What is a sunset in White Sands New Mexico like? Just picture row after row of white sand dunes glowing in the sun’s last few rays as it slowly slips behind purple mountains far in the distance, lighting up the sky in an explosion of color. With a cup of red wine and bag of snacks in hand, there is no better place to watch the sunset than in White Sands New Mexico! In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know to plan the perfect night watching the sunset in White Sands New Mexico, from the best spots to tips for not getting lost and how to make sure you don’t get locked in the park (we’re only kind of kidding)!
- About White Sands, New Mexico
- How are the dunes formed?
- Specific spots to see the sunset in White Sands
- Map of places to see the sunset in White Sands New Mexico
- Tips for a great experience
- Photography tips
- Backpacking in White Sands
- Sunset vs. sunrise
- Where to stay
About White Sands, New Mexico
Located in the Tularosa Basin in southwestern New Mexico, White Sands spans 275 square miles, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world. You may have seen photos of the dreamlike sand dunes, glistening in the sunshine and wondered where in the world such a place exists!
When you’re in the middle of the park with dunes stretching out for miles in every direction, it will feel like you have stepped out of reality and into a land of make believe. It’s a spectacular sight!
Formerly a national monument, White Sands National Park was only recently upgraded to a “national park” in 2019, which is why you may see it referred to as either monument or a park on many signs, websites, etc.
You might have also heard of White Sands in a different context, because not only is it one of the newest national parks, it is also the nation’s largest open-air missile testing range! No, you will not be spontaneously struck with a missile while visiting the park, but the roads around the park can be shut down for missile testing exercises.
What makes the dunes white?
Although commonly found in household products from beer to toothpaste to drywall, gypsum, which gives the dunes their white color, is actually very rare in sand form. Interestingly, early entrepreneurs wanted to mine the gypsum for commercial use, but conservationists thankfully recognized the unique beauty of White Sands ands stepped in to protect the park from degradation.
How are the White Sand dunes formed?
The San Andres and Sacramento Mountains that surround the Tularosa Basin are composed in part of gypsum. When it rains or snowfall melts, the gypsum is washed downhill and settles in the basin with nowhere to go. Scorching desert heat then causes the water to evaporate, leaving behind the crystallized gypsum grains that make up the dunes we see today!
Sunset in White Sands New Mexico
Though beautiful at any time of day, White Sands is renowned for its stunning sunsets! Watching the sun cast shadows across the dunes as it lights up the sky in colorful shades of pink, purple and yellow is a can’t miss experience, making White Sands one of the best spots to watch the sunset in New Mexico, if not the entire United States!
That being said, catching a sunset in White Sands National Park can be a little tricky, mainly because the park closes down (ie. gates locked, cars shepherded out by rangers) roughly 30 minutes after the sun goes down (the exact time varies by season). This gives you a very short window of time to catch the sunset, which makes having a plan that much more important.
In this article, we’ll help you plan the perfect White Sands sunset viewing experience, with recommendations on the best spots to get a classic view and tips on how to have a great, stress-free experience.
Where to see the sunset in White Sands
The best places to watch the sunset in White Sands is along the western side of the Dunes Drive loop.
This area is where the dunes are largest and the sun sets behind the mountains immediately in the background , giving a classic White Sands sunset view! To get here, drive about 15 minutes past the White Sands Visitor Center and then turn left once you reach the first (and only) intersection.
In this area of the park you have two general options for finding a good sunset viewing spot. You can either:
- Follow one of the hiking trails that brings you out onto the dunes OR
- Head out into the dunes and choose your own adventure in search of the perfect spot!
Hiking Trails in White Sands
While there are 5 hiking trails in White Sands, only 2 of them are located on the western side of Dunes Drive in the heart of the rolling white dunes. These two trails are the Backcountry Trail and the Alkali Flat Trail.
The other three trails lead through smaller dunes that are more covered in vegetation. While I imagine the sunset is still beautiful here, you won’t get the iconic White Sands sunset you want!
