I was a little surprised to learn that you are allowed to walk anywhere among the dunes – there are no rules about sticking to marked trails or staying on boardwalks to protect the environment. This makes it relatively easy to get away from other people, even in the middle part of the day when the park gets busier. Of course you need to be careful though – if you’re not prepared for hiking, and carrying a compass, it makes sense to stay within sight of the road or at least to know for sure where it is. You also have to be careful not to obstruct other traffic, so be sure to pull well over and off the road – there are plenty of places where you can do that.
Having started by doing the Interdunes Walk and finding it just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us. Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, so it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.
We came upon this desert oasis quite by chance. With no campground in White Sands National Monument and our vow to not stay in a room till Las Vegas due to being insanely over budget. A commercial campground, by experience, would not do. It would only serve to make us hate camping and lament our lack of funds for even a cheap motel. Enter Oliver Lee State Park which had camping. It served us very well in that department but we also discovered a beautiful part of New Mexico we would have otherwise missed.
These arid mountains are what you see as you drive from Albuquerque to White Sands to the east. If you've ever made a drive like that and love mountains, you know it's only natural to wonder to yourself what it would be like to be “over there.” If you really love mountains, you are probably just wishing you were “other there.” Well, you can imagine we were quite happy when we headed in that direction and pulled up right smack dab on the edge of them. There are small interpretive trails as well as more rugged ones right into the mountains. We stuck to the former as we were only there that first night during daylight and even that wasn't for long. One had desert plants with descriptions and we spotted a lot of sphinx moths as the sun went down. It was certainly a magical place to spend our first night in the area. Lee himself was evidently a colorful character in New Mexican history and remnants of his cabin and frontier life are still visible and there are displays which we unfortunately missed in the visitor center.
To feel the heart of the dunes and experience the silent beauty of this almost alien looking world you must get off the Dunes Drive and walk the silent, sparkling, every shifting sand dunes. Drive eight miles to the end of the park road, and get out where you will find the 4 1/2 mile round trip backcountry Alkali Flat Trail. Register at the trailhead and head out to discover what White Sands is really about. As I walked this area I felt as though I was seeing the raw beauty of an unspoiled, rare natural wonder. Here the trail is no trail, rather it is rolling dunes with flat fiberglass markers within a line of sight to guide you. Once you rounded the top of the crest of the first dune, you were in perfect isolation and solitude, surrounded by white dunes that rolled back and away from you in all directions. The markers were of varying height, depending on how much sand had sifted around it. In one place only the very top of the marker was exposed, and park personnel had simply placed another one beside it. Although we saw very few plants on this solitary walk, we did find a splendid example of a skunk bush sumac whose dune had moved on, leaving it perched high up on its cylindrical pedestal, which its roots had captured. We also saw the top of a cottonwood tree, which was mostly buried under a large dune. At the Visitor Center we had learned that the few cotton wood trees living in the desert, survive as long as they manage to keep a few leaves above the sand. In the fall you may come upon a splash of bright color as this partially buried tree turns golden. Although it was a busy Saturday filled with people along the drive, in the hours that we spent out on the Alkali Flat hike we only saw one other set of two hikers. This is a place I would come back to again, and again, and again. For me it was a spiritual experience.
The New Mexico Museum of Space History is located in Alamogordo, which is 15 miles east of White Sands National Monument. Here you will find a complex, which includes the space museum, planetarium, IMAX Dome Theater, and the International Space Hall of Fame. We began our day here by visiting their Dome Theater where we watched a National Wildlife Federation movie on whales. You sat in a semi lying down position and watched this huge projection on a 40 ft. high, 140 ft. wrap around screen. In the museum we saw a variety of interesting exhibits from the early days of the space program through the present. Outside the display contained launch vehicles and some spacecraft as well as the Sonic wind No. 1, a rocket sled Dr. John Paul Stapp, a space research pioneer road to a record speed of 632 miles per hour in 1954. The address of the museum is: The New Mexico Museum of Space History, PO Box 5430, Alamogordo, NM 88311-5430.
This is a loop at the end of the paved road in the park, where you can hike in the dunes. The trail is about 3 or 4 miles, there are markers in the dunes so you know what distance you have covered, some vegetation, great dunes, and that is it. We started the hike around 4pm, and it was really hot, so i'd recommend you do it really early in the morning... Have a compass handy, it's easy to lose track of the markers in the sand... You must sign in and out before and after the hike -- for your own safety.
A primitive backcountry campsite is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Backpackers have to register in person at the visitor center; there are no registrations in advance.
I have to say White Sands is pretty much off the beaten path, in the middle of the desert, not too close to any major cities. Closest town is Alamagordo.
If you venture into the dunes be careful as you can get lost in the sea of white. In summertime this could be deadly as temperatures soar.
This trail leads you two miles out through the heart of the sands, where the vegetation become extremely sparse and even the footprints disappear. Eventually you reach a vast white plain, the alkalai flats. These strech on for what seems like forever with mountains barely visible at the far end of the flat.
There are several other activities which you can do at the dunes. Besides the obvious sightseeing, the National Park Service site also mentions picnicking, hiking, camping, observing the plantlife, and the wildlife along the boardwalk. There is a visitors center located at the park entrance which can give you information regarding these activities, as well as the fees that may apply
Look for the different types of dunes while you are out there. There are four types: dome (low mounds of sand), barchan (crescent shaped), transverse (long ridges) and parabolic.