Tucked within an active U.S. military missile range in a remote area of the southwestern corner of New Mexico, White Sands National Monument is a paradoxically beautiful reverse oasis. Quite small yet feelingly vast, the monument occupies only about 275 square miles of space within the same missile range where the first nuclear weapons tests (atomic bombs that were later dropped on Japan) were carried out in what is now Trinity Site. The sand dunes are made of gypsum, the last remnants of an ancient ocean that once occupied the area some 250 million years ago, and some change.
White Sands National Monument was my first stop on a 2,400 mile relocation road trip. My original plans were to take Edie and back country camp in one of only five camp sites in the park. Yep! White Sands is INCREDIBLY dog friendly! My timeline and planning didn’t exactly match my grand plan and I quickly came to acceptance that I would not be spending the night inside the monument, instead having to settle for my ride or die motel of choice, Motel 6 (most dog friendly budget accommodation I have found to date), about 20 minutes from the monument, in Alamogordo. I only visited the park for a couple hours and I could have stayed there all day long. Edie and I had so much fun playing in the back country dunes!
Note to self: in theory, driving across the desert in the middle of the night is a good idea. Visibility is clear (usually), there are not likely to be any elk or deer darting in front of the car, and there’s minimal traffic. But, the temptation of road hypnosis is real!
Imagination can have you almost convinced you might have seen chupacabra or moth man in the almost super moon full moon night sky. The dunes are kind of that creepy when the moon is that large and bright – they practically glow in the dark! You know how a completely snow covered landscape reflects that moonlight? Well, try that and add in aliens (Area 51 and Roswell are only about three hours away – road trip consideration), any sorts of bad juju that must be bound to creating frigging atom bombs, and a highly caffeinated, physically exhausted, sleep deprived, over active monkey brain thoughts. Anything to stay awake! Combine all that with the fact the only time Edie has ever been subdued at a border patrol check point was at the missile range pass, and I had to really wonder if there was something supernatural happening….
Despite checking in to the motel at 2:30 am, by 7:30 we were back in the car and heading to the monument. I wanted to be at the dunes as soon after sunrise as possible. Desert sunrises are nothing short of inspirational.
The visitor center is immediately upon entrance. I got to the monument before the center opened so couldn’t go inside to rent a waxed sled to ride the dunes… which is sort of a moot point because the park is adamant that no dogs are to be left unattended in vehicles at any time. This is because the temperatures in the dunes get fatally hot most of the year. At 8:00 am on a particular November morning it was 40 degrees F outside (about 4 degrees C), but like I mentioned, the center wasn’t open yet, and I had a jam packed day ahead of me so I headed straight for the dunes to go for a brief hike.
I have been wanting to visit White Sands for a rather long time. It was close enough I could have done so much sooner in the span of a weekend out from Phoenix. But it was far enough away – about a 6 hour drive – that I put it in the “not as convenient” bucket. I am SO glad I finally went and I am rather sad I waited so long and had such little time to spend in the monument.
While White Sands is probably not on everyone’s bucket list, having finally been for myself, I cannot exclaim enough how much you should really make the effort to go if you are in the region. I don’t see how anyone could be disappointed with the rugged beauty of these dunes! Plus, I even have a super solid fantastic Mexican food recommendation for you (read on) that is only about half an hour away from the entrance. How do you like them manzanas? See what I did there? :o)
What to know:
- The monument is located within an active missile range and military base. It is subject to periodic closures during missile tests. Verify access availability prior to your venture out to make sure you don’t show up during a closure. NPS does an excellent job of providing updates, which you can check here. If you want to backcountry camp, you must arrive at the Visitor’s Center before 2 pm. Otherwise you have no chance of getting a permit. When I was initially planning I called the backcountry office to verify details. The ranger advised me it’s even best to call them a couple of days prior to your intended camping stay because if there are any tests, you will not be able to obtain any permits. I’m still ultra bummed it didn’t work out for me but my timeline went from flexible to not at all in a hurry. If you’re a camper, I say DO IT!
- Admission is a very low fee: $5.00. But – if you have the annual inter-agency pass your entrance fee is already covered (an investment I make each year because I tend to visit numerous parks making the all park pass a best value for me).
- DOG FRIENDLY ALERT! The NPS isn’t exactly known for being offering most dog accessible places (wilderness… yada yada yada…). Well, White Sands is SUPER dog accessible. You can even take your pup/s backcountry camping with you! Edie and I romped throughout the dunes. I swear my angsty little creaton discovered a reason to live running around those dunes. She had so much fun! Editorial disclaimer: dogs are to be kept on leashes as all times.
- Exposure risk is real! Temperatures range from freezing in late fall and winter to “my eyes are boiling” hot in summer. Even in most of fall and spring it can get quite “warm.” Fun fact: unlike beach sand, the gypsum won’t get hot, though, so although your skin might feel like it’s sizzling, you can walk on the sand dunes without getting burned. Don’t underestimate the intensity of the sun and temperatures. Bring, and wear, sunscreen, even in the winter. The sun reflects right off that gypsum and onto you. Shade only exists in concept and imagination in the dunes. You are in the desert.
- Sunglasses are a great idea… for a couple of reasons: 1) the sun, and 2) the wind! No one wants sand in their eyes. I have it on good record that the wind can be downright offensive. Food for thought: if you’re bringing your pup, consider eye gear for them. I had Edie’s doggles on hand just in case. But, lucky for that mutt, there was no wind so she didn’t have to wear them.
- Food and water. Water is essential… even in winter! Exposure and dehydration are definite ways to dampen your perception of fun. What I was saying about the temperature? You will get dehydrated before realizing it. You are in the desert. There are no cafes or restaurants inside the monument but there are some great picnic stations you can enjoy.
- You can sled the dunes! You may bring your own or rent at the Visitor’s Center. I even have some friends who brought their snow boards and used those on the dunes. The gypsum isn’t slippery like snow is, so you need to wax the sleds. You can rent them for a nominal fee at the Visitor Center and return them for a partial refund. I watched some people sledding on the dunes and they looked like they were having a blast.
- Activities range from aforementioned hiking and sledding to horseback riding (your own), cycling, backcountry camping, ranger programs, and salivation worthy photography (my skills should not be an ambassador for the staggering beauty of the dunes).
- Lodging is available in Alamogordo or Las Cruces. Las Cruces is a larger and more vibrant community than Alamogordo. If you’re going through or staying in Las Cruces, do your taste buds and bellies a solid by stopping at Si Senor Express. It was recommended to me by a local from Hatch, NM, and she knows good Mexican food.
Have you been to White Sands? Do you have anything to add I might have missed? Or are you now Google Maps checking coordinates and route to plan your next road trip? Comments and recommendations or questions, comment below and let us know! I’d love to hear from you.