White Sands National Park is America’s newest national park and is easily one of the most unique places we have ever been to. While we have been to other sites dedicated to dunes, White Sands NP is a bit more unique. It really is more of a big playground with a very delicate ecosystem. Still, there are plenty of things to do at White Sands NP, including a scenic drive, hiking and playing in the sand.
White Sands NP is so white because of gypsum, the same material used in drywall. The gypsum sand holds moisture better than most other types of sand, keeping the dunes intact even in a stiff wind.
It all combines to form something unlike anything we have experienced before.
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Visiting White Sands National Park
Located near the town of Alamogordo, NM, the national park is surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range and is adjacent to Holloman Air Force Base. There are times the park is closed to visitors due to missile testing, so bear that in mind when planning your visit at least until the new law fully takes effect later in 2020.
Alamogordo is only about 90 minutes from El Paso, the nearest airport, and about three hours from Carlsbad Caverns National Park or Guadeloupe Mountains National Park.
The park is not far outside of town. On the way to the park be sure to keep an eye on the pasture land along the road. As we were driving, Bonnie spotted something that looked unusual: a large antelope with long straight horns. On the way back to the hotel, we spotted another one and we stopped.
The mystery animal is an African Oryx, a large antelope from South Africa imported to this part of New Mexico as a game animal in the 1970s. You still find them in the White Sands area, including Holloman AFB.
Things to Do at White Sands NP
White Sands is much smaller than many other National Parks. With that comes fewer things to do. Still, it is an enjoyable park for a few hours and certainly unique enough to be worth a visit. Playing in the sand should definitely be at the top of your list of things to do. You can also learn about the ecosystem, do some hiking and even enjoy a picnic.
For us, 2-3 hours was enough time to explore the park. You may want to plan a little longer if you have kids who will enjoy more time playing in the sand or you’re interested in doing some longer hikes.
The White Sands National Park Visitor Center
As you come in, be sure to stop at the visitor center. As usual, there is a good exhibit on how the dunes were formed and the ecosystem created by this basin that traps the rain. The movie does a great job explaining how various animals survive in such a seemingly inhospitable environment.
While you are at the visitor center, it is a good time to grab some sleds from the gift shop so you can go sledding in the sand.
Pro tip: admission to the park is $20 per car. Getting an America the Beautiful pass costs $80, is good for a year, and will get you into every park site that has an admission fee.
Driving the Dunes Road in White Sands National Park
The main road of the park is the Dunes Road which leads by a couple of roadside stops before getting to Heart of the Sands area where you can play in the sand.
The first stop on the way in is the Playa Trail, a short trail that goes by an ephemeral lake, or playa, which is a low spot that occasionally has water that separates the gypsum from the selenite crystals. It is a relatively short, easy trail and it gives you a really good idea of the border of the dunes area.
Dune Life Nature Trail
The next stop is the Dune Life Nature Trail. This one-mile loop leads you up on top of a dune to explore the habitats found in the dunes.
The sand is soft to the touch but is much firmer than the other dunes we have hiked. It was much more pleasant to walk out into the dune fields here than other places we have been.
What really amazed me is how quickly you are removed from any sign of civilization on this trail. As soon as you hike up the steep incline at the beginning, the wide-open spaces of the dunes remove any feeling of civilization. It quickly imposed a feeling of how small we really are.
There are several exhibit signs providing some structure to the trail which would otherwise be impossible to follow without getting lost.
Pro tip: Make sure you take some water with you! Follow the Park Service’s recommendations on protection from the sun. We hiked on a cool, winter day. We could easily see how, even in middling temperatures, the sun reflecting off the sand would quickly cook someone who is not prepared.
The next stop is the Interdune Boardwalk. This is an ADA accessible boardwalk that allows you to see some of the flowering vegetation. It has some great views of the Sacramento Mountains to the east of White Sands National Park.
Heart of Sands
As you continue down the Dunes Road, the pavement will end and the road will continue on tightly packed sand. No worries. It is an easy drive in any vehicle.
At the end of the road, you will come into the Heart of Sands area, with plenty of picnic areas and pullouts. This is the perfect place to let the kids, whether real or in your heart, play in the dunes.
We took our sled out a little way on the Alkali Flat Trail. Then we walked off toward a particularly tall dune. We waxed up our sled and WEEEEEE! The ride down the dune was every bit as much fun as sledding in the snow.
