10 Amazing Things to do in White Sands National Park, NM For Families

Large expanse of sand with footprints

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Because I live in Huntsville, Alabama (a big government contracting town) I know a lot of people who regularly go to White Sands for work trips (there’s a lot of military stuff that goes on there). And all I’ve ever heard is that there is nothing out there. But y’all! They lie! Because I fell in love with White Sands National Park and here are the best things to do there, especially if you are traveling as a family with kids!

Things To Do in White Sands National Park

Stop by the Visitor Center

When you first drive into White Sands National Park, you’ll want to stop at the Visitor Center. There is only one entrance to this National Park, so you won’t miss it!

At the Visitor Center you can pick up maps and learn more about White Sands (the largest gypsum dune field in the world!). There are rangers there to answer questions, and there’s a short film you can watch about White Sands.

You can also visit the gift shop (in the back of the Visitor Center complex) for some shopping. And this is also where you can purchase sleds to go sledding (which is far and away the BEST thing to do in White Sands National Park!).

Drive Dunes Drive

There is one main road that goes through White Sands: Dunes Drive. It’s 8 miles miles long, and if you want to drive the whole thing it will take you about 20 minutes one way. And of course, all your major stops are going to be along this road.

The front half of Dunes Drive is paved, and you’ll go through a short desert section of the park, and then you’ll get to the dunes that have lots of vegetation (this is where several of the hiking trail below are located).

About 4 miles in, the road is no longer paved. You’ll be driving on hard packed sand though, so don’t worry too much about road conditions. You should be fine in just about any car.

Back here, the dunes are free of vegetation. So they are the pure white dunes that are truly otherworldly!

There are a couple other hiking opportunities back here, and the back of the Dunes Drive is the best place to go sledding on the sand dunes!

Go Sledding

Cars backed up to dune bases, people sledding down sand dunes
One of the many parking lots where you can sled in White Sands.

Sledding on the sand is the best thing to do in White Sands National Park! Whether you’re traveling with kids or just grown-ups, sand sledding is an experience that’s so unique to White Sands!

We’ve got a whole guide to sledding in White Sands here, but here are a few things you should know:

  1. You can buy sleds at the gift shop at the Visitor’s Center.
  2. The best sledding is at the back of the park.
  3. Sledding on the sand is much slower than sledding on snow, so don’t be afraid of steeper hills!

Walk the Interdune Boardwalk Trail

Metal boardwalk path crossing over sand dunes
Interdune Boardwalk

The Interdune Boardwalk is a perfect walk for the WHOLE family. While climbing dunes on some of the other trails may be difficult, this entire “hike” is on a boardwalk that is raised above the dunes. It’s super easy, and takes you out into the dunefield to see more of this amazing landscape.

The trail is .4 miles long and super easy.

Hike the Playa Trail

Large flat dry lake covered in a white covering surrounded by desert vegetation.
The Playa

The Playa Trail is another easy trail that’s great for the whole family. It’s a flat trail that takes you out to the Playa, a lake that goes through different lifecycles in the seasons.

In the winter (when we were there) it’s covered in a layer of soil crust, and all the animals are burrowing underground (which is one of the reasons it’s important not to walk on it). But it changes depending on the season in really interesting ways, and there are signs along the trail that teach you all about this.

This trail is .2 miles long and super easy.

Hike the Dune Life Nature Trail

Sandy trail leading to large dune covered in vegetation
Beginning of the Dune Life Nature Trail. Most of the trail is after you climb the dune.

The Dune Life Nature trail is for families that like a bit more of a hiking challenge that’s still not too difficult. This trail climbs up over some dunes, and follows a path that circles around vegetated dunes.

It’s a great place to look for desert wildlife! While we didn’t see any, we did see some fun tracks in the sand for some of the critters that call White Sands home.

This trail is 1 mile long and I’d rate it moderate. While on paper the elevation gains and losses don’t seem like a ton, the fact that it is all walking on shifting sand makes it much more difficult!

