Southern New Mexico
White Sands - the slogan for White Sands is “Like No Place Else on Earth.” After visiting there several times, I would agree.
White sands is located in south central New Mexico and covers approximately 275 square miles of what seems to be endless white dunes. When you first arrive, it feels like you are on another planet: strange and truly magical. Ironically, the endless white dunes are not sand at all; they are made up of gypsum. Regardless, they provide truly out-of-this world landscapes and makes White Sands a photographer’s paradise.
It’s worth noting, if you are hoping that White Sands will provide enormous contiguous dunes with stacks and stacks of interesting shapes that just happen to be white, you will be disappointed. White Sands does provide interesting shapes of white sand (gypsum), but the dunes are not very tall (20-40ft.) and most dunes are in rows with gaps/valleys between each row. I am not saying this is bad, just different than the dunes of Death Valley or Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
The only way/place to stay overnight (to shoot sunset or sunrise) is to stay at the Back Country Campsites - which are located 6 miles past the fee station. The cost for campsite is a modest $3 per day.
Trail Difficulty (3 out of 5)
I would rate the difficulty of this trail as a 3 on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being most difficult). To get to best places to shoot, you will need to hike 1-4 miles deep into the White Sands. This can very taxing and it is easy to get lost and/or disorientated in these dunes, and there are very few landmarks. I would highly suggest taking a GPS to make sure you can navigate your hike to a from the parking lot/campsites.
GPS Coordinates & Elevation
Click on GPS coordinates above for a Google map to the location.
GPS Decimal degree (DD) format: 32.805583, -106.273667
Google Maps Birds-Eye-View
Click on image to enlarge
You can get directions on Goggle Maps to the White Sands backcountry camping trailhead by clicking this link. Once in Goggle Maps - click on the "Directions" button and type in your current location.
From Alamogordo: Drive southwest on US-70 W/White Sands Blvd. for 13.5 miles until you get to Dunes Dr. Take a right and the visitors’ center is directly in front of you. I would suggest stopping in the visitors’ center to get a map and recommendations from the park rangers.
Just past the visitors’ center are the entry gates. From the entry gates, the primitive campsite area is 6 miles. The shot above was taken in the primitive campsite about a mile northwest from the parking lot. Because the dunes shift constantly, there is no way to provide the exact route.
Best Time of Day to Shoot
The dunes at White Sands can be photographed any time of day (depending on what you are looking for). However, most photographers shoot at either sunset or sunrise.
Best Time of Year to Shoot
You can shoot White Sands really anytime of year, as the dunes really are not affected by the seasons. However, the temperatures in the summer can be extreme and would not be my recommendation. I normally like to go in the winter months, because the number of visitors (and footprints) is much fewer. If you are in White Sands in the summer, make sure you hydrate continuously and provide maximum protection sunscreen as the radiant heat off of the sands can cause serious burns.
What Lens(es) Do You Need
The dunes at White Sands are not very high compared to other dunes in the country. Bring lenses that range from ultra wide to short telephoto.
Permits are required for overnight stay. You need to signup for overnight camping at visitor center.
Direction of the Shot
If you hike to the deep into the dunes at White Sands you will be shooting at all directions.
Special Nuances of Shot
What makes White Sands unique is the color of the sand (it is really gypsum not quartz sand), which is intriguing. The contrasting white dunes with the mountains, sky, and plants can create surreal photographic opportunities.
That being said, the dunes at White Sands are challenging to photograph for the following reasons: 1) They are not very tall (20-40ft. for most), 2) Most dunes have gaps between rows, so you won’t find a classic stack of dunes layered into the sunset, 3) You don’t find as many S shapes in the formations, and 4) Unless you get deep into the dunes, you will find footprints everywhere.
Another challenge is much of the park has cactus (yucca plant) and other vegetation growing in the dunes. So if you are looking for a flowing, layered abstract, you will need to scout deep into the dunes.
Special Equipment Needed
In my opinion, it is a must to have a GPS or at least a reliable compass, as it is easy to get lost and/or disorientated in these dunes, and there are very few landmarks. (Take this seriously.)
A tripod is not necessary during the day, but is needed for low light shots. You would benefit from a polarizer and blower to clean your equipment. Also, make sure you bring a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water/Gatorade.
Number of Other Photographers to Expect
Depending on the time of year and the time of day, you will either find yourself in a sea of tourists or be all alone on the dunes.
The park does not open until after sunrise, so if you campout in White Sands you will have the dunes to yourself in the early morning.
The weather at White Sands can be VERY hot in summer, with average highs in the upper 90s. The fall and spring are mild during the day and cold at night. The winters are cool in the days and 20s or teens at night.
It’s very important to remember that the temperature drops significantly (30-40°) from mid-day to night.
I use Verizon, and there is limited cell service in White Sands. There is stronger cell service once you get back to the main highway.
The only lodging in the park are the primitive campgrounds 1 mile from the Back Country Campsite parking lot. When I say primitive, I mean primitive. There are absolutely no resources; no water, no restrooms (except by the parking lot), no tables, no chairs, no fire pits, and no Starbucks. It is just ground designated as a camping area. No RV’s and no car camping! The problem is, if you want to shoot sunrise, the park doesn’t open until an hour or so after sunrise.
There are plenty of lodging and other campsites in Alamogordo, NM.
Nearby camping and lodging
Camping - click on the campground below for directions
White Sands Backcountry Primitive Camping
Lodging - click on the lodging below for a TripAdvisor review
Super 8 Alamogordo
3204 N White Sands Blvd, Alamogordo, NM
Hampton Inn Alamogordo
1295 Hamilton Rd, Alamogordo, NM
Fairfield Inn & Suites Alamogordo
300 Panorama Blvd, Alamogordo, NM
There are no restaurants in White Sands, but there are plenty of good eating establishments in Alamogordo. As you can imagine, there are lots of good Mexican food places in Alamogordo. My favorites are Rizo’s and La Hacienda. Also Rockin' BZ Burgers makes a pretty good sloppy burger.
Nearby Restaurants - click on the restaurant below for yelp review
1480 N White Sands Blvd, Alamogordo, NM
804 N White Sands Blvd, Alamogordo, NM
Rockin' BZ Burgers
3005 N White Sands Blvd, Alamogordo, NM
The closest laundry mat is in Alamogordo.
Other Photography Opportunities Around
The closest major airports to White Sands are: 1) El Paso, TX (ELP) which is 50 miles west and 2) Albuquerque, NM (ABQ) which is 240 miles north.
Area Guides and Workshops
The Photographer's Ephemeris is a very valuable tool for landscape photographers to determine the direction of the sunrise/sunset & moonrise and moonset from any place on earth on any day (past and future). Click here to take you to The Photographer's Ephemeris for this location.
NOTE: The Photographer's Ephemeris uses the Decimal Degree (DD) format for GPS coordinates to access their locations. The Decimal Degree (DD) coordinates can be found in the GPS section above.