White Sands National Park
Things to Do
An eight-mile scenic drive leads from the Visitor Center into the heart of the dunes. Wayside exhibits at pullouts along the drive provide information about the natural history of the park.
Numerous parking areas along the drive allow visitors to stop and walk in the white sands. Allow 30 minutes driving time for the 16-mile round trip, plus additional time for walking, photography or stopping at pullouts. The Interdune Boardwalk has interpretive exhibits.
Hiking & Trails
Each of the trails in White Sands National Park is different. You can explore the various areas and features of the dune field, so have an adventure and enjoy one or all of the park's four trails. You are welcome to walk anywhere within the park as long as you use an established pullout or parking area. It is recommended, though, that you start with the 6.2 miles of marked trails. Before hiking anywhere, orient yourself to natural and human-made landmarks, such as the different mountain ranges and water towers.
Distance from Visitor Center: 2.5 miles - Length of trail: 330 yards, round trip
This is a short, level trail that leads to a small playa. A playa is a shallow depression or low-lying area that fills temporarily with rainwater from storms. Most of the year, it is a dry lakebed. Playas are common features in desert environments. Lake Lucero, considered the modern source of the sand here, is a much larger playa that covers approximately 10 square miles (16 km). (Lake Lucero is located 15.5 miles (25 km) southwest of here and the only access is across White Sands Missile Range, making it inaccessible to the public except on monthly ranger-led tours. You can get a tour schedule at the Visitor Center.)
Big Dune Nature Trail
Distance from Visitor Center: 2.75 miles - Length of trail: One-mile loop
Description of trail: This is your first opportunity to walk on the sand. The trail is marked by brown posts buried in the sand. This trail is located along the edge of the dune field and is more heavily vegetated than other sections of the dune field. There is a trail guide that is available for 50 cents in the Visitor Center or you may borrow a copy from the box at the beginning of the trail. The trail and guide will introduce you to plants and animals common to the dune field and surrounding desert. The trail starts down in the plains and is level for the first 1/4 mile before going up a steep slope onto the sand dunes. This is NOT a play area. The trail is for nature study. You may play out in the Heart of the Sands near the picnic areas, away from plants and away from the road.
Distance from Visitor Center: 4.5 miles - Length of trail: 650 yards loop
This trail is fully accessible for people using wheelchairs and strollers. The trail is an elevated boardwalk. This trail leads you through a fragile interdune area covered by cryptobiotic crust (see below). Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dune field starts. This is the best place to get a close look at many of the wildflowers that grow here while protecting the park's resources. There is also a short side trail (150 yards/135 km) that leads up to an overlook where you can see several plant pedestals. There are informational signs and benches located at various points along the boardwalk.
Alkali Flat Trail
Distance from visitor center: 7 miles - Length of trail: 4.6 miles round-trip
If you want to see unvegetated dunes stretching for miles into a beautiful vista and have a wilderness-type experience, the Alkali Flat Trail is for you. This trail takes you through the Heart of the Sands, up and over dunes, and ends at the edge of the Alkali Flat
ALL HIKERS MUST REGISTER at the trailhead and return to trailhead by sunset. Please indicate "time out" so that park rangers know that you have returned safely. This is the only trail where horses are allowed.
The Alkali Flat is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. Please note that you do not have to hike the entire trail to enjoy the spectacular scenery. The trail is marked by white posts with orange reflective tape at the top, so look carefully for the next trail marker before continuing. If you cannot see the next post because of blowing sand or dust -- do not proceed. Turn back. The strong winds, especially in the spring, can reduce visibility to a few feet, making it easy to get lost.
Cryptobiotic crusts are the darker, crunchy, bumpy surface found in the low-lying interdune areas. It is the presence of these crusts that enable plants to grow in the nutrient-poor sand by building a soil layer and stabilizing the ever-shifting sand. These crusts are communities of microscopic organisms that include cyanobacteria, other bacteria, algae, fungi, lichens, and mosses.
Some of these organisms acquire nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it to a form plants can use and start the soil- building process. They also enhance the plants' ability to absorb and hold other important plant nutrients. These crusts are found in other environments, but they play an especially critical role in nutrient-poor desert soils. Please try to avoid, whenever possible, walking on these fragile crusts. Try to walk around the edge of interdune areas where the crust is less prevalent. Walking on them damages the crust and stops the soil-building process.
Precautions & Regulations
Be sure to take plenty of water and snacks and wear walking shoes, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses when going hiking in the desert. A minimum of one gallon of water per person per day is recommended. There is no water in the park, so be sure to fill up at the Visitor Center before you go. Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink -- you're already dehydrated by then.
It is easy to become disoriented and lost in the dune field, especially when strong winds erase your footprints and obscure landmarks. A compass is strongly recommended for cross-country or off-trail hiking. And remember to avoid, whenever possible, walking across the fragile cryptobiotic crusts in the interdune areas! (For information on cryptobiotic crusts, see last section of this handout).
If you take your pet hiking, please remember to keep it on a leash at all times for its safety and out of consideration for other visitors.
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