White Sands National Monument
Looking for dreamy white sandy beaches in the desert? Look no farther than White Sands National Monument where you will find 275 square miles of beautiful white gypsum sand dunes awaiting you in the desert near Alamogordo, NM. One of the main draws to White Sands is that it is a giant sandbox with hills for kids to run, jump, explore, and sled. This fun outdoor playground seems like out of this world.
It amazes me how driving four hours from Albuquerque in different directions will result in the most drastically different landscapes our beautiful state has to offer.
We decided to explore the Alamogordo area one February four day weekend when the kids were off from school. We felt White Sands National Monument would be a highlighted Sidetrack and it did not disappoint. The sand is very fine and soft and can be cold or hot depending on the weather. If the weather is nice, it is fun to walk in your bare feet.
After driving about twenty minutes from Alamogordo, sand dunes start to appear out of nowhere. White Sands National Monument is located in the Tularosa Basin which was formed approximately 30 million years ago. The area consists of gypsum deposits that blow across the playa and form various types of dunes.
We arrived in the afternoon and stopped at the Visitor Center which has a lot of great info about the monument, and the staff there answered all of our questions. There is a large gift shop behind the visitor center (which we initially confused with the gift shop) with snacks, southwest gifts, and round plastic disc sleds. There are new sleds for sale, but you can purchase one and sell it back to the gift shop before closing time for a partial refund. There are different programs offered daily including guided walks and junior ranger-led activities.
Because it was President’s Day, admission was free. Each year the National Parks Service selects certain holidays as fee-free days. You can check their website for a list of parks with free admission days. We followed the map provided at the entrance and drove our car around the loop where there are different parking areas, all offering spectacular views of the dunes and mountains in the distance.
If you do not want to walk in the sand or have physical limitations, there is a wonderful inter-dune boardwalk that allows walking to a nice vantage point without actually stepping in the sand. There are benches and picnic tables along the boardwalk as well. Our kids enjoyed running along the boardwalk but were anxious to move on and actually run onto the dunes to play.
There are plenty of areas to park and explore. There are the most amazing retro looking shade structures over picnic tables which help to provide relief from what can often be a blazing sun. Even on a busy holiday weekend it is easy to find a spot of your own to park and explore.
My husband visited White Sands when he was our son’s age, and it has always held magical memories for him. We enjoyed seeing our kids having a great time sledding and “surfing” down the dunes. One of their favorite activities was a running jump where they flew thru the air and landed softly on the smooth incline. There were plenty of people without round disc sleds having a great time tumbling down the dunes as well. It was breezy and chilly the day we visited (55 degrees and 15mph winds) but the kids lasted a good while in the elements before they needed to escape to the car, somewhat sandblasted and cold. Wind and sand can make for a nice facial scrub and wind chapped faces. My son was wearing shorts and said the wind-blown sand stung his legs. Normally this is not a problem. Climbing the dunes can take a lot of effort on a calm day, but add the whipping winds and the struggle to climb up the dunes can be a challenge. There were still smiles for miles and we all had a great time.
We stayed until the park closed which is about one hour past sunset. It was a magical experience to see the sun setting and to follow the changes in the colors of the sky and landscape. The park is generally open daily until an hour past sunset.
We enjoyed ourselves so much, we extended the trip a bit and returned the following day after breakfast when there were no winds. We were there mid February and it was perfect that day for us. During the Summer the temperature can be very hot.
Exploring the dunes is at your own discretion. You may choose to stay close to the parking lot or venture miles away along the sand. There are signs listed at each parking area reminding you to make note of your surroundings, to have plenty of water with you, and to watch for changing weather. Many of the dunes look alike, so on a windy day you can lose your footprints and become lost if you wander too far.
There are a few trails at White Sands. The Alkali Flat Trail is a 4.6 miles roundtrip trail marked by white posts and orange reflective tape on top which serve as trail indicators. The park advises you to look for the next trail marker before proceeding from the top of each dune. The park warns that if you cannot see the marker due to wind and blowing sand, you should not proceed. The park also offers the 1 mile loop Dune Life Nature Trail, which is set along the dunes edge and offers trailside exhibits that highlight the wildlife of White Sands. There are orange markers buried in the sand to guide you. This is not a play use area. The third trail at White Sands is the Playa Trail, a 500 yard round trip trail that leads to a small playa, or low lying area. Most of the year, this is a dry lakebed. There is no shade or water along any of the trails, so be prepared and carry a pack with plenty of water and snacks to keep you fueled.
Some find it useful to put their cell phones in a zip lock plastic bag to protect it from the sand. Sunglasses were extra helpful sledding on that windy day. I have also heard that some families with little ones bring ropes to help pull the kids back up the dunes when sledding, as they may no doubt tire easily. As far as shoes and walking, we all took a different approach from sock and tennis shoes (you can walk quite a bit here), to Keen sandals, to flip flops, and to bare feet. We used baby powder to help remove the sand clinging to our feet and bodies. There is no water available outside of the visitor center, so make sure to bring plenty.
The park recommends one gallon of water per person/per day.
One thing that all of us really enjoy on overnight sidetracks in New Mexico is staying at a motel with an indoor pool when we can find one. The kids then have something extra to look forward to after a day out on the trail. And if they are not so thrilled with a particular part of the day, this always makes it better. For this sidetrack, we stayed at The Holiday Inn Express in Alamogordo which offered an indoor pool/hot tub and complimentary breakfast that we all found to be adequate.
Southeast of Albuquerque near Alamogordo, NM