White Sands National Park in winter is a magical nature-filled playground where impressive white gypsum sand dunes kiss snow-capped mountains and the sun sets the whole sky on fire. In this article, we explain why winter is the best time to visit White Sands National Park and what to expect when planning your trip.
About White Sands National Park
Situated in southern New Mexico, White Sands National Park covers over 140,000 acres in a remote area of wilderness surrounded by a large missile range. A recent addition to the United States National Park list, White Sands was officially designated a National Park in 2019. Number sixty-two!
The park sits in the Tularosa Basin, where the area was once home to lakes, streams, and grasslands and is now the site of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Gypsum was carried into the basin from the surrounding mountains as the climate warmed after the Ice Age.
Within the park today you can hike among the 275 square miles of dunes and desert, and sled down dunes that reach up to 60 feet high. During the day, the sun shimmers across the glistening white sand dunes, inviting you to explore. As the sun sets each day, your attention is drawn to the San Andres and Sacramento mountains, where hues of blue become illuminated with shades of pink, orange, red, and yellow.
A trip to White Sands National Park feels like traveling to a faraway destination. And venturing here in winter is a chance to experience smaller crowds, avoid hot summer days and high sand temperatures, and maybe even see the magnificent dunes covered in a layer of fresh snow. A magical experience to say the least!
As a couple who travels full time with a dog that LOVES to hike, we can’t get enough of dog-friendly National Parks. If you have an adventure pup traveling with you, White Sands National Park is a great place to visit!
- Entrance Fee: $25 for a 7-day pass; National Park Passes Accepted (including the America The Beautiful Pass or other annual pass)
- Park Hours: 7am-6pm, closed on Christmas Day; permits available for visits outside of those hours and other special use cases
- Visitor’s Center Hours: 9am-5pm
- Dog Friendly: YES
Location: Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico
Nearest town: Alamogordo, located approximately 15 miles to the southwest of the park.
Closest city: Las Cruces, New Mexico which is approximately 52 miles to the south of the park. This is where we set up “home base” for the duration of our visit!
Closest airport: The closest major airport to White Sands National Park is the El Paso International Airport (ELP) in El Paso, Texas, located approximately 85 miles (137 kilometers) to the southeast of the park
White Sand National Park Map
White Sands National Park is located in a more rural area of New Mexico where plenty of opportunities exist to unplug and get out into nature. We weren’t sure what to expect when visiting here and were pleasantly surprised with how much there was to do and the immense beauty all around.
White Sands National Park Weather
When we visited another sandy oasis, Great Sand Dunes National Park, in summer we experienced firsthand just how warm the sand can get and how draining it can be hiking exposed in the dunes under the summer sun.
Summer temperatures at White Sands National Park can be extreme, soaring over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike many other U.S. National Parks, this makes the park’s peak season the fall, winter and early spring months, rather than the typical summer vacation season.
We loved visiting White Sands National Park in February as we experienced smaller crowds than you might find in more mild fall or spring months, yet found the winter temperatures to be cooler but still fairly mild. It also gave us the unique opportunity to see the sandy dunes turned into a winter wonderland…which was absolutely mesmerizing!
Typically, winter brings mild days and cold nights, with limited snowfall. This provides an opportunity to escape other places in the U.S. that experience heavy winter, get out in nature, and not have to worry much about being snowed in.
For us, the cooler temperatures were a worthwhile compromise due to the uniqueness of what we saw and to avoid later months where spring can bring heavy winds and dust storms, or the summer months where temperatures can be brutal and afternoon storms and weather conditions can be unpredictable.
Visiting White Sands National Park in Winter
While the sand can get much hotter than the ambient temperature in summer, much like the beach, the gypsum sand that makes up the dunes in White Sands National Park can be quite cold, especially as the sun goes down.
We quickly went from running barefoot as we used the sled we borrowed from our gracious state park campground near Las Cruces to shred down the dunes, to feeling the sting of the cold setting in as our toes turned ruby red in the last of the late evening sun.
Driving To White Sands National Park
At the time of our visit, there was an immigration checkpoint on US Highway 70, located several miles to the west of White Sands National Park. This checkpoint is operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as part of their border security measures.
You can be prepared to stop and speak to an officer, who will confirm if you are citizens, check who is in the vehicle, and send you on the way. In our experience, this was a quick and seamless stop and we recommend having identification handy just in case.
If you are visiting internationally, you may just want to have any necessary travel documents handy (such as passports) just in case!
Things to Do At White Sands National Park in Winter
Due to its mild temperatures, you are not limited in what you can do at White Sands National Park in winter and it can be the perfect time to get out and explore! While this isn’t a destination for winter sports like skiing, it is a great place for winter hiking among the dunes, photography, star gazing, and beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
Hiking is the #1 thing to do in White Sands National Park (okay maybe it’s a tie with sand sledding)! That being said, it does look a little different than what you might expect from any other hiking trail in a National Park.
