Blake Walsh

20 Best Things to Do in White Sands National Park, NM

  • Published 2023/03/14

The most notable feature of White Sands National Park is the white sands, which lent the national park its name.

The sand comprises coarse gypsum crystals, forming dunes that stretch out across the horizon.

The White Sands National Park is the best place to go if you want to see that.

The place has a lot of trails and hosts a lot of activities to keep its visitors engaged and safe while traveling through the area.

Here are the best things to do when visiting White Sands National Park, NM:

Stop by the Visitor Center

Exterior of White Sands' Visitor Center

Cory Woodruff /

Once you get to the White Sands National Park, your first stop should be the visitor center.

You’ll meet park rangers who’ll answer your questions about the place, from the activities you can do to the available amenities and accessibility options.

Name sign of White Sands' Visitor Center

Chad Robertson Media /

There are museum exhibits and theaters for people seeking some entertainment before they get to explore the park itself.

You can also find out if they’re hosting any special events, so ask around if any are happening while you’re visiting.

There’s also a gift shop if you want to check out the park merchandise and purchase a souvenir.

Drive along Dunes Drive

A vehicle along Dunes Drive

magraphy /

If you’re visiting by car, Dunes Drive is something you won’t want to miss.

Take an eight-mile scenic drive where you’ll be surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of white sand.

It starts at the visitor center and ends at the heart of the dune fields, the entire journey taking around 45 minutes.

Caution sign on Dunes Drive

Anna Westman /

But, you may want to take a bit longer to appreciate and explore the area properly.

You’ll find various amenities there, such as picnic areas and outdoor exhibits, and different hiking trails.

So, take your time while you’re there; follow your gut and go where the wind leads, whether that means settling down on the sand for a picnic or following one of the hiking trails on foot.

Chase the horizon and make the most of your time there.

Have a Picnic Overlooking the Sand Dunes

Picnic tables and chairs on White Sands

melissamn /

Honestly, with a view like that, who wouldn’t want to stop to admire the lovely surroundings?

There are designated picnic areas scattered throughout the park, and stopping by one is a great way to bond with your family and appreciate the serenity of the place.

A picnic blanket overlooking a scenic sunset

Cavan-Images /

Bring one of your grills with you and enjoy a barbecue in the area.

Keep the area clean and free from debris for the next travelers after you.

If you’re coming with a large group, you can reserve a private location in the group use area.

Picnic area of White Sands

NSiomava /

Listen to the Performances at Full Moon Night

If you want to experience the magic of White Sands, you have to do it during a full moon.

Just picture it: a clear night sky above you, the moon full and shining, bathing you in its white light, with the white sand all around you.

Reflect on your place in the world and fall in love with the beauty of everything around you.

But the gorgeous view isn’t the only selling point of Full Moon Nights.

The park hosts complete moon programs at select months.

You can catch live entertainment from local musicians and entertainers during these programs.

Go on a Full Moon Hike

View of the Full Moon at White Sands

ZB149 /

Besides watching performances and basking in the moonlight, you can also go hiking under the gaze of the bright full moon.

You’ll hike steep dunes and traverse the soft sand.

Park rangers will keep you safe during the hike.

This program is offered once a month throughout the year, so plan your trip accordingly if you want to join.

Walk the Alkali Flat Trail

Daytime view of the beautiful Alkali Flat Trail

kojihirano /

Despite the name, the Alkali Flat Trail is not flat.

However, it is something that’ll make you appreciate the beautiful area all around you and give you some strenuous exercise along the way.

The trail is seven miles long and will take you to the heart of the white sands, leading you up and over the dunes and rewarding you with a gorgeous view the entire time.

Footprints along Alkali Flat Trail

kojihirano /

When you walk this trail, you’ll feel like wandering those mysterious deserts in stories, with only the wind for company and your footprints as the only things that’ll mark your passage.

According to the park’s rules, you can explore the trail only on foot.

It’ll test your strength and endurance, so prepare properly before embarking on this journey.

A hiker at Alkali Flat Trail

Kelly vanDellen /

Pass through the Interdune Boardwalk

The long Interdune Boardwalk

Sandra Foyt /

Not everyone can walk the difficult trails of White Sands, maybe due to disability, inexperience, or because they don’t want to, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get to appreciate and explore the area’s beauty.

The Interdune Boardwalk provides an easy path for people exploring the area.

