Wander the Otherworldly Dunes of America’s Strangest National Park
Ethereal full moons and nuclear test sites await.
Dear reader, have you ever wanted to know where we go when we die?
Some say that if you live a good life, you’ll ascend beyond the clouds, or if you live a bad life, you’ll end up somewhere terrible. Others think you’ll get reincarnated again and again, or maybe that you’ll disappear completely, whether because your energy rejoins the universe or it all just fades to black. But us? We think you go to New Mexico.
Located about two hours south of Truth or Consequences, White Sands National Park is no less than limbo. Driving in from nearby Las Cruces, you’ll go flying down a wide-open desert road for miles and miles until suddenly—almost in the blink of an eye—an unusual sight appears: from the earth, bone-white sand rises up 60 feet into the air as if some celestial being dumped a giant cup of sugar in the middle of nowhere.
Inside the park’s bounds, White Sands’ namesake dunes—formed over thousands of years by gypsum salt leftover from an ancient, dried-up lake bed—roll on for over 200 miles with nothing separating them from the clear blue skies but distant, hazy purple mountains. Wandering around the nearly featureless landscape, interrupted only by the occasional desert shrub, you’ll wonder if you’ve wandered into Davy Jones’ Locker or some other silent place between dimensions.
Comparable to Death Valley’s Mesquite Flat, White Sands looks like heaven but gets hot as hell. It’s been the background for so many fictional worlds—The Man Who Fell to Earth, Year One, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Transformers and its sequel—and resembles so many others that you’ll be convinced within minutes that the whole thing isn’t real. Heck, we’d compare it to some sort of desert mirage, if only one could hallucinate an entire desert. Here’s everything to do while you’re out on the trance-inducing dunes of America’s strangest national park.
The best time of year to visit White Sands & things to know before you go
If you had any plans to visit White Sands in the summertime, it’s probably wise to reconsider. As it goes with any national park set in the desert, visiting between June and September comes with serious (and potentially dangerous) drawbacks: there’s absolutely NO shade, cloud cover is sparse, and at the peak of the season, temperatures skyrocket as high as 110ºF. On top of that, the sunlight reflects intensely off the dunes, promising serious sunburn and dehydration for the unprepared.
For best results, visit White Sands during spring and fall, and hike around sunrise or sunset, when temperatures are a little more manageable. No matter when you head out, pack ample water—at least one gallon per person, per day—bring plenty of snacks, wear a hat, and slather on sunscreen until you look like Mark Zuckerburg at the beach.
A few other safety items worth noting: Cell service in and around the park is incredibly spotty, and there’s nowhere in the park to charge your phone, either, so download maps and make sure your battery is at 100% before you enter. While you’re in the park, keep an eye out for inclement weather (lightning, monsoons, dust storms!) and poisonous animals (scorpions, rattlesnakes, black widows!). And last—on a particularly unique note—before you set out, make sure there are no missile tests scheduled during your visit, because Highway 70 may be blocked off. Now, get out there and have fun!
Pretend you’re Luke Skywalker or Paul Atreides
Although neither movie was filmed here, White Sands can’t help but conjure images of Luke Skywalker’s humble hometown on Tatooine in Star Wars, or the harsh, giant worm-laden sands of Arrakis in Dune. (Personally, this writer’s last name is so close to that of Dune’s main protagonist that I felt perfectly at home traversing the gypsum fields.) This is your chance to wander the fictional desert planet of your choosing—and what’s more, visitors are welcome to do so completely barefoot.
Heads up: most of the trails in White Sands require a fair amount of climbing up and down steep dunes—some as tall as 50 feet—and hiking across loose sand. There are also no traditional paths (a bit hard to carve those in the sand!); you’ll want to keep an eye out for color-coded trail markers, which should keep you from getting disoriented out in the nothingness.
Technically, there are only five designated hikes in White Sands. The Dune Life Nature Trail, Playa Trail, and Interdune Boardwalk are all relatively easy, clocking in at less than a mile each and giving those who’ve yet to earn their desert legs a chance to get acquainted with the dunes. The former two will get you playing in the sand right away, while the .4-mile Interdune Boardwalk, an elevated wooden walkway with scenic views and a shaded resting point, is by far the most accessible.
On the two-mile White Sands Backcountry Trail and five-mile Alkali Flat Trail (which is, well, markedly NOT flat), the dunes and the challenges of desert hiking are both at their greatest. Both trips will get you into the heart of the park and give you a true sense of just how HUGE it actually is, delivering surreal vistas as you hike up and down (and up and down and up and down) across the pristine, snow-white crests that make up the world’s largest gypsum field.
Although you don’t need to complete either trail to find phenomenal views, the further you’re willing to go, the fewer park-goers you’ll run into, and the more dreamlike things will begin to look and feel. Again, just keep an eye out for trail markers: the repetitive, expansive nature of the dunes can be surprisingly disorienting.
Get around by car, horse, bike, or sand sled
If you need a break from hiking or prefer your views without a side of sweat, Dunes Drive—the only road in the park—will take you on a winding drive between towering dunes, which hug the asphalt as it twists and turns and eventually transforms into hard-packed sand when you enter the heart of the dunefield. Along the 16-mile road, you’ll find a number of parking spots where you can choose to get out and explore for a while before continuing on your adventure.
Cars, bikes, and motorcycles are only allowed on Dunes Drive; the horse girls among us will be glad to hear that you can ride horses in some parts of the park. But the most popular alternative way of getting around, by far, is on a sand sled. You can pick one up from the Visitor’s Center near the park’s entrance ($10 for a used board, $20 for a brand new one). From there, all it takes is climbing to the top of a solid slope, hopping on, and careening back down again, and you’ve essentially guaranteed yourself the kind of afternoon that your inner child will love.
Visit the site of the first nuclear explosion
As you may notice on your way to the park, you’ll need to pass through the White Sands Missile Range in order to reach White Sands itself. Because the area is so isolated, it’s long been essential in the development of top-secret military weapons—including the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atomic bomb, which was detonated in 1945 at the Trinity Test Site just 45 miles north of White Sands National Park.
While that might send you running in the other direction—fair enough!—the not-faint-of-heart might be interested to know that, twice a year, the site opens up to travelers who’d like to check out ground zero and the McDonald Ranch House, where the bomb was assembled, for themselves. In 2022, the Trinity Test Site’s Open House dates fall on April 2 and October 15; since you’ll be entering government property, you’ll need to bring a valid ID and, if you’re the driver, proof of insurance! (And don’t worry: your exposure to radiation will be next to none!)
Admire the heavens (from inside the park and beyond)
One of the best places for stargazing—not just in New Mexico, but in the entire US—the snow-white surface of White Sands’ dunes beneath the glowing cosmos makes for yet another convincing argument that this place exists somewhere outside of reality. But the show isn’t reserved exclusively for spotting galaxies: Every day, Sunset Strolls take you out across the dunes to watch the sand turn gold as the sun dips behind the mountains, while Full Moon Hikes meet after dark once a month to watch a giant moon as it rises over the dunes.
Outside of the national park, if you’re willing to drive a few hours—kind of necessary if you want to visit White Sands, in the first place!—there are plenty of places in southern New Mexico to soak up the best space-related travel on offer. In nearby Alamogordo, you’ll find the Space Mural Museum, which is filled with all kinds of NASA paraphernalia and artifacts donated by former astronauts and other space industry pros. In Truth or Consequences about two hours northwest, check out Spaceport America, the world’s first-ever commercial spaceport (yes, that’s like an airport but for space travel!). And, if you want to make a road trip out of it, a few hours beyond that, you’ll hit the enormous field of satellites that make up the (currently closed) Very Large Array.
Where to stay near White Sands National Park
Where you choose to sleep all comes down to how far you’re willing to drive and how upscale you want things to be. In Alamogordo, the closest town to White Sands, you’ll find some inexpensive but frankly humble lodging; otherwise, you’ll need to head into Las Cruces about an hour south, where you’ll find more hotel options (try Hotel Encanto) and top-notice views of the jagged Organ Mountains. You might also anchor yourself in aforementioned Truth or Consequences, where you’ll be in for a serious treat after a long day of driving and dune-hiking: what the town’s unusual name doesn’t reveal is that it’s known for its utterly serene hot spring resorts.