White Sands National Park: Things To Do for Families

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Planning a family trip to White Sands National Park? Here are the best 10 activities to help plan an epic adventure for your family in this one-of-a-kind New Mexico national park!

Nestled in the Tularosa Basin in southern New Mexico (along with the White Sand Missile Range), this park is renowned for housing the world’s largest gypsum dune field, making it one of the United States’ world’s great natural wonders.

As a mom, you want to ensure your family has a memorable experience, so here’s a guide to the top things to do in the park with practical tips for each activity.

So, buckle up and get ready for a memorable adventure in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert.

family at white sands national park sign, new mexicoPin

Best Times to Visit White Sands National Park

Choosing the right time to visit White Sands National Park can take your family trip from enjoyable to epic. Here’s a breakdown of the best times to plan your adventure:

  • Spring (March to May): Spring is ideal for families who prefer milder temperatures and want to avoid the summer heat. Wildflowers may also be in bloom, adding to the beauty of the landscape. Spring brings comfortable temperatures, usually ranging from 60°F to 80°F (15°C to 27°C) during the day. It’s a pleasant time for outdoor activities.
  • Fall (September to November): Fall is an excellent time for families who want to avoid the summer crowds while still enjoying pleasant weather. The park’s scenery remains stunning. Fall brings a return to more moderate temperatures, ranging from 60°F to 80°F (15°C to 27°C). It’s another comfortable season for outdoor exploration.
  • Winter (December to February): Winter is a quieter time to visit, and the white sand against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains can be quite picturesque. Dress warmly and be prepared for cooler temperatures. Winter temperatures can vary, ranging from 30°F to 60°F (-1°C to 15°C). It might be colder, but the park’s unique beauty remains.

Things About White Sands NP to Keep in Mind

  • The Tularosa Basin, where the park is located, can experience strong winds, especially in the late afternoon. Wind speeds can impact sand sledding and overall comfort. Think sand in eyes/mouths…yuck.
  • White Sands National Park offers Full Moon Hike events during certain months. These guided hikes provide a unique experience of the dunes under the moonlight. We didn’t get to experience one, and I definitely want to go back to try this.
  • There is direct sun, sun, and more sun in this park. Make sure your crew has sunglasses, hats, enough sunscreen before entering the park.
  • There are limited services in this park. Bring plenty of food/snacks to keep your crew going.
  • Walking/hiking in White Sands is like walking on the beach…and not necessarily the nice hard part near the water. Bring appropriate footwear…personally, I recommend Tevas as I loathe the feeling of sand in sneakers.
  • Basically everything in the park is accessible off of one road, the Loop Drive. So it’s hard to get lost from the standpoint of driving. But once you’re out on the dunes, the landscape is very homogenous…one dune pretty much looks like the next. So stick to the trails!

Top 10 Family-Friendly White Sands National Park Things to Do

1. Sand Sledding on the White Sand Dunes

By far the most thrilling and family-friendly activities at White Sands National Park is sliding down the sand dunes.

Here, you’ll need a special sand sled or toboggan, which you can either buy or rent at the park’s visitor center. Make sure to pick up some wax too; it’s essential for a smooth and speedy ride.

White Sands National Park things to do: family sand sledding in White Sands National Park, New MexicoPin

The best part? You can actually sell your sand sled or toboggan back to the park when you’re done! This is a great way to recoup some of your expenses, and it allows other families to enjoy the experience without breaking the bank.

Check the condition of your sled before purchasing or renting, and ensure you have enough wax for a day full of sliding.

2. Scenic Drive Along Dunes Drive

Take a leisurely drive along Dunes Drive, marked with mile markers, to witness the breathtaking landscape from the comfort of your car. This scenic drive is 16 miles (8 miles out, 8 miles back); 10 miles are paved, the remaining 6 are hard-packed gypsum (sand).

While Dunes Drive is scenic, it’s also the one and only road in the park. So to get anywhere, and do anything, you’ll be on this road.

Where to Stop Along the Way

  • Visitor Center: Start your journey at the Visitor Center. Here, you can get maps, learn about the park, and maybe grab a souvenir. It’s like the beginning of your sand adventure!
  • Interdune Boardwalk: The boardwalk is like a wooden path that lifts you up a bit. From here, you get a cool view of the dunes without having to go into the soft sand. It’s perfect for families with strollers or those who want an easier walk.
  • Playa Trail Pullout: This is a spot where you can pull over and take a short hike on the Playa Trail. It leads you to a dry lake bed (that’s what “playa” means), and you can see the wide-open space of the basin.
  • Dune Life Nature Trail: This trail is like a nature walk. You can stroll around and see how plants and animals survive in the desert. There are signs that tell you all about the cool things living in the sand.
  • Alkali Flat Trailhead: If you’re up for a longer adventure, the Alkali Flat Trail starts here. It’s a bit tougher, but it takes you deep into the dune field, and you can feel like a desert explorer.
  • Scenic Overlooks: Along the drive, there are spots where you can pull over and just look at the vast dunes. It’s like having a front-row seat to the beauty of White Sands. Great for photos!

Plan your drive during the early morning or late afternoon for the best lighting and fewer crowds.

White Sands National Park visitor centerPin
White Sands National Park visitor center (photo credit: National Park Service employee, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

3. Hiking Adventures

Lace up your hiking boots for a family-friendly adventure.

Alkali Flat Trail

  • Length: Approximately 5 miles (round trip).
  • Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous.
  • Appropriateness for Kids: Best suited for older children or those accustomed to longer hikes due to its length and challenging terrain…truthfully, you don’t need to embark on a hike of this length to enjoy what this park has to offer, but if your family LOVES hiking, by all means 😉
  • Landmarks: This trail takes you through the heart of the dune field, offering stunning panoramic views of the gypsum dunes. Keep an eye out for unique desert flora and fauna along the way.
view from Alkali Flat Trail, White Sands National ParkPin
view along Alkali Flat Trail

Interdune Boardwalk

  • Length: About 0.4 miles (one way).
  • Difficulty: Easy.
  • Appropriateness for Kids: Perfect for families with children of all ages, including strollers and wheelchairs.
  • Landmarks: The elevated boardwalk provides breathtaking views of the dunes and offers a chance to observe the delicate desert ecosystem. Look out for animal tracks in the sand.
sign on Loop Drive for the Interdune boardwalk trail at White Sands National ParkPin
Like all trails at White Sands, the Interdune Boardwalk is accessed directly off the Loop Drive, and parking is available at the trailhead as seen above.

Playa Trail

  • Length: Around 2 miles (round trip).
  • Difficulty: Moderate.
  • Appropriateness for Kids: Suitable for older children comfortable with a moderately challenging hike.
  • Landmarks: The trail takes you to a playa, a dry lake bed, which provides a unique perspective of the surrounding landscape. Keep an eye out for animal tracks and desert plants.
white sand dune at white sands national park, new mexicoPin

Dune Life Nature Trail

  • Length: Approximately 1 mile (loop).
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate.
  • Appropriateness for Kids: Family-friendly and suitable for children of all ages.
  • Landmarks: This trail introduces you to the diverse plant and animal life that thrives in the gypsum sand environment. Educational signage along the way provides insights into the adaptations of desert species.

4. Junior Ranger and Ranger-Guided Programs

If you’re traveling with young ones, be sure to participate in the Junior Ranger Program. Geared toward children, this program offers educational activities and challenges that teach them about the environment, wildlife, and conservation.

Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the visitor center, and encourage your kids to complete the activities. Upon completion, they’ll receive a Junior Ranger badge, creating lasting memories of their time at White Sands.

White Sands also offers park ranger guided programs that provide educational and entertaining experiences for families.

These programs include guided walks, talks, and even full moon programs, giving your family the opportunity to learn more about the unique ecology and history of the park.

Check the park’s schedule for ranger-led activities and plan your visit accordingly.

family at Saguaro National Park with large cacti in backgroundPin
When your child completes their junior ranger activities, they can earn a special pin/badge at each national park. My son puts them all on a hat and proudly wears them for all of our trips (like this one in Saguaro National Park)

5. Picnicking

White Sands National Park doesn’t offer many amenities within the park itself, so planning a picnic is a must. Pack a cooler with your family’s favorite snacks, sandwiches, and refreshing drinks.

