Tips for Visiting White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo, NM

We visited White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo, NM in February 2018. It was quite an experience – you can’t really explain it until you go see it for yourself, and pictures can’t quite convey the scale of all of the dunes. It’s an amazing sight to see. With such a unique environment, there were some unexpected aspects of visiting that would have been nice to know about ahead of time. Here I share some things I wish I would have known before we visited!

Tim and Calla playing at White Sands
Family pic at the entrance

It’s Not as Messy as You Think

Giant mountains made of sand that you can play in. Wind blowing at 30MPH – must be super messy, right?! Sand in clothes, in hair, in the car…and no way to rinse off like at the beach!

It’s actually not as bad as it sounds. Why? It’s not sand – it’s gypsum! All of the dunes at White Sands are made of gypsum, which means that the granules easily bush off and don’t stick to you the same way beach sand does. You can use your hands to brush off the sand and be fairly clean within about 5 seconds. It will definitely make its way into your car (and probably into your hair, too) – but no worries – it’s so much easier to deal with than beach sand!

Mickey came along for our White Sands experience
Didn’t see any takers for the horse trailering area…

Buy the Saucer

You can ride down the gypsum dunes at the park, similar to sled riding. At the visitor’s center to the park, they sell plastic saucers in various bright colors. They also sell wax that you rub on the bottom of the saucer to make it go faster down the dune. They are $20 (I think?) and the wax is $2. So basically $22 for something you can buy for $5 at Wal-Mart. One of our RVing friends told me “it’s a racket”. She summed it up well. It’s definitely a racket, but sliding down the dunes on a saucer are some of our best memories from the day. At the end, you can sell the saucer back to the visitor’s center for $8 (again, I think?) and then it will become a “used” saucer which they also sell. Conveniently for them, no used ones were available when we were there, so we had to pay for a new one. I think the used ones are only a few bucks cheaper.

I would say you can bring your own, but I’m not even sure where you’d find a sled (saucer) in the New Mexico desert. So just embrace the racket and enjoy sliding down the dunes!

Sliding tips: lean backwards, pick a steep dune, and use the first couple of times to “forge the path” – after the first couple, you’ll go down a lot faster!

Showing off the saucer, car for scale.
Ready to slide down a dune

The Best Dunes are in the Back

And by “best”, I mean steepest and most fun to slide down. Take in the sights at the beginning of the park as you drive in, but don’t bother getting out just yet! The dunes get progressively bigger as you go. The park is laid out in an 8 mile loop, and the best dunes are around mile 4, which is the major bend in the road. Pick a spot to pull off (there are plenty) and go have some fun! Also – don’t worry too much. Even though the dunes are really steep, you never get going quite as fast as you do when you’re sledding on snow. We were able to slide with Calla down even the steepest dunes!

Mickey got covered up quickly by the wind blowing the sand on top of him and there were multiple recovery missions. He survived, but there was a close call.

Don’t Wear Shoes

Seriously – your experience will be 10x better if you kick off your shoes the minute you step out of the car! The sand is oh-so-cool (which felt amazing on our 70 degree day, but imagine how good it would feel when it’s warmer!) and so soft. Softer than any sand I’ve stepped on, and we went to a dozen different beaches in Florida, including the powdered sugar beaches of the Gulf.

No shoes!

 

Make Sure It’s Open

Ever wonder where the government tests missiles? Me neither, but apparently, it’s near White Sands National Monument! There are many signs warning about this, but on missile testing days, the road to get to White Sands is closed. Check this webpage for closures.

Photo Credit: NPS

 

Be Prepared for a Workout

I watched some of the videos we took at White Sands, and I’m gasping for air almost the entire time! Ha! Walking up those dunes are no joke. Your feet quickly sink in the gypsum, so you have to basically run up them. My heart rate was so high! The wind is another factor, if you are running into high winds it certainly makes things more difficult.

Tim was able to hold Calla and climb up them, but I would have not been able to do that. It was hard enough for me to haul myself up the dunes! This also makes me realize that climbing the dunes are not for the faint of heart nor the out of shape! Luckily the park is well laid out and there are plenty of flat areas where you can still enjoy the scenery.

One recurring thought we kept having: this place is the best for kids. There is so much to keep them occupied, between sliding on the dunes, climbing, and playing with the sand – and it’s all completely exhausting (note this thought is filed under the “workout” section). Especially if your kids are school-age, I could see letting them loose here for a few hours and them crashing hard that night.

Walking on the flat portion of a dune

Beware Getting Lost

275  square miles of dunes – the size of White Sands is what makes it so grand, but also so disorienting, especially once you start to climb through the dunes. If you’re not careful, you can easily lose track of where you are. The whipping winds are constantly changing the landscape, and the words that we carved into the sand were gone about 10 seconds later. Be sure not to wander too far into the dunes…or if you do, have some way of keeping track of where you came from.

When it all looks the same, can you see how easy it would be to become disoriented?

 

Of all the National Monuments we have been to so far, this one has been Calla’s favorite. It was so much fun to ride down the dunes with her. If you have a small rig tent, you can even camp right in White Sands. It seems like something I’d like to do for a day or two, but the wind there is relentless. It’s annoying when you’re camping, trust me. Whether you go for a visit or for a stay, I know you’ll enjoy White Sands National Monument!

Little girl, big dune
My favorite picture from the day. Sums it up.

Date Visited: February 2018

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