Pro tip: The more you sled down in the same spot, the faster you go.
Truly, this was a lot of fun and worth the $17 for the sled and the wax (accounting for the nominal amount for the return). After we had gotten our fill, we headed back out of the park. Other than a couple of decently longer hikes into the dunes, there isn’t a lot more to do at this park.
Hopefully, the law that changed the park site from a national monument to a national park and added more than 2,000 acres to the park will allow for more visitor experiences. I’m not saying we didn’t enjoy our time here. We loved it. It’s gorgeous. But you could spend half a day in White Sands National Park and do all but the longest two trails in the park.
Where to stay and eat when visiting White Sands National Park
We stayed at the Hampton Inn in Alamogordo and were impressed. It was one of the nicest Hampton Inns we have stayed in, ever. The folks at the hotel were helpful and friendly and we would gladly stay here again.
For dinner, we found a tasty Mexican restaurant. Believe it or not, we had not gotten any good Mexican food thus far in our trip to New Mexico. We knew we had to get some with some Hatch chili sauce before we left.
We found it at CJ’s Si Señor in Alamogordo. The food was great and, in particular, I enjoyed the red sauce on my huevos rancheros. Bonnie was less impressed with the green sauce (a little too mild) but enjoyed the food nonetheless.
It’s definitely worth the stop when in Alamogordo.
Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument
Located about two hours north of Alamogordo, Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument tells the story of three Catholic missions to the thriving Pueblo communities of the Salinas Valley.
The Mogollon people had settlements in the Salinas Valley since around 900 AD. By 1300 AD, the valley had become one of the hubs of trade in the Puebloan society. Then, in 1598, the Spanish arrived, and with them, Franciscan missionaries bent on converting the natives to Christianity.
They built missions using native labor and local Spanish officials demanded tributes from the natives, leading to overworking the ecosystem. When drought and raids by the Apache hit hard, the natives abandoned the area about 100 years after the Spanish arrived.
Visiting Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument
Since we drove up from Alamogordo, we started at the southernmost and largest of the missions, Gran Quivira. This site is relatively remote. There is not much along the way once you turn off the main highway coming north. I think we saw one other vehicle.
We spent about an hour exploring the ruins (go left for the loop trail) which are quite impressive. We also visited the small information station before heading to Mountainair for lunch and to see the main visitor center.
Be sure to hit Alpine Alley in Mountainair for lunch. Not only is it a nice unique eatery, but the folks are also super nice. The food is great. That said, it does take a bit of time to get it so plan to relax and enjoy this meal.
The visitor center has great interpretive exhibits and a movie highlighting the settlement of the pueblos, the missions and the conflicts which caused them to be abandoned.
From Mountainair, you can visit the other two missions at Quarai and Abo. Each site should take no more than an hour each to tour, including driving time from Mountanair.
Where to stay when visiting Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument
We visited as a stop from Alamogordo. If you wanted to stay closer, Mountainair is about the only town of note in the immediate vicinity. There are a couple of hotels in the area. You could also visit as a day trip from Albuquerque, which is a little more than an hour from Mountainair.
We explored for a day and then drove on to Clovis. We stayed a night at the Hampton Inn, a cheap, point-wise stay. It made a good stop for our trip on the way home. That said, it’s not a place we would make a point to visit.
That said, there is one cool thing about the drive from Alamogordo to Clovis… You are driving through the middle of Billy the Kid country. We passed right through Lincoln County, where rival ranchers fought the Lincoln County War. We also passed by the old Fort Sumner where the outlaw is supposedly buried. I say supposedly because of some debate over where they buried his body. Some question if he survived his supposed fate at the hands of Pat Garrett.
If you have the interest and an extra day, explore all the sites of this infamous range war and bastion of Old West lore.
Final Thoughts on White Sands National Park and Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument
These two sites offer a truly New Mexico experience. At White Sands National Park, you will find the largest dune field in the world, something that can be seen from space. At Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument, you will find a unique corner of American history.
That said, these sites do not require a huge amount of time. You can easily visit both in two days and not feel like you have missed anything. Add in a third day if you want to explore the Lincoln County War.
We visited these sites as part of a greater road trip, visiting four other sites in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. While we loved our visits here, don’t feel you have to plan an extensive trip around them. They would work well as part of a larger trip, like a visit to Carlsbad Caverns or El Paso.