History and Stats
The area was first explored by the US Army in 1849, during which time the area was inhabited by the Mescalero Apache. Settlement of the area by non-natives slowly proceeded throughout the last half of the 19th century.
Efforts to preserve White Sands date back to the turn of the 19th century, but it was not until 1933 when Herbert Hoover, under the Antiquities Act of 1906, declared it a National Monument. The Visitor Center Complex, designed by Lyle E. Bennett, was completed in 1938 as part of the Works Progress Administration and was constructed in adobe in line with the regional architecture.
Date Founded: January 18, 1933, Dedicated April 29, 1934.
Size: 143,733 acres
Rainfall: 9in; 2in of snow
Visitors: 500,000 a year
Open: Year-Round, with the exception of December 25th.
There are also intermittent closures due to weapons testing at the White Sands Missile Range, and visitors on a tight schedule are recommended to call 575-479-6124 to verify hours of operation.
The hours of both the Visitor Center and Gate vary throughout the year, but an updated schedule can be found here.
Fees: Entrance Fees are $5 per adult (16 and up), while children are free. *We will note that these fees are covered completely by the America The Beautiful Pass, which applies to over 2,000 different sites. White Sands also offers its own year-round pass for $30, which is good for 3 persons and one vehicle.
“To preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
As a National Monument, White Sands is meant to preserve the largest gypsum desert on the planet and its fragile eco-system. There are a limited amount of camping sites, and access to the backcountry is tightly restricted. Education is also a large part of the park, and a great deal of information is available exploring the desert ecosystem. A large draw for tourists is the ability to slide down the dunes, and the looped roadway through a small portion of the park allows for access.
The Visitor Center Complex features a number of educational displays, an educational film, an Information Desk with a staff of rangers, and a large gift shop. Flush toilets and potable water are on site, as well as a small desert garden, detailing some of the many species of plants in the area.
Inside the park is an accessible elevated desert walk that provides a wealth of information on the plants, animals, and desert itself.
Alamogordo (pop. 31,283) is 16 miles away and has motels, hotels, restaurants and everything else you would expect from a small town.
Camping within White Sands is at the designated backcountry campsites. Campers are required to pay monument entrance fees as well as camping fees. The camping fee is $3.00 per person age 16 and older and $1.50 for anyone age 15 and under. There is a 50% discount on camping fees for holders of the Federal Access and Senior passes. This discount is only valid for the cardholder. It does not apply to other campers in the group.
Fees are collected at the fee station at the beginning of Dunes Drive. The sites are all at least one mile from the road, and the hike in takes longer than usual given the terrain. There is a toilet at the trailhead, but the sites themselves are primitive, and fires are not permitted.
A variety of lodging options can also be found in Alamogordo.
Novice to Intermediate. While it’s only a mile in, hiking up and down dunes with a full pack is somewhat strenuous. There are no fires permitted, and there are no bathrooms aside from the vault toilet at the trailhead. All garbage needs to be packed out.
White Sands offers a great deal of ranger-led programs, from nature walks to full moon hikes. White Sands also participates in various community events in nearby Alamogordo. Full information can be found here.
This was one of our favorite campsites. The star gazing was some of the best ever, and because of the valley’s alignment, you get a fantastic view of both sunset and sunrise. The cost of access is almost ludicrously low, and we were more than happy to spring for a sled and some wax at the gift shop and spend a few hours careening down the dunes.
Things we’d like to try next time
The ranger-programming all looked great, but it didn’t fit in with our schedule. If we went back, we would plan ahead and make sure to take advantage of something like a full moon hike or a nature talk.
- While there are some decent dunes to slide down by the backcountry sites, the best is just past the Alkali Flats trail and are oriented on a North/South axis.
- Sleds and wax are available in the gift shop. There is a discount if you choose to purchase used wax and sleds (if they’re available), and the shop will buy back your sled and wax at a reduced rate if you’re on the road or just have no use for a sled.
- When walking, be mindful of the desert crust. It’s actually made by microbial organisms, and it’s an important part of the desert ecosystem. Breaking it can take years to repair.
- The sands also capture the prints of local wildlife; while we didn’t actually see the fox, we know one walked right by our tent at some point in the night.
- Alcohol is permitted in the park, but only from May until February, due to a series of issues arising from college students on spring break throughout the mid-nineties.
- White Sands has been featured in numerous films and is a popular site to this day. While we were there, we saw a guitarist filming a low-budget video atop a dune.
What’s your favorite animal from the White Sands? Was the sunset or the sunrise more impressive? Did we miss the real sweet spot for dune-sledding? Did we miss anything?
Read more about our experience at the White Sands National Monument here.