The Newest National Park in the USA
White Sands National Park, America’s 62nd and newest national park is a playground for campers, history buffs and nature-lovers. Located 1.5 hours from El Paso and 3.5 hours from Albuquerque where you can rent an RV, the park offers scenery unlike that of anywhere else in the country, making it an exciting new addition to the national park system. White Sands is the largest field of gypsum in the world, and it is this mineral that gives the sand its pristine white color. In addition to spectacular scenery, White Sands National Park also has a fascinating history. The area was first settled over 10,000 years ago, and researchers are still discovering prehistoric tracks and remnants from colonial Spanish settlers. The area has also been a fixture of recent military history. In 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated at the Trinity site, 60 miles north of the park. The area is still home to an active air force base and missile testing site (the testing schedule still causes road closures, so be sure to check nps.gov before your trip).
The park is also easily accessible to visitors in an RV or camper rental. There are several campgrounds in the area, plus the park is wheelchair-accessible and open to pets. It is best to rent an RV from the nearest airport in El Paso, and drive 90 minutes to Alamogordo, about 15 miles from the park. There are no RV campgrounds within the park, but there are plenty of private campgrounds in the area. Among the best reviewed sites are Alamogordo/White Sands KOA, Boot Hill RV Resort and Oliver Lee Campground, all located in Alamogordo.
Once you’ve found a home base, it’s time to start exploring everything the park has to offer. A great introduction to the park is Dunes Drive, a 16-mile round trip route that runs from the visitor center straight into the gypsum field. Here, you can have a first glimpse at the massive sand dunes, and stop off to hike or explore. For a full-day activity, you can also bike Dunes Drive, although bikes are strictly prohibited off-road. Dunes Drive is occasionally closed due to weather or military activity, so check for closures at nps.gov.
The NPS recommends five hikes, varying in length and difficulty. First, the short Interdune Boardwalk is wheelchair and stroller-accessible, and is a great way to learn about the science that makes White Sands so extraordinary. For families, the Dune Life Trail is a moderate 1-mile trail, great for spotting wildlife and their tracks. At the same difficulty is the 2-mile Backcountry Camping Trail (the park offers spectacular primitive camping). For more experienced hikers, the Alkali Flat Trail is a strenuous 5-mile hike that follows the almost-disappeared Lake Otero. As always, consult a park ranger before embarking on a hike. Weather can change quickly in the park, and summer temperatures can often be too hot for hiking. Keep in mind that most of the trails do not offer any shade, water or bathroom facilities.
These self-guided hikes are an excellent park activity, but there are also a number of ranger-led hikes that offer a glimpse at the more wild side of White Sands. Plus, hiking with a ranger gives the added benefit of having a knowledgeable guide to answer any questions and point out the park’s unique qualities. The rangers’ main program is the Sunset Stroll, which is offered daily at sunset at no extra cost. This is great for families or less experienced hikers, as the path is a short one-mile hike at a moderate difficulty. No reservation is required for this hike.
The other two ranger-led hikes require some more planning, as they are only offered seasonally once per month, and they require a reservation and an extra fee (check nps.gov for more info). The first is the Full Moon Hike, a guided night hike of the Dune Life Trail. White Sands National Park’s relative isolation means that it also has unrivaled views of the night sky, and this is a perfect way to experience it. If you love stargazing, consider visiting in August, as the park hosts an event to watch the annual Perseid Meteor Shower, or take advantage of the park’s backcountry campsites for exquisite nighttime views.
The final ranger-led hike is the Lake Lucero Tour. This is unlike the other programs, as it allows you entry into the White Sands Missile Range. Be sure to check nps.org before departure, as this hike does have some special regulations due to the military activity. As with any hike, exercise caution when hiking any of these trails, and bring appropriate supplies. White Sands is a desert, and the terrain and conditions may be unlike anything you may have experienced before. Again, check with a ranger before your hike to make sure you are adequately prepared. As always, nps.gov has information on each hike.
While White Sands has excellent hiking opportunities, there is one particularly unique activity that you cannot leave without trying: sledding. There are endless dunes at White Sands at various heights. Most dunes are around 30 feet tall, but some in the park can be as tall as 60 or even 100 feet. These smooth hills and cliff faces are a great adrenaline rush for all ages. You can purchase sleds at the visitor center or bring your own. Ask a park ranger for the best sledding tips.
Once you’ve tried all the adventurous hikes, slopes and wildlife-watching, there’s still plenty to do in the park. The Visitor Center has a Native Plant Garden that you can explore to see all of the amazing plant life that thrives in the desert. Get a self-guided brochure online or from the Visitor Center. The park also has three picnic areas with shaded tables. You can even bring a personal grill, and have a great lunch with a spectacular view. Visit nps.gov for information on picnicking regulations. Be sure to leave the area just as you found and preserve this park’s natural beauty.
White Sands National Park is truly a unique treasure and has some of the most diverse and fascinating wildlife, plant life and scenery in the country. It’s sure to be unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced.