Are you planning on going hiking in the White Sands National Park in New Mexico? Then you are not alone.
The White Sands offer an outdoor adventure that combines nature, history, and exercise. This magnificent park is home to some of the most beautiful white sand dunes on Earth — truly a sight to behold.
Every nook and cranny of this stunning desert boasts immense natural beauty and intriguing historical sites. Whether you’re hoping to find peace in walking along snow-white sands, discover artifacts from centuries before your own time, or take beautiful photos that will make all your friends envious — White Sands has something for everyone!
My husband and I visited the White Sands National Park many times and explored the trails with rangers and also by ourselves.
To save you a lot of time preparing for your adventure in the white desert, I have created this comprehensive White Sands Hiking Guide featuring all the trails and everything else you need to know.
Let’s get to it!
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Table of Contents
- About the White Sands National Park
- White Sands Hiking Trails – Overview
- The Alkali Flat Trail
- The Dune Life Nature Trail
- The Interdune Boardwalk
- The Playa Trail
- Backcountry Camping Trail
- Guided Sunset Walk with a Ranger
- Safety Tips for White Sands Hiking Adventures
- What you need to pack for Hiking in the White Sands National Park
- What else can you do in the White Sands National Park?
- Where to stay near the White Sands National Park
- How to get around the White Sands for Hiking
- Conclusion: White Sands National Park Hiking
About the White Sands National Park
The White Sands National Park is located in the southern part of New Mexico in the United States. It is famous for its stunning landscape of white gypsum sand dunes.
They cover an area of over 275 square miles (710 square kilometers). This makes it the largest gypsum dune field in the world.
The park offers a variety of fun activities for the young and old. Visitors enjoy hiking, camping, picnicking, and sand sledding. The unique landscape also attracts photographers – I found it to be extremely instagrammable.
Camping is available at the park, there are multiple campsites for visitors. The park offers several ranger-led programs, including guided hikes, evening programs, and educational talks. We participated in the guided sunset hike with a ranger – and it was a great experience.
Make sure to check out when it is the best time to go to the White Sands National Park.
The Visitors Center
There is a visitor center located near the entrance of the park. The visitor center is a great place to start your visit to White Sands National Park. It truly offers a wealth of information about the park’s history, geology, and ecology. Everything is explained in a very accessible way – even for children.
At the visitor center, you can watch a short film about the park, browse exhibits that showcase the unique features of the dunes.
You can also speak with rangers who can answer questions and provide guidance for your visit. This is a great place to purchase park souvenirs, including books and maps.
White Sands Hiking Trails – Overview
If you are only looking for a quick overview of the White Sands Hiking Trails, you can find it here. Further down in this post, I will go into bigger detail about the different Walking and Hiking Trails in the White Sands.
The White Sands National Park has currently five different established hiking trails:
- Alkali Flat Trail: this is the longest and most challenging trail in the park
- Backcountry Camping Trail: for visitors who are camping overnight in the park
- Interdune Boardwalk: easy, half-mile boardwalk trail
- Playa Trail: This is a one-mile round trip hike that leads to a small playa
- Dune Life Nature Trail: self-guided, one-mile loop trail
All of these trails offer unique experiences and opportunities to explore the beauty of White Sands National Park. I have personally visited all of these trails except the Backcountry Camping Trail – and they are all equally beautiful – yet very unique.
The Alkali Flat Trail
The Alkali Flat Trail is the longest and most challenging hiking trail in White Sands National Park. It is a 5-mile round-trip hike.
The hike will take you across the dune fields to the so-called Alkali Flat. The Alkali flat is a dry lake bed and is a remnant of an ancient sea.
The trail-head for the Alkali Flat Trail is located at the end of the Dunes Drive. The Dunes Drive is a paved road that leads through the heart of the dune field.
The trail begins at the end of the road and heads out into the open dunes. The trail is nicely guided by trail markers so you really can’t get lost. Keep following the red trail markers with a diamond symbol.
The first half of the trail is relatively easy, but it does include a small uphill climb. From there you will have stunning views of the dune field and the surrounding mountains.
