While it is clearly possible to visit the White Sands without a car (we ourselves saw several coaches bringing visitors) it is much better if you can to have your own transport. You will want to be able to explore at your own pace, spend more or less time in different places, and ideally stop in a few spots to experience the less-visited areas of dunes, away from the crowds.
There are no particular requirements for driving here. The road is paved, although in places it can get quite covered by drifting sand. We saw a vehicle very like a snow plough moving slowly along the park road to push the sand that had drifted on to it off to one side. If you encounter drifts like these you will need to take a little bit of care of course, but no more than that.
There are designated parking areas by trailheads, including a large one at the far end of the Dunes Drive by the Alkali Flats trail and several near the picnic shelters. There are also plenty of places where you can pull over if you wish to explore the dunes elsewhere – the only rule is that you don’t block other vehicles.
White Sands National Monument is not an easy place to explore without a car. There are no park buses to whiz you from attraction to attraction and getting around on foot or bicycle would be only for the truly hearty and prepared. Things are fairly spread out but the big problem is the heat, lack of shade, and water. With a car not only can you get to trail heads, scenic lookouts, and picnic areas, but you can carry everything that you need to survive in this harsh climate. Driving the 16-mile round trip Dunes Drive is like being on the moon. You often wonder if it's safe to exit the vehicle without a breathing device. If you get out in the middle of the day, you might be right!
As with any foray into wilderness, you have to be prepared. Even if you stay on the main road in White Sands Monument, you need to be ready for the harsh climate and lack of facilities once you get away from the Visitor Center. There is NO water and you should carry a gallon per person for an all day outing, half that for even a short visit. Salty snacks are important to keep your mineral levels up as you will noticeably sweat them out. In fact, you'll need to bring all your food in as there is nothing for sale once you get away from the Visitor Center.
El Paso is the closest major city. We flew into El Paso from L.A. on Southwest Airlines.
El Paso - 85 miles south of White Sands
Albuquerque - 210 miles north
Alamagordo - 15 miles northwest
Carlsbad Caverns - 160 miles
We did a 3 park loop starting in White Sands, then visited Carlsbad Caverns, and our final park was Guadalupe N.P. before returning to El Paso.
Can you believe that some people just stop at the visitor center? It's true! They don't want to pay the $3 entrance fee to drive along the Dunes Drive, the only road into the monument.
Well, fie on them! Don't make that mistake! Just driving along the spectacular road is worth the small fee, particularly since about halfway through, the asphalt ends and the road becomes hard-packed gypsum as it snakes through the dunes to the Heart of the Dunes picnic and playground area.