Go)

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Like much of the rest of New Mexico, I knew little about White Sands National Monument before I visited it.

I had no idea, for instance, it’s actually part of a US government missile testing range. I wasn’t aware it’s a relic from the last ice age when a vast lake covered the entire region, or that back in 2008 local residents campaigned to have White Sands removed from a list of tentative World Heritage sites.

I was also completely unaware it would end up being the most fun — and most beautiful — place I visited on this entire Southwest road trip.

We arrived mid-morning, at least an hour later than we should have, and with the temperature rapidly rising. What better time to wander around a desert landscape under a cloudless sky?

As it happened, on this particular day it wouldn’t have mattered how early we got there. There was a live missile firing taking place, and the gates were firmly shut until that was finished. Our little rental car had already shown that it could stand up to almost anything we threw at it, but it might have drawn the line at a Tomahawk.

Empty, sandy road with white sand on either side.

The entire area is an anomaly, 275 square miles of sand amidst millions of acres of tussock and tumbleweeds. From the highway we’d caught a glimpse of what lay in store, but it wasn’t until a couple of miles past the entrance that things got spectacular.

The drifting grains that give the place its name surrounded us, the fine powder blowing gently over the road to accumulate on the tall white dunes stretching in every direction.

If this was elsewhere in the country, White Sands would be crawling with visitors, somewhere on the scale of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Instead, off the beaten track in New Mexico, we barely saw a soul.

A solitary tour bus slouched in a parking bay, an ugly mechanical silhouette in the bright sunlight. Occasional cars passed slowly by, but for much of the time it seemed as if we had the entire place to ourselves, able to stop anywhere we liked. So, of course, that’s just what we did.

It was time to go sand sledding.

Man kneeling down at the base of a white sand dune, applying wax to a round plastic board

The process is simple:

  1. Buy a plastic disc from the gift shop on the way in. Don’t forget to pick up a hunk of wax at the same time.
  2. Choose a dune with the steepest slope you can find.
  3. While sweating profusely, rub wax all over the sled, the more the better.
  4. Trudge up to the top of the dune, sled in tow. Sweat some more.
  5. Sit on the sled and shuffle over the edge, shouting loudly as you gather speed and fly towards the bottom. Make sure to tuck your legs up so you have absolutely no control over your direction.
  6. Bounce onto the flat ground at the bottom, ideally tumbling off the sled in the process.
  7. Laugh loudly, dust yourself off, and repeat steps 2-6 approximately five billion times.
Man climbing up a white sand dune
What goes up…
Man sliding down a white sand dune
…must apparently come down a whole lot faster.

We slid down dunes for an hour or more, before deciding we should probably do a bit of sightseeing as well. The Dune Life nature trail sounded perfect, a mile-long walk through a surprisingly vegetated area.

Even though it totally doesn’t look like it, there’s apparently groundwater close to the surface of White Sands, and in a few low-lying areas, straggly bushes and small trees have managed to gain a foothold.

View over white sand dunes to the horizon, with footsteps in the sand in the foreground
View over grassy area with a narrow trail leading through the middle of it
Tree growing out of white sand dune

The walk took about an hour, which in that heat was definitely long enough. If you’re planning to do it yourself, be sure to cover yourself in sunscreen and take plenty of water. I got through a couple of pints without even trying.

We headed home for a while after that, if for no other reason than to try to wash out half a sand dune from every bodily crevice. The fun was far from over, though: we weren’t going to leave without seeing sunset from the top of the dunes!

Shadows over white sand dunes as evening approaches

If the park was quiet when we’d been there earlier in the day, it was deserted on our return. The dunes had changed colour in the evening light, from bright white to a muted golden hue.

Golden light at sunset over sand dunes

Climbing to the top of the largest one we could find, our footprints and the whisper of voices from a small group in the distance were the only signs of life. I set up my GoPro to take a timelapse, laid back in the cool sand, and waited.

GoPro camera on a small tripod, looking over sand dunes towards hills in the distance

Over the next hour I remembered why I rarely watch television or movies. They just can’t compete with what nature does every night. The world changed every time I looked up, the dunes gently glowing all around us as clouds drifted above far-flung mountains. The sky cycled through the colours of the rainbow, then caught fire for its final act.