There are designated picnic areas, but feel free to find a spot in the dunes to enjoy your meal surrounded by the unique landscape.

Bring a blanket or portable chairs for a comfortable picnic experience.

Remember to pack plenty of water to stay hydrated, especially in the dry desert climate.

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White Sands visitors often set up tents and spend the day sledding and picknicking at the park (photo credit via: National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

6. Full Moon Hike and Sunset Strolls

Experience the magic of White Sands under the full moon during the park’s Full Moon Hike.

Alternatively, take a leisurely sunset stroll with your family, basking in the warm glow of the setting sun against the gypsum dunes.

Be sure to check the park’s schedule for Full Moon Hike dates and make reservations in advance.

white sands national park people hiking at nightPin

7. Backcountry Camping Trail

White Sands National Park does not offer traditional campgrounds or developed campsites within the park.

However, the park does allow backcountry camping, providing visitors with the unique opportunity to experience the stunning landscapes under the starry skies.

Permits

Before you go camping, you need a permit. You can get a permit at the Visitor Center. Access for the backcountry camping trail is located directly off of Loop Drive.

Where Can You Camp?

You can’t camp just anywhere. The park has specific backcountry campsites where you can set up your tent.

Rangers at the Visitor Center will tell you where it’s okay to camp, and they’ll give you a map of the backcountry trail.

No Facilities

There won’t be bathrooms or water faucets where you’re camping.

You need to bring your own water and be prepared to, well, do your bathroom stuff in a “leave no trace” way (which means cleaning up after yourself).

Weather Considerations

White Sands can get pretty hot during the day and chilly at night. So, you need to be ready for both.

Bring enough warm clothes for the night and plenty of water for the day.

What You Need to Bring

Bring your own tent, sleeping bag, and all the camping gear you’d need.

Also, make sure to bring enough food and water for your stay.

And, of course, don’t forget your sense of adventure!

camping tent, White Sands National ParkPin

8. Stargazing in the Evening

White Sands National Park is not only beautiful during the day but also offers a magical experience at night. The lack of artificial light makes it an ideal location for stargazing.

Bring a telescope or simply lie back in the soft sand to marvel at the vast night sky.

Check the moon phase before your visit; a new moon or crescent moon phase will provide the best conditions for stargazing.

Also, be sure to dress warmly, as desert temperatures can drop significantly after sunset.

9. Photography Amidst the Gypsum Dunes

Capture your family’s special moments against the backdrop of the white gypsum dunes.

Whether you’re using a professional camera or your smartphone, the unique landscape provides the perfect setting for memorable photos.

Consider bringing a tripod for family photos and capturing the changing colors of the dunes during sunrise or sunset.

Don’t forget to charge your camera or smartphone and bring extra memory cards!

family sand sledding in White Sands National Park, New MexicoPin

10. Exploring the Interdune Boardwalk

Take a more relaxed stroll on the Interdune Boardwalk. This accessible wooden walkway provides an elevated view of the dunes, allowing your family to enjoy the vastness of White Sands without venturing too far into the soft sand.

The boardwalk is a great option for strollers and wheelchairs, providing an inclusive experience for all family members.

Don’t forget your camera to capture the stunning panoramic views!

sunrise in White Sands National Park, New MexicoPin
sunrise at White Sands NP

Other Attractions to Check Out in the Area

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

About 180 miles from White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns is a giant cave wonderland in New Mexico.

Imagine going underground and discovering huge rooms filled with spectacular rock formations.

You can take a guided tour, walk down into the cave, and see amazing stalactites and stalagmites. It’s like entering a magical underground world full of natural wonders!

family next to Carlsbad Caverns national park sign in New MexicoPin
Thibodeau clan outside of Carlsbad Caverns national park, also in New Mexico

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a fantastic outdoor playground in Texas, is a bit of a drive from White Sands National Park, but totally worth it!

Picture towering mountains, cool canyons, and amazing trails waiting for you.

It’s about a 3 to 3.5-hour drive, but once you get there, you can hike to the highest peak in Texas, explore hidden canyons, and spot lots of wildlife.