As you come closer to the Alkali Flat, the terrain becomes more challenging. There is a lot of deep sand and some steep dunes that you will have to hike through. On a hot day this can be a very challenging hike.
B aware that the Alkali Flat Trail is considered strenuous and can take several hours (we took about 3 hours) to complete. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and good hiking shoes. I also suggest good sunglasses, to keep the wind from blowing sand in your eyes.
There is no shade, no water, and no toilet facility along this trail. Make sure to get your things in order at the Visitors Center before you head out.
Despite its challenges, the Alkali Flat Trail offers a unique and unforgettable experience and is one of my favorite White Sands Hiking Trails.
The Dune Life Nature Trail
The Dune Life Nature Trail is a one-mile self-guided loop trail and is an excellent choice for families and hikers that want to learn about the nature or simply seeking a shorter hike. This was the first trail I completed, and I liked it a lot.
You can see lots of unique plants and animals that inhabit the dunes in White Sands National Park on this trail. The trail is relatively flat and easy to navigate. There are two steep dunes with loose sand that you will need to conquer on this hike.
The trailhead for the Dune Life Nature Trail is located near the entrance of the park. It is right next to the picnic area. The trail is marked with informative signs about the different ecological zones in the park. They teach you about the interdune areas, the dune crest, and the slipface.
Some of the plants that we saw on the trail were yucca, soap-weed, and various types of cacti. You may also spot animals such as lizards, jackrabbits, and snakes. There are also lots of birds in the park. Maybe you’ll even meet Katy the Kit Fox.
One of the highlights of the Dune Life Nature Trail is the opportunity to see the tracks of animals that have crossed the dunes. You will learn how to identify different types of tracks and match them to the animals.
Overall, the Dune Life Nature Trail is a great way to learn more about the White Sands National Park and get an up-close view of the plants and animals that live in the dunes.
The Interdune Boardwalk
The Interdune Boardwalk is a half-mile-long White Sands Hike. It is a wheelchair-accessible and stroller-friendly trail. The boardwalk is a great option for visitors who are looking for an easy, leisurely walk or for those who have limited mobility. I found it to be a nice trail, but not very challenging.
The trailhead for the Interdune Boardwalk is located near the park’s visitor center. There are lots of interesting signs that give information about the plants and animals that inhabit the interdune areas along the way.
The boardwalk is a bit elevated to protect the delicate ecosystem below. As an added bonus, it will provide you with a unique vantage point for your hike. A shade structure with some seating is located midway along the boardwalk, this is a great place to take a rest.
As you walk the boardwalk, you can see a variety of plants, that include soaptree yucca, desert holly, and Apache Plume.
In addition to the plant life, the Interdune Boardwalk also houses lizards, birds, and insects that rely on the interdune areas for food and shelter.
Overall, the Interdune Boardwalk is a great way to experience the unique beauty of the dunes in White Sands National Park and to learn about the important ecological role that the interdune areas play in the park’s ecosystem.
The Playa Trail
The Playa Trail is a beautiful hiking trail in the White Sands Park that is approximately 4.5 miles long. It is designed as a loop trail that will take you through the heart of the park.
I would rate the trail as very easy to complete. There are some outdoor exhibits on the way that will teach you a lot about the area. This trail is very family friendly.
Look out for green markers with a heart symbol on it. They will guide you throughout the trail.
The hike is self-guided and it will teach you a lot about the importance of playas. A playa is defined as a shallow hole that fills temporarily with rainwater from storms.
The trail will lead you to a small playa that might be filled with water. It might also be dry.
At the end of the walk, you can see what the playa used to look like many years ago. I found this super interesting.
Please make sure to stay on the walkways, the surrounding soil is very sensitive.
The Backcountry Camping Trail is a designated trail that allows visitors to camp overnight in the park’s backcountry. I have not personally taken this trail, so I am relying on the information of the official Website of the National Park Service.