While there are technically 5 established trails in the park, including the interdune boardwalk which is handicap accessible, the nature of this park opens itself up to exploration off the beaten path. Here you are truly free to create your own adventure and that to us was extremely rewarding.
Just a note: Walking up the steep dunes found in the park is more challenging than you might expect! Hikes in the park can be strenuous… imagine it sort of like taking two steps forward and one step back each time. Fun, unique, and a good workout!
Established hiking trails in White Sands National Park
- Interdune Boardwalk (0.4 miles roundtrip, easy, accessible)
- Playa Trail (0.5-mile roundtrip, easy)
- Dune Life Nature Trail (1-mile roundtrip, moderate)
- Backcountry Camping Trail (2 miles roundtrip, moderate-strenuous)
- Alkali Flat Trail (5 miles roundtrip, strenuous)
While the park is filled with immense natural beauty at any time of the day, we highly recommend setting out on a hike or sunset stroll as the sun goes down. This is when the skies errueruptpt in an array of colors that will take your breath away. The sunsets we saw in White Sands National Park are still some of our favorites out of all of our travels.
White Sands is a Dark Sky park and is committed to protecting the nighttime environment and promoting stargazing opportunities. With limited light pollution in the area, camping among the dunes would offer a magical opportunity to soak in the night sky in all of its glory.
Primitive, backcountry camping in White Sands is sometimes allowed and does require a permit.
At the writing of this article, camping in the park has been closed for rehabilitation, with no date yet set for when it will be allowed again. This is on our bucket list for when these open back up!
If you are interested in camping in the park we recommend speaking to a park ranger at the time of your visit to find out more information about current conditions and closures, as they can change often!
To help you plan ahead if you ever do have the chance to camp in the dunes, here are some restrictions and guidelines that visitors must follow to ensure the preservation of the delicate environment:
- Backcountry Camping Permit Required: To camp in backcountry campsites, you need to obtain a free permit from the park’s visitor center. The permit allows park rangers to track the number of visitors in the backcountry and ensures that campers are aware of the rules and safety guidelines.
- Camping Zones: Backcountry camping is limited to designated zones within the park. These zones are selected to minimize the impact on the fragile dune environment and wildlife habitats. Camping is not allowed on the dune crest or within certain areas where sensitive plant and animal species exist. Campfires are also prohibited in the backcountry.
- Pack It In, Pack It Out: Visitors are required to practice Leave No Trace principles and are responsible for carrying out all their trash, including human waste. There are no facilities in the backcountry, so campers must be self-sufficient.
- Your camp must be set up 1 hour before dark
While there is no specific scenic drive within the park itself, you can appreciate a great deal of the park’s beauty just driving back through the park from the Visitors’ Center and park entrance. The roads are often covered in white sand, swept over from the dunes, and the road winds it away among the mounds of sand giving you the sensation that you have been transported to a world far away.
In addition, the drive to and from White Sands National Park is quite scenic, especially if you approach from the east along US Highway 70. The surrounding landscape of the Tularosa Basin and the nearby San Andres and Sacramento Mountains offers picturesque views as you approach the park and can be great photo opportunities.
Sand sledding at White Sands National Park is a thrilling and unique experience that allows people of all ages to slide down the soft, pristine sand dunes like they would on snow. Let out your inner child and play for a while…you simply won’t regret it!
Waxed plastic snow saucers are the sleds of choice and can be purchased at the park’s gift shop. This said, we recommend bringing your own sled if you have one, as the park option can be a bit more expensive. You can also find sleds for sale at local stores (such as Walmart in Alamogordo), or you may find that local campgrounds offer rentals or loaners.
Our wonderful stay at Leasburg Dam State Park included a complementary sand saucer to rent, as well as some wax. We felt like big kids and had the best time!
What to Pack
As is traditional in desert climates, temperatures fluctuate from day to night. The ability of sand to reflect heat back into the air while reflecting the sun during the day, making it warm, and the fact that the area is a dry desert with limited humidity, also means that those temperatures sharply drop once the sun goes down.
For this reason, it is important to have appropriate clothing on hand if you plan to spend the day at the park. We went from flannels and jeans to needing jackets, gloves, and hats in a matter of hours.
White Sands National Park Winter Packing List
- Plenty of Water + Snacks
- Comfortable Shoes
- Layers! Jacket or rain jacket, gloves, hat
- Sun protection: Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses
- Sled + Wax
- Camera for the amazing photography opportunities
White Sands National Park Closures
Regardless of the time of year, it is also important to check for road and park closures due to missile tests. All activities in the park are prohibited when these tests are happening at the White Sands Missile Range. Be sure to check in with the National Park Service website for any updates about potential closures. They are typically alerted two weeks in advance but sometimes can happen with as little as 24-hour notice.