So, if you’re up for a little road trip from the white sands to the towering peaks, it’s an adventure waiting to happen!

three kids next to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park sign in TexasPin
Thibodeau clan at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Alamogordo

The closest city to White Sands, Alamogordo, is a charming town surrounded by the Sacramento Mountains.

Visit the New Mexico Museum of Space History or take a stroll through the downtown area for a taste of local culture.

It’s a great spot to find lodging (we chose to stay at an Airbnb in town), and stock up on snacks and supplies before heading into the sandy adventures of White Sands!

balloon festival over Alamagordo New MexicoPin
Alamagordo balloon festival

Ruidoso

Nestled in the Sacramento Mountains, Ruidoso is known for its picturesque setting and outdoor activities.

Explore the Lincoln National Forest, go horseback riding, or enjoy the shops and restaurants in this mountain town.

town of Ruidoso New Mexico with snow covered mountain in backgroundPin
Ruidoso

Roswell

Famous for the Roswell UFO incident, Roswell offers a quirky and extraterrestrial-themed experience.

Visit the International UFO Museum and Research Center and explore the town’s unique alien-inspired attractions.

welcome to Roswell New Mexico signPin

Lincoln Historic Site

Located near Ruidoso, the Lincoln Historic Site takes you back in time to the days of the Lincoln County War.

Explore historic buildings, including the courthouse where Billy the Kid escaped.

White Sands Missile Range Museum

Learn about the history of missile testing and the development of space exploration at the White Sands Missile Range Museum.

Gain insights into the region’s significant role in military and technological advancements.

White Sands Missle ParkPin
White Sands Missile Range Museum (John Carkeet, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

A short drive from Alamogordo, the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site features ancient rock carvings created by Native Americans.

Take a self-guided hike to explore these intriguing petroglyphs.

Three Rivers Petroglyphs, New MexicoPin
Three Rivers Petroglyphs

Las Cruces

Las Cruces is a vibrant city known for its rich cultural heritage and diverse community.

Explore the historic Mesilla Plaza, visit the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, and enjoy local cuisine with a blend of Mexican and New Mexican flavors.

Las Cruces is also a gateway to outdoor adventures, with proximity to the Organ Mountains and various hiking trails.

town of Las Cruces New MexicoPin
Las Cruces

Embarking on a family adventure to White Sands National Park is more than just a trip; it’s a journey into the heart of one of nature’s most stunning creations.

So, load up your car, pack your sunscreen, and get ready for a great time filled with fun things, breathtaking landscapes, and unforgettable memories.

Pin this White Sands National Park things to do article for later! And if you found this article helpful, leave a comment on the pin. That helps others decide whether to use this information, too!

White Sands National Park Things to Do for Families Top 10 List!Pin
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Photo of author

About Heather Thibodeau

Heather Thibodeau is the founder and mom behind nationalparksmom.com.

She and her husband Dave (AKA Tib) are on a mission to travel to as many US national parks with their three kids in tow as they possibly can, doing their best to keep the little ones out in nature and off of screens in an increasingly digital world.

Heather has earned degrees in biology & chemistry from Virginia Tech (Go Hokies), and holds master's and doctorate degrees in physical therapy from Duke University (Go Blue Devils).

Heather is also the creative force behind The Heathered Nest where she shares her love of all things DIY and home decor.

Her work has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, Good Housekeeping, This Old House, Today.com, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and more.

4 thoughts on “White Sands National Park: Things To Do for Families”

  1. Wow, I love all these ideas. White Sands is a 9 hr drive from us, so I think we can make it happen once our young kids are a little older and they can fully appreciate the beauty as well as the thrill of sledding down the dunes! How fun!

    Hopping over from Wee Abode’s Link-up.
    Elena
    elle-alice.blogspot.com

    Reply
    • Hi Elena – Yes! Definitely worth a 9-hour drive. Your kids will love it. I’d say 7 and up is a great age for this trip. Thanks for coming over! Heather

      Reply
    • Oh yes! The sand dunes are for kids of ALL ages! My husband and I had a great time sledding down them as well!!

      Reply

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