Hike the Alkali Flat Trail

Flat Sandy start of trail with dunes in the background and blue sky
Beginning of the Alakli Flat Trail

The Alakali Flat Trail is at the very back of the park, and it’s definitely for hikers that want a bit more of a challenge! It’s a 5 mile trail (and remember, this is through the desert!). And while it’s called Alakli Flat Trail, it’s definitely not flat, as it has you climbing some significant dunes.

If you go on this hike, bring SO much water! Like, more than you think you need. And be sure you know the trail markers to follow, because it can get easy to get lost when everything looks the same in the white expanse of sand.

Hike the Backcountry Camping Trail

The Backcountry Camping Trail is another more challenging trail. It’s leads to the primitive backcountry camping sites (currently closed).

It will take you through the dune field, and again will have you climbing up and down sand dunes.

It’s 2.2 miles and rated as moderate to strenuous.

Get Your Junior Ranger Badge

If you’re traveling with kids, getting the Junior Ranger Badge is a must-do activity. Honestly, if if you are just there as a grown-up, it’s something fun to do! I’ve definitely seen adults walk out of the Visitor Center with Junior Ranger badges.

You can get a Junior Ranger activity book in the Visitor Center. Even as just an adult, I love picking up these activity books because they are easy to skim through and learn important highlights about the park.

But if you have kids, they’ll love filling out the activities and then returning to the Visitor Center to show a ranger their work and get their own Junior Ranger Badge.

Join the Ranger-Led Sunset Stroll

The Sunset Stroll at White Sands National Park is a super popular activity to do! While we didn’t do it, and were unfortunately there on a cloudy evening, supposedly the sunset colors against the dunes are magical. And on a Sunset Stroll, a ranger will guide you on a short walk, teaching you about the park and letting you watch the sunset.

The parking lot for the Sunset Stroll is 5 miles past the visitor center on Dunes Drive and opens 30 minutes before the scheduled time (check the Visitor Center for the time). During busy times it can fill up fast, so get there early!

Tips for Visiting White Sands National Park

Best Time to Visit

Fall and Spring are usually the best time to visit White Sands. Winter works too, but be aware that it does snow sometimes!

Summer is just ridiculously hot, so it definitely wouldn’t be my first choice. We visited in March, and while it was a little chilly, it was mostly very pleasant weather!

Be Prepare with Water and Sun Protection

You are in a desert, and even when it’s not hot, you’re going to get dehydrated faster than you might expect. Always make sure you bring more water with you than you think you need!

Also be prepared with sun protection. Because the sun reflects off the sand, it can be intense. So bring sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses. And you may even want to wear long sleeves!

Know the Hours

Generally White Sands National Park is open from 7:00 a.m. to sunset every day. The Visitor Center opens at 9:00 and closes at either 5:00 or 6:00 depending on the season.

It’s also important to know that White Sands can sometimes close for hours at a time due to nearby missile testing at White Sands Missile Range. Usually they have advanced warning of this, but sometimes it can happen with super short notice. So always be sure to check park notifications for the latest news both leading up to your trip and while you are there.

Know the Trail Markers

While following the trail markers when you are hiking is always important, it is ESPECIALLY important in White Sands. It can be so easy to get lost amidst the sand dunes!

Make sure you know the markers you are supposed to be following, and as you are hiking, make sure you can always see the next marker you are walking toward. If you can’t see it (because of weather conditions or because it has fallen down) turn around.

Where to Stay Near White Sands National Park

When you visit White Sands, the best place to stay is in the nearby town of Alamogordo. From there it’s just about a 20 minute drive to the National Park entrance.

You won’t find any fancy hotels in Alamogordo, because the main clientele here are government workers and contractors visiting Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range. But there are some solid choices. We stayed at The Fairfield Inn and had no complaints!

Here’s a map of some other choices in Alamogordo:

More National Park Resources

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