Where To Stay: Camping Near White Sands National Park
There are some great dispersed free camping options and a wonderful state park not far from White Sands National Park. We loved our stay at Leasburg Dam State Park as it gave us a partial hook-up site in a beautiful state park as a home base for exploring the great Las Cruces area of New Mexico. If we were planning to make the visit to White Sands National Park a quicker trip we would definitely take advantage of one of the great local boondocking options!
Local camping options:
- Leasburg Dam State Park
- Sierra Vista Dispersed Camping
- Achenbach Canyon Dispersed Camping
- Lake Holloman Dispersed Camping
Other Outdoor Activities Near White Sands National Park
If you are looking to round out your trip to White Sands National Park with other outdoor adventures in the area, we highly recommend visiting the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument. Here you can hike in the sunshine among sharp mountain peaks, most likely in a bit of snow, during the winter months.
We completed the roughly 5-mile Pine Tree trail, saw a few other hikers along the way, and enjoyed some amazing views. You can see more trails to explore more great trails in the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument here.
In addition, this area of New Mexico is also close to these other great attractions and could make for a perfect larger road trip:
- Las Cruces, New Mexico
- Old Mesilla Village
- Leasburg Dam State Park
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park (over the border in Texas)
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- San Andres Mountains
- Sacramento Mountains
- Alamogordo New Mexico
Fulfilling Travel Tips
Our mission through Fulfilling Travel is to empower others to bring a mindful approach to their lives and adventures out in nature as a way to improve well-being and boost happiness on the path to fulfilling adventures and fulfilling lives. We believe anywhere in nature is a great place to be present and practice mindfulness and White Sands National Park is no exception – even in winter! Although this tip is less about overt mindfulness and more about reconnecting with joy!
There is something about a big sandbox that screams fun. If you look at children, they tend to be really great at being present. They bring energy, joy, and curiosity to everything they do. White Sands National Park is the perfect place to bring out your inner child.
Embrace letting loose and just being joyful. Run up the dunes and sled down. Laugh until your stomach hurts! Notice how it feels as you let the small grains of gypsum sand run through your hands. Give yourself full permission to play.
Do what makes you feel free, happy, and alive. It’s good to put aside life’s stressors for a while and release some endorphins while playing outside.
White Sands National Park in Winter Overall
If you are looking for a beautiful place to explore that allows you to get out into nature in the cooler months that doesn’t require winter sports, expensive gear, waiting in long lines, or being around crowds, and offers the opportunity to reconnect with your inner child and experience a whole lot joy – White Sands National Park is a great option.
And winter is the best time of year to experience White Sands!
The glistening white sands set among a dramatic mountain backdrop invoke a sense of awe and curiosity. The beauty quickly puts you at ease. Here you can learn about the unique history of this area and get a glimpse into a cold desert ecosystem. Admire a sunset, enjoy the freedom of wide open spaces, and create your own adventure.
White Sands National Park is a place where you can put yourself in the driver’s seat. Enjoy the freedom and get lost in the moment at this great winter destination.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO WHITE SANDS NP
Area Accommodations & Campgrounds:
White Sands National Park is a bit remote, but you can find options in the surrounding areas (such as Las Cruces and Alamogordo) ranging from RV parks, to no-frills campgrounds, and free boondocking. We highly recommend staying over near Las Cruces!
If you are looking for the perfect one-stop shop for comparing RV parks and glamping options and prices with instant booking, we highly recommend Campspot.
Here are some highly-rated campgrounds and boondocking areas around White Sands National Park:
- Lake Holloman Dispersed Camping
- Leasburg Dam State Park (we loved our stay here!)
- Sierra Vista Dispersed Camping (Las Cruces)
- Achenbach Canyon Dispersed Camping (Las Cruces)
- Oliver Lee Memorial State Park
If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through Outdoorsy, or RV Share. We used both of these services when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!
You can explore all Las Cruces area accommodations and compare prices on Booking.com, which is a great resource for unique stays at the best rates.
Love visiting National Parks and connecting with nature? Here are some other articles you might enjoy:
- Cadillac Mountain Reservation: How to see Acadia’s First Light & Highest Point
- Most Fulfilling Things To Do in Acadia National Park
- Complete Guide to Acadia’s Beautiful Schoodic Peninsula
- Delicate Arch, Fiery Furnace & Devil’s Garden at Arches National Park are perfect places for mindful adventures in a beautiful setting
Please protect these areas - for the wildlife, the environment, and for the enjoyment of future generations. Practice Leave No Trace