Here's everything you need to see and do at White Sands National Monument — from sand sledding to stargazing.

By Hannah Freedman
December 26, 2019
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Picture this: gently rolling slopes of silky white sand that’s cool to the touch even on blistering summer days. People on freshly waxed sleds careening down the sandy hills as if they are ski slopes. Visitors opening their hatchbacks and sitting on car roofs to take in a blazing sunset, followed by clear skies that show off the patterns of the Milky Way. Head to southern New Mexico and that surreal scene is just what you’ll find. Welcome to White Sands National Monument, the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

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Where to Stay Near the White Sands National Monument

If you’re looking to stay right in the heart of the dunes, backcountry camping is your only option. Because the dunes are located right near a missile testing range, there can be sudden and unexpected closures, so permits for the monument’s 10 primitive camp sites are offered daily, strictly on a first-come, first-served basis. The park entrance fee is just $5 for adults, and camping permits are $3 per person per night. While camping in the dunes certainly offers visitors an unforgettable experience, be sure to consider and prepare for the unique challenges the desert landscape presents. Footprints and markers in the sand can be easily erased by winds, and sudden thunder and lightning storms can roll in unexpectedly.

Beyond the dunes, there are also several public and private campgrounds and RV parks to choose from within an easy 40-mile radius. The closest public campground is the Oliver Lee State Park campground, located a half hour drive away.

Related: 24 of the Most Scenic Places to Camp in the United States

White Sands National Monument is located just 13 miles outside of the small town of Alamogordo and 50 miles from the city of Las Cruces. Both spots offer plenty of hotels, including the enchanting Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, a southwestern-style oasis complete with a stylish outdoor pool ideal for beating the dry southern New Mexican heat.

What to Do at White Sands National Monument

Explore the otherworldly beauty of the hills on a walk or on the 16-mile scenic Dune Drive loop into the center of the dune field. Picnic areas make for perfect pit stops along the way for lunch (or to snap some Insta-worthy photos).

Take in stunning views of the entire landscape on one of five well-marked hiking trails that vary in difficulty. The easiest trail, the Interdune Boardwalk, is more of a stroll than a strenuous hike, and it is suitable even for wheelchairs and strollers. Meanwhile on the opposite spectrum, those looking to work up a serious sweat can tackle the Alkali Flat Trail. Don’t let the name fool you; the 5-mile route leads hikers up and down steep dunes the entire way and offers no shade. For something in-between, opt for the Dune Life Nature Trail. Ideal for families, this path even includes a friendly mascot, Katie the Kit Fox, who teaches visitors about the local wildlife.

Not to be missed is the epic activity of sledding down the dunes. Stop at the monument's gift shop on the way in to pick up a plastic snow saucer; daredevils will want to wax up the sleds to reach top speeds.

If you happen to be there during the full moon, be sure to go on a spectacular full moon walk to catch the sands glistening under the moonlight.

Related: 10 Unique U.S. National Parks That Will Make You Feel Like You're on Another Planet

How to Get There

El Paso and Albuquerque are the closest cities with major airports to fly into. If you're flying, you’ll need to rent a car to reach the monument.

When to Visit White Sands National Monument

Any time of year is great to visit this park, but fall and winter are especially ideal thanks to lower temperatures and fewer crowds. Summer sees average highs in the high 90s, with thunderstorms more common from July to September.

Related: Where to Find the Most Colorful Natural Wonders Around the World

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