Choose your own adventure
If you don’t want to follow a marked trail (which is totally reasonable in White Sands), you can simply park your car in one of the several parking areas on the western side of the Dunes Drive loop and start walking (but make sure to drop a pin or carry a GPS device to find your way back…).
As long as you make it to the start of the Dunes Drive Loop and turn left, you really can’t go wrong with the views. However, if you like to have a specific destination in mind, we will point out a few of our favorite sunset spots along the loop below.
Specific spots to catch a sunset in White Sands, New Mexico
In the following sections, we will detail a few specific spots that are great for seeing the sunset in White Sands!
Map of sunset spots in White Sands
The map below displays the best spots to see the sunset in White Sands, and includes a few nearby options to spend the night afterwards (see more details below), marked in purple. Parking areas with immediate access to the best spots in the dunes are marked in red, while trailheads that offer great sunset views are marked in orange.
- To email this map to yourself for future use, click the three dots in the upper right corner.
- To view more details about each location, click on the marker on the map.
Our favorite spot to watch the sunset in White Sands was from the Backcountry Trail. The trail is a 1.8 mile loop, but you don’t need to go far to find great views. In fact, you really shouldn’t go too far because you will have limited time to get back to your car before the park closes.
We loved the Backcountry Trail as a spot to watch the sunset because it provides a view of picturesque rolling dunes with the mountain backdrop that you probably seen on Instagram.
Plus the trail markers make it significantly easier to find your way back to the car afterwards. You don’t necessarily have to stay on the trail, but keeping a marker in sight is helpful to make sure you don’t get lost!
There are several backcountry camping spots along the Backcountry Trail which require a permit.
Alkali Flat Trail
The Alkali Flat Trail is a 5 mile loop that leads through the largest dunes in the park, out to Alkali Flat at the far edge of the dunes.
Now don’t be fooled by the name of the trail – it is certainly not flat! You will be trudging up and steep dunes, but it is totally worth it! Some of the largest and most undisturbed dunes are found along the trail!
Once again, you won’t be able to hike the entire loop at sunset, but you only need to walk a couple minutes in to find huge dunes and awesome views.
Yucca Picnic Area
Alternatively to the Backcountry Trail or Alkali Flat Trail, the Yucca Picnic Area is a great spot for catching the sunset. Here, there is no trail, which means you get choose your own adventure! Simply head west into the dunes from the parking lot, and find a spot you like!
Because are no trail markers to help guide you back to the car, it’s important to drop a pin on your phone or use a GPS to make sure you can find your way back. It’s all too easy to get turned around once you’re in the dunes, as they stretch as far as the eye can see!
Other parking areas along Dunes Drive Loop
There are four other parking areas along the western side of the Dunes Drive loop. Similar to the Yucca Picnic area, you can park at any of these parking areas and just start walking west into the dunes.
Tips for a great experience
- Don’t go too far into the dunes! It can be tempting to keep walking farther and farther into the dunes, chasing the next view, but the farther you go, the less time you have to actually enjoy the sunset.
- Make sure you have a plan to find your way back to the car. It may sound silly, but it’s actually really easy to get turned around in the dunes – they all look the same! There is cell service in most of the park, so you should be able to drop a pin on a map app and use it to find your way. Alternatively, you could download the AllTrails Pro maps if you are hiking the Backcountry or Alkali Flat trails.
- There are no gas stations in or near the park. The closest services are 15 miles east in Alamagordo or 52 miles west in Las Cruces. Be sure to fill up before heading to the park!
- For the best White Sands sunset viewing experience without having to rush back to your car, go backcountry camping! Permits are required to camp in the backcountry (temporarily suspended for rehabilitation).
- If you are interested in learning more about the White Sands and watching the sunset with a group, the park rangers lead a “Sunset Stroll” that departs roughly 1 hour before sunset.
- Pack a small towel, snack and flask of wine to enjoy on the dunes as you watch the sunset – there’s no better to way to end a day of exploring White Sands! Please note that technically alcohol is prohibited in the park from February 1st through May 31st, during peak season in White Sands.