The Backcountry Camping Trail is a 2-mile trail that starts at the Backcountry Parking Lot. It heads directly into the heart of the park. The trail is marked with cairns, and you are required to follow the designated path to protect the fragile desert ecosystem.
Follow the orange trail markers with the spade symbol for this trail.
The trail leads to designated camping sites. They are marked with posts so you can easily find them. There are a limited number of campsites available, and visitors are required to obtain a backcountry camping permit from the visitor center before camping overnight.
Camping in the backcountry of White Sands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. You may have the opportunity to see the park’s wildlife, including coyotes, kit foxes, and kangaroo rats. It also gives you more time to enjoy the park’s breathtaking scenery in a secluded and peaceful setting.
It’s important to note that backcountry camping in White Sands National Park can be challenging, and you should come prepared with the proper gear, including a tent, sleeping bag, and sufficient food and water.
There are no facilities in the backcountry, and you are responsible for cleaning up after yourself.
Guided Sunset Walk with a Ranger
The guided sunset walks in White Sands National Park are a popular activity for visitors. This was my favorite thing to do in the White Sands National Park during my visits.
During the guided sunset walks, you can join a ranger-led tour that takes them on a leisurely hike through the park’s dunes as the sun begins to set. The white dunes slowly get a blue tint as the sun sets behind the mountains. The experience is breathtaking.
The ranger shares information about the park’s unique geology, plant, and animal life, and cultural history, and answers any questions visitors may have. Our ranger was a lovely woman that had a lot of knowledge and was happy to share everything she knew.
The sunset walks are approximately one mile in length and last about 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on the pace of the group. The walks are designed to be suitable for all ages and fitness levels. We were a big group but it was very doable for everyone.
Make sure to wear comfortable shoes, bring water, and dress in layers as the temperature can drop rapidly as the sun sets.
One of the highlights of the guided sunset walks is the opportunity to witness the park’s dunes glowing in the golden light of the setting sun, creating a breathtaking and unforgettable sight. You can also take advantage of this opportunity to capture stunning photos of the dunes and the sunset. We had the luck of some nice people in our group that took many nice pictures of us.
The guided sunset walks are offered during the park’s peak season, typically from October to April, and reservations are required as space is limited.
If you are in town overnight, make sure to participate in one of these walks – you will love it!
Safety Tips for White Sands Hiking Adventures
- Stay on designated trails: Hiking off-trail can be dangerous. The shifting sand can make it difficult to navigate and increases the risk of getting lost or injured.
- Bring plenty of water: The park is located in the desert, and temperatures can soar during the day. Be sure to bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. At least one gallon (4L) of water per person per day is recommended.
- It is recommended that you do not start the hike if the temperature is at or above 85°F (30°C).
- Protect yourself from the sun: Wear a hat (make sure it can’t fly away, as it is windy), sunscreen, and lightweight, breathable clothing to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays. Make sure to wear sunglasses, the white sand reflects the sunlight which can hurt your eyes.
- Check the weather forecast: Thunderstorms can occur during the summer months, and flash flooding is a risk in certain areas of the park.
- Be aware of wildlife: The White Sands National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including rattlesnakes, coyotes, and kit foxes. Keep a safe distance from wildlife and do not feed or touch them.
- Tell someone your plans: Before heading out on a hike, let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to return. This way, if you get lost or injured, someone will know to come looking for you. You can also let the Visitor’s Center know that you are headed out, so they will monitor your return.
- Bring a first aid kit: Accidents can happen on the trail, so be prepared with a basic first aid kit that includes items like bandages, antiseptic, and pain relievers.
- Watch your step: The sand can be uneven, and it’s easy to trip or slip. Watch your step and wear sturdy, comfortable shoes with good traction.
- Leave no trace: Help preserve the natural beauty of the park by leaving no trace of your visit. Pack out all trash, including food scraps and toilet paper, and avoid disturbing the fragile desert ecosystem.
- Know your limits: Be honest about your fitness level and experience, and choose hikes that are appropriate for your abilities. Don’t push yourself beyond your limits, and turn back if you start to feel uncomfortable or exhausted.
