It’s hard to tell if it’s the expansive blue sky of southern New Mexico that makes White Sand Dunes National Monument look so vibrantly white, or if it’s the ocean of glistening gypsum sand that makes the sky look so profoundly azure. Either way, if you’re planning a trip to Taos, Santa Fe, or Albuquerque, don’t miss the opportunity to explore the natural anomaly of White Sands National Monument a few hours to the south. Spread across a seemingly random stretch of the Tularosa Basin—a graben basin located within the Chihuahuan Desert—these dunes draw many a visitor to Alamogordo, New Mexico, the quirky nearby city. We recommend you plan a trip in the fall, after the summer sun has given way to cooler weather.

The Odometer: 564 miles from Denver; 233 miles from Santa Fe

White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument. Photo by Haley Gray

Explore the Dunes: With such a large dune field to lose oneself in (figuratively, of course), you might just get to experience this natural wonder in solitude. The least strenuous (and most crowded) hiking option is the Interdune Boardwalk, an easy 0.4-mile roundtrip walkway that is also stroller and wheelchair accessible. The Dune Life Nature Trail offers an in-between option clocking in at one mile for the loop, but with so much climbing up and down in the dune field with hot sun and no shade, it takes most hikers an hour to complete. The very determined can set out on the five-mile Alkali Flat Trail, which skirts the remains of Lake Otero. Be warned, this trek is only for the most prepared and experienced. With no shade, no water, oppressive sun, and strenuous conditions, hikers have become dangerously dehydrated and even died on this trail. Consult with rangers before embarking on any of the non-boardwalk trails.

We recommend getting to the dunes first thing in the morning (it heats up fast). To sled on the dunes, simply follow the road into the field as far as you’d like before finding a pull-off to park. Wax up your sled and climb the tallest dune you can find.

Also be warned that White Sands is home to a missile range that regularly conducts tests. Occasionally, Dunes Drive is closed for brief periods while these tests take place. You can call ahead or check this web page to find out about upcoming closures.

If the hot dune field leaves you craving some cool mountain air, we recommend the easy 2.6-mile Old Cloudcroft Highway trail, just off US-82, or the picturesque Bridal Veil Falls trail off 162C, northwest of High Rolls.

Super 8 Hotel
Super 8 Alamogordo is your best bet for a cheap, bright place to crash. Photo by Haley Gray

Stay: Accommodations in rural New Mexico are sparse. The best option in town is unequivocally the Super 8 on White Sands Boulevard. Why? In addition to the brightly colored rooms, your stay comes with complementary sled rentals and accompanying wax, which are essential to your dune experience.

Budget-crunchers can beat the desert heat by staying at the Cloudcroft Hostel, a spunky mountain lodge just west of town. A bunk will only set you back $19 per night, and it’s just $35 for a private room.

Tent-pitchers (or trailer-towers) can set up camp in Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, about a 20-minute drive from the dune field at the base of the Sacramento Mountains. Those prepared to pack in (and pack everything back out) can obtain permits from the White Sands National Monument Visitors Center to spend the night in the dune field. Check with rangers regarding weather and other concerns before setting out, and remember you’ll need to bring plenty of water and food.

Courtesy of Margo’s Mexican Food

Eat & Drink: The best place to get a cold beer after a day at the dunes? The 21-tap bar in the local grocery store. You read that right. Rotating options at the Lowe’s Market in Alamogordo feature plenty of Colorado classics, like New Belgium’s Citradelic or Left Hand’s Milk Stout Nitro. While you’re there, grab a budget-friendly meal from the grocery store’s warm Chipotle-esque burrito bar or freshly fired pizza from their oven.

For the best Mexican food in town, head to El Camino on White Sands Boulevard; we highly recommend the huevos rancheros, drenched in irresistibly savory sauce, at any time of day. Margo’s Mexican Food on First Street is a solid runner-up, offering satisfyingly large portions and kid-friendly options. Can’t Stop Smokin’ BBQ is a favorite local joint for brisket, ribs, and pulled pork—don’t skip the sides!

Get your morning buzz from Plateau Espresso, which offers a drive-through as well as a patio with unbeatable views of the San Andreas Mountains and the desert basin from its perch just above town. Brunchers should be advised that just a quick drive north, in the charming town of La Luz, Nuckleweed Place offers down-home charm and the best made-from-scratch fare. The quaint cafe’s menu matches country classics, like steak and eggs, with brunch staples—think stuffed French toast or a hollandaise-drenched Benedict.

It would be a cardinal sin to visit this Americana town and skip the authentic greasy spoon experience. Options are aplenty in Alamogordo, but we recommend Waffle & Pancake Shoppe for the classic diner experience (local color included).

New Mexico Museum of Space History
New Mexico Museum of Space History. Courtesy of Marcin Wichary / Flickr via Creative Commons

For The Kids: Alamogordo is the very proud home of the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Spark your tykes’ imagination with a trip to see rocket replicas, a real “moon rock,” or dress them up in a space suit.

If You Do One Thing: White Sands National Monument opens for evening hours every full moon. Check the schedule, and, if possible, plan your visit to take advantage of the opportunity to explore the surreal dune-scape by moonlight.

Haley Gray
Haley Gray
Haley Gray is a Boulder-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in 5280, Roads and Kingdoms, Boulder Magazine, and the Albuquerque Journal.