Below are a few tips to help you get the most epic photos from your evening in White Sands!
- Bring a tripod and remote | The best way to show the perspective of the dunes is to include a human in the photo. Set up a tripod and walk across to an opposite dune for an epic shot!
- The best lighting for photos is during the hour before the sunsets. Be sure to arrive early to find your perfect spot before it’s too late!
- If you are shooting in manual, try to keep your ISO low (less than 100 is ideal), aperture wide (think between f/11 and f/16) and shutter speed fast (less than 1/30 second).
- Shoot with a lower exposure than you think you need. It preserves all the details and colors of the photo and avoids washing out the view. You can then lighten up when editing.
- Find your own dune! Untouched dunes with no footprints make for the best photos, so try to find one that hasn’t been trampled. This can be tough to find at sunset – it’s actually easier at sunrise because overnight winds smooth out footprints in the sand.
Visiting White Sands National Park
In this section, we’ll cover the details on visiting White Sands National Park, including entrance fees, park hours and places to stay nearby.
White Sands charges a $25 per vehicle entrance fee. Alternatively, you can purchase an America the Beautiful pass for $80 which gives you unlimited access to all U.S. National Parks for one year.
White Sands National Park hours vary by time of year. The park opens at 7:00am year round, but closing hours differ by season. Typically, the park closes within roughly 30 minutes of sunset. You can find current and upcoming park hours on the NPS website.
And yes, these hours are firm. The rangers drive around just before the park closes asking people to get in their cars, and they lock the gates to the park at night!
Missile testing closures
You read that right. In addition to being a lovely recreation area, White Sands is also the site of a the White Sands Missile range. This means that occasionally the park closes down entirely to visitors for missile testing. Be sure to check the NPS website for park closures before your trip.
Backcountry camping in White Sands
You can avoid all the hassle typically involved in seeing the sunset in White Sands by spending the night sleeping under the stars! Setup camp and relax as you watch the sunset until the sky turns dark, without having to hurry back to your car before the park closes.
As of spring 2022, backcountry camping in the park is temporarily suspended for rehabilitation, with no announced reopening date.
- Check back on the NPS website for updates on backcountry camping in White Sands.
Sunrise vs. Sunset in White Sands?
Sunset in White Sands gets all the hype, but what about sunrise?! We’ve seen both and thought the sunrise was just as beautiful as the more famous sunset. The benefit to visiting White Sands for the sunrise is that you don’t have to rush out of the park afterward!
However, there are only a few narrow windows of time throughout the year when it’s actually possible to see a sunrise from White Sands because the park opens at 7:00am. We visited in late January, and the sunrise was at 7:07am. We arrived at the entrance before the park opened and were just barely able to catch it!
Where to stay for visiting White Sands
There are no campgrounds or hotels/lodging in the park or just outside the park. The closest towns are Las Cruces, about 45 minutes to the west and Alamagordo, about 15 minutes to the east. While Alamagordo is closer, Las Cruces is a much larger town so there are more lodging options available.
If you prefer to camp, Oliver Lee State Park has an awesome campground located about 30 minutes from the entrance to White Sands National Park, with campsites that are reservable in advance for $14 per night.
The Aguirre Spring Campground, nestled in the foothills of the Organ Mountains, is also lovely, with first-come-first-serve campsites available for $7 per night.
Aguirre Spring puts you a bit farther from White Sands, about 50 minutes from the park entrance, but is a great place to stay if you are also interested in exploring the Organ Mountains National Monument.
Other Useful Resources
Planning a road trip through New Mexico? You may also be interested in the following:
- Road trip | The Ultimate 14-Day Texas to California Road Trip
- Big Bend | Complete Guide to Hiking the South Rim Trail
- Guadalupe Mountains | How to Hike to Guadalupe Peak
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Have you seen a sunset in White Sands New Mexico? What’s your favorite sunset spot? Let us know in the comments below!