Starting point of Interdune Boardwalk


It’s less than a mile long and will only take a short time to walk fully, but even that brief journey will lead you to something that’ll make the breath catch in your throat.

The boardwalk will lead you to a clear view of the dune fields and the Sacramento Mountains.

You’ll even see small patches of local flora and fauna breaking through the sand and thriving in the hostile environment if you look around.

Appreciate the Dune Life Nature Trail

Marker of the Dune Life Nature Trail


The endless white sand might make you think that life can’t thrive in White Sands, but that’s not true.

This place supports large and varied ecosystems, featuring animals that adapt to the environment in unique and exciting ways.

Daytime view of Dune Life Nature Trail

Alisa_Ch /

When you follow the Dune Life Nature Trail, you’ll glimpse how much life this place has.

The trail lies at the edges of the dune field, meaning it has unique characteristics that you can’t find in the middle of the white sand areas.

This trail is where the dunes and the desert scrub community converge, and there are many wild animals there, such as kit foxes, badgers, and coyotes.

Grassland at Dune Life Nature Trail

Alisa_Ch /

Ride a Bike on the Sandy Roads

Besides horseback riding, you can also go cycling if you’re looking for more demanding activities through the trail.

You’ll ride your bike on hard-packed gypsum, an experience that you’ll only get on White Sands.

Remember that you can only bike on designated roads; also, remember that you’ll share the same route with motor vehicles.

Hence, it’s essential to practice proper safety procedures while you’re there.

Wear a helmet on your journey to ensure safety and be mindful of the various blind curves along the road to avoid any accidents.

Learn about Local Geology on the Lake Lucero Trail

Rangers leading the way to Lake Lucero Trail

Oleg Kovtun Hydrobio /

Lake Lucero formed the dunes of White Sands, and you’ll get a glimpse of how that process took place if you follow this trail.

This tour has a ranger who will take you through the edges of the lake and talk about the geological story of the area.

The lake has long since dried up and only fills up with water if heavy rains and snow are in the area.

The dried up Lake Lucero

Oleg Kovtun Hydrobio /

So, you can traverse the lake bed and walk through the thousands of selenite crystals that dot the ground.

These crystals, which the wind had slowly eroded over time, are critical to forming the gypsum sand that blankets the entire area.

This tour is only available at specific times during the year, so plan your trip accordingly if you want to experience it.

The crystals of Lake Lucero Trail

Oleg Kovtun Hydrobio /

Ride a Horse across the Sand

If you’re not that interested in hiking but still want to have a unique experience in White Sands, don’t fret.

You can try out horseback riding and feel like the old cowboys, going off into the sunset with your trusted companion, far from civilization and surrounded by an endless expanse of sand.

You can get permission for a day-use horse from the park entrance if you want to try it out, so fill out all the relevant forms when you get there.

There are designated areas where you can ride your horses freely, bond with the animal, and appreciate the view.

Don’t forget to have as much fun as you can.

Travel the Backcountry Camping Trail

Daytime view of Backcountry Camping Trail

Noah Sauve /

The Backcountry Camping Trail will give you a scenic and expansive view of the snow-white dunes that stretch out for miles and miles.

You’ll get a sense of the sheer magnitude and grandeur of the largest gypsum dune field in the entire world.

You can only travel this moderately challenging trail on foot.

It’s two miles long and will lead you straight into the heart of the dunes.

The trail is a pretty popular path for travelers, but it’s still an excellent place to go if you’re looking for some peace as you traverse the sand.

Go Sledding Down the Dunes

A person sledding down white sands

Andriy Blokhin /

People usually associate sledding with snow and winter, but you can enjoy this fun-filled activity in the sparkling white dunes at White Plains.

It’s an excellent activity for children and adults alike, so try it while you’re there.

An empty sled on white sands

Alisa_Ch /

You can purchase waxed plastic saucers from the gift shop or bring your own, slide down the dunes, and have the time of your life.

Just make sure your sledding trajectory isn’t heading towards any open roads to prevent accidents.

A child sledding down white sands

IrinaK /

Take One Last Sunset Stroll

Sunset Stroll starting point

Barna Tanko /

After exploring as much area as possible, end your day with a sunset stroll along the sandy dunes.

The sunset stroll is a guided tour timed to end at sunset, where a ranger will lead you through the area.

You’ll learn about the local geology and the unique plants and animals living there against the backdrop of a fiery sunset.

As you reach the end of the trail, remember to take a few pictures of the beautiful view as a keepsake of your journey.