Even our distant neighbours drew silent, the only sound sands shifting in the gentle breeze. A deep sense of calm took over, our muted conversation drifting away in favour of silently enjoying the moment.

Sunset over darkened sand dunes

Even as the dunes darkened around us, the sun’s final rays continued to light the horizon, seemingly unwilling to let the moment end.

Sunset over darkened sand dunes

Finally plunged into near-darkness, we stumbled back down the dunes to the car. As night settled in around us on the way back home, we remarked how easy it would have been to have skipped coming back for sunset… and how great it was that we hadn’t.

It had been a perfect day, from the hiking and adrenaline of sliding down dunes in the midday sun, to the reflective peace of nightfall. White Sands is truly remarkable – why it isn’t more well-known I have no idea, but I was grateful for the unexpected tranquility.

If you ever get the chance, go.

Just go.

Getting to White Sands National Monument

The White Sands National Monument stretches over 225 square miles, but there’s only one entrance, on the north side of US-70. It’s where you’ll find the ticket booth to pay your entrance fee, and the visitor center and gift shop to buy your plastic sled, wax, and whichever tacky souvenirs take your fancy.

If you’re coming from the west, it’s 52 miles from Las Cruces to White Sands. From the east, Alamogordo to the White Sands entrance is 15 miles. That’s the closest place to get gas as well.

No buses or other public transport serve White Sands National Monument, so you’ll likely end up driving there. Rental cars are available in Las Cruces, Alamogordo, and El Paso (including at the airport).

Make sure you put “White Sands Visitor Center” into your GPS, not just “White Sands”. The latter will likely take you to the missile range, which probably isn’t where you’re aiming for.

White Sands National Monument Costs

When I first visited White Sands, it cost just $3/person, and I remarked at the time that it seemed particularly cheap. Perhaps the NPS was listening, because ticket prices have gone up quite a bit since then.

The White Sands entry fee is now $15 per person, $20 per motorcycle, or $25 per car or other vehicle, valid for a week. Payable at the ticket kiosk at the entrance, you can use cash or card.

If you’ll be returning within the year, an annual pass gives unlimited entry for the pass holder and up to three other people in a vehicle.

Sledding at White Sands

If you plan to go sledding, you’ll pay around $25 per sled at the visitor center, plus a few dollars for the wax. If you don’t want to keep the sled, you’ll get a $5 refund by returning it before you leave.

The visitor center only has a certain number of sleds, though, and once they’re gone for the day, that’s it. Bringing your own will save you money, and guarantee your sledding experience. The Walmart in Alamogordo usually has plenty of sleds at a lower price, or you can bring one from home instead.

White Sands Accommodation

There’s nowhere to stay directly in or beside White Sands National Monument. We went for an Airbnb place in Tularosa, but to be honest, both the town and accommodation were pretty unexciting. It’s also nearly thirty miles away from the entrance, which wasn’t ideal when going back and forward twice in a day.

Next time, I’d stay in a hotel in Alamogordo instead. My budget picks would be the White Sands Motel or the Classic Desert Aire, both of which include breakfast as part of their reasonable nightly rate.

If you’ve got a bit more to spend, the Holiday Inn or Hampton Inn is likely where you’ll want to lay your head. They both include breakfast as well, along with nice extras like hot tubs and fitness centers.

If there’s little or no accommodation left in Alamogordo, Las Cruces has more options. As mentioned, though, it’s over fifty miles from White Sands, so you’re looking at an hour’s drive each way.

PS: Here’s how that timelapse ended up!

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  1. what is the price of the sled and the wax? would you find it anywhere else that we could buy in town, walmart or amazon maybe?

    1. You’ll pay around $20 for a sled and wax, and get a few dollars back if you return the sled to the visitor center before you leave. If you did plan to keep it, and are coming from Alamogordo, you’ll be able to buy a sled cheaper at the Walmart in town before you go. I’m sure you could also get something similar from Amazon for less money as well.