Undulating through the Tularosa Basin like something out of a dream, these ethereal dunes are a highlight of any trip to New Mexico, and a must on every landscape photographer's itinerary. Try to time a visit to White Sands with sunrise or sunset (or both), when the dazzlingly white sea of sand is at its most magical.
From the visitor center drive the 16-mile scenic drive, which loops into the heart of the world's largest gypsum dune field, covering 275 sq miles. Along the way, get out of the car and romp around, or escape the crowds by hiking either the Alkali Flat, a 5-mile (round-trip) backcountry trail through the heart of the dunes, or the simple mile-loop nature trail. Don't forget your sunglasses – the sand’s as bright as snow.
It’s a long, long way to the ocean from here, so don’t be surprised to find locals picnicking, playing, sunbathing and generally enjoying the full-on beach experience. Join them by springing for a $19 plastic saucer at the visitor center gift shop, and sledding the back dunes; you can sell it back for $5 at day's end (no rentals to avoid liability). Check the park calendar for sunset strolls and full-moon hikes.
Backcountry campsites, with no water or toilet facilities, stand a mile from the scenic drive. Pick up a permit (adult/child under 16 years $3/1.50; first-come, first-served) in person at the visitor center at least one hour before sunset. Car campers should ask the rangers for a list of other nearby campsites.
To reach the park, drive Hwy 70 either 50 miles northeast of Las Cruces or 16 miles southwest of Alamogordo – and bear in mind that the road occasionally closes at very short notice for up to three hours, during missile tests. Visitors must enter one hour before close.