Traverse the Playa Trail

The Playa Trail is another easy one if you’re a newbie hiker looking for something fun to do.

It’s around half a mile long and only takes about 30 minutes.

A playa is a shallow depression in the land that fills with water, forming a unique path when the rain comes.

You’ll traverse a lakebed that remains dry for most of the year.

The trail is fun and family-friendly, perfect for a family hike.

Take a Photography Tour

White Sands National Park is an ideal destination for photography enthusiasts due to its unique white gypsum sand dunes.

The park offers guided photography tours led by experienced tour guides, perfect for visitors looking to capture the park’s stunning beauty through their camera lens.

These tours suit amateur and professional photographers, as the guides provide valuable opportunities for taking the perfect shot—from composition, lighting, and camera settings to help participants take the perfect shot.

During the tour, visitors can explore the park’s scenic trails and dunes while photographing various subjects, including wildlife, plants, and landscapes.

Whether you’re an expert or a beginner photographer, a photography tour at White Sands National Park is an excellent way to improve your skills while enjoying the natural wonders of this stunning location.

Participate in a Sand Sculpture Contest

The annual sand sculpture contest at White Sands National Park is a one-of-a-kind event that attracts visitors from around the globe.

The competition invites participants to showcase their artistic talents by crafting sculptures from the park’s distinctive gypsum sand.

Open to all ages and skill levels, the contest offers various categories, such as realistic, abstract, or humorous sculptures, for individuals or teams to participate in.

Experts evaluate each sculpture on creativity, technique, and overall impact.

This event provides an excellent opportunity to appreciate the park’s unique geology while having fun with loved ones.

Whether you are a professional artist or passionate about creativity, joining the sand sculpture contest is a great experience while at White Sands National Park.

Go Birdwatching

White Sands National Park is a fantastic destination for bird enthusiasts due to its diverse ecosystems, providing habitats for many bird species.

The park has a large collection of birds, including swallows, hummingbirds, and owls.

The Greater Roadrunner is one of the most coveted birds in the park, often observed running across the dunes while hunting.

Expert birders lead guided birding tours for visitors to identify various species and discover details about their behavior and habitat.

Alternatively, visitors can independently explore the park’s trails to spot these feathered inhabitants.

Binoculars and a reliable field guide are useful tools for a successful birdwatching in the park.

So, whether you’re an avid birder or someone who enjoys observing birds, White Sands National Park is a must-see destination for all nature enthusiasts.

Visit the Lake Lucero Gypsum Mine

The Lake Lucero Gypsum Mine is an exceptional and historic site located within White Sands National Park.

This is where gypsum, the mineral that forms the park’s iconic white dunes, was first discovered in the area.

Visitors can join guided tours of the mine to discover more about the park’s geology and history while exploring where this mineral was initially extracted.

These tours are led by park rangers who provide intriguing insights into how the dunes were formed and how mining was done in the past.

As part of the tour, visitors will take a brief hike to reach the foundation of the gypsum dunes.

This presents an excellent chance to see what makes this landscape so unique.

Along with learning about the park’s history and geology, visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of nearby mountain ranges and desert landscapes.

A Lake Lucero Gypsum Mine trip is both educational and fulfilling, providing valuable insights into White Sands National Park’s past and geology.

Attend a Night Walk

White Sands National Park provides a unique chance for visitors to explore the dunes and observe wildlife at night through its night walk program.

Experienced rangers lead the way, allowing participants to discover the park’s nocturnal creatures and view the dunes in a new light.

During the night walk program at White Sands National Park, only red lights prevent disturbing the animals in the area.

The park’s unique geology and lack of light pollution provide an incredible view of stars, constellations, and even the Milky Way.

As part of this guided tour, visitors can observe different types of wildlife active only at night, including bats, kangaroo rats, and owls.

This immersive experience is an excellent opportunity to connect with nature and learn about the different ecosystems present in the park.

Whether you’re an experienced nighttime hiker or just starting, White Sands National Park’s night walks are a must-try activity.

Final Thoughts

There’s simply nothing like experiencing firsthand the wonders of the natural world.

You won’t forget your journey to the White Sands National Park anytime soon.

They’ll leave their mark in your memory and become an experience you’ll treasure for years to come.

As you see the wind blowing through the dunes, the sand dancing with the breeze, savor the experience as much as you can.

After all, it’s not every day you get to see something so beautiful, so make it last as long as you can.

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