- Bring a fully charged cell phone
What you need to pack for Hiking in the White Sands National Park
Here are some of my recommended items to pack before going hiking or camping in the White Sands National Park:
- Water Bottle that keeps your water cool
- Sun protection: hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses
- Eye drops (I got sand in my eye and I could easily wash it out with eye drops)
- First aid kit
- Wear lightweight, breathable clothing that will protect you from the sun and allow you to move comfortably. It’s also a good idea to bring a warm layer, like a fleece jacket, as temperatures can drop quickly in the evening.
- Footwear: Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes with good traction to navigate the sand dunes. Avoid sandals or open-toed shoes, as the sand can be abrasive and can cause blisters or injuries.
- Personal hygiene items: Bring toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other personal hygiene items, as there are no restrooms or facilities on the trails.
- Emergency gear: It’s a good idea to bring a whistle, flashlight, and other emergency gear in case you get lost or injured.
What else can you do in the White Sands National Park?
- Sledding: One of the most unique and popular activities in the park is sledding down the sand dunes. You can buy a plastic sled from the visitor center or bring your own. If you don’t need it anymore, you can bring it back for a refund. This is a great activity with kids.
- Scenic drives: The park has several scenic drives, including the 16-mile Dunes Drive, which takes you through the heart of the sand dunes. I loved doing that with my husband. You can comfortably sit in your car while exploring the area.
- Photography: The unique landscape of the park offers endless opportunities for photography, with the changing light creating dramatic and beautiful scenes.
- Ranger programs: The park offers a variety of ranger-led programs, including guided walks, talks, and stargazing events.
- Wildlife watching
- Educational exhibits: The visitor center has several educational exhibits on the park’s geology, ecology, and cultural history. They are super interesting to check out. They made them especially interactive so that also children can benefit from the exhibits.
- Picnicking: The park has several picnic areas where you can enjoy a meal or snack surrounded by the stunning landscape. You can even bring some meat and throw it on a barbecue at one of the designated barbecue stations.
- Horseback riding
- Full moon events: On select nights during the full moon, the park offers special events, including moonlit hikes and bike rides, and stargazing parties. I wish I had been there to participate in that.
Where to stay near the White Sands National Park
You can either go camping right in the White Sands National Park or stay in the close by town of Alamogordo. There are sadly no hotels directly at the park. My husband is no fan of camping so that is what we opted to do.
However, Alamogordo is a fun place to stay at. There are many things to do in Alamogordo that you can check out on your travels.
Here are some of the best hotels in Alamogordo, NM that offer comfortable and nice accommodations for visitors to White Sands National Park:
- Fairfield Inn & Suites Alamogordo – This hotel offers comfortable rooms and suites, free breakfast, an outdoor pool, and a fitness center. It is located just a short drive from the park and has great reviews from guests. Especially in summer, you will love the outdoor pool!
- Hampton Inn Alamogordo – This hotel offers spacious rooms, free breakfast, an indoor pool, and a fitness center. It is located close to restaurants and shops and is just a short drive from the park.
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites Alamogordo – This hotel offers modern rooms and suites, free breakfast, an outdoor pool, and a fitness center. It is located near the highway, making it easy to access the park and other nearby attractions. I really love the hot tub – it is fab!
How to get around the White Sands for Hiking
The only way to get around Alamogordo and inside the White Sands National Park is by car. We usually grab a rental car at the Airport from DiscoverCars – a cheap and easy way to get around the area.
Conclusion: White Sands National Park Hiking
All in all, hiking in White Sands National Park can be a great way to explore the beauty of nature. The five hikes described above offer different experiences and something for everyone who visits.
In order to enjoy your experience at the park and stay safe, remember to pack the suggested items before embarking on your adventure. I hope your experience is just as much fun as mine was!
Now that you know all about things related to hiking in White Sands National Park, grab your backpack and explore the beautiful landscape of New Mexico!
Ready for more Alamogordo fun? Be sure to check out my next blog post about Things To Do In Alamogordo – I’m sure it’ll have something that suits your fancy! Until then, happy hiking!