White Sands National Park with Kids

Author: Dan Brewer

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If you are on a family trip to New Mexico, we strongly encourage you to visit White Sands National Park with kids. Home to the largest gypsum sand dune field in the world, the White Sands National Park is a truly special place. There are scenic drives and hiking trails for all capabilities to allow your family to enjoy the surreal, yet hauntingly beautiful landscapes within White Sands National Park.

The first time we visited New Mexico with our kids, it was still called White Sands National Monument, but we were happy to return and discover that it finally has gotten the recognition it deserves.

White Sands National Monument officially became White Sands National Park in 2019. Our family loves visiting this special New Mexico national park and we can’t wait to return again in the future! 

A visit to White Sands National Park with kids is a super fun family vacation.

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Family Travel Advice You Can Trust

Did you know many ‘travel blogs’ are written by AI bots or people who have never actually been to the destination? At Family Can Travel, we are a real family who travels to real places. We then write about our family travels in hopes of inspiring other real families to travel with their kids too! We hope you enjoy reading about our real life visit to White Sands with kids!

a girl empties all the sand out of her shoes after playing on the dunes at White Sands national park.
Yup – real life travels with kids at White Sands!

The 7 Best Things to do at White Sands National Park with Kids

1. White Sands National Park Hiking Trails

Kids LOVE playing on sand dunes (and let’s face it, grown-ups do too!). There’s just something magical about sand dunes for kids – they’ll run up them and tumble or slide down them over-and-over again until they collapse. Without question, playing on the sand dunes is the most fun thing to do with kids at White Sands National Park.

The very best way to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the white gypsum dunes at White Sands National Park is to get out on one of the hiking trails which get you into the heart of the gypsum dunes. Keep reading for our list of the best hiking trails in White Sands National Park with kids.

a girl throws sand for an interesting picture while on a family hike at White Sands National Park.
We loved hiking at White Sands National Park with our kids.

2. Dune Sledding at White Sands National Park with Kids

The first time we visited White Sands National Park with kids, we were excited to try sledding on the sand dunes. It seemed like nearly everyone else around us on our most recent visit to White Sands was excited about sand sledding too.

Here’s a little secret about dune sledding at White Sands National Park…  it’s not that much fun. Yes, the idea of dune sledding on the white gypsum sand sounds so exciting, but the reality is a far cry from the fantasy. The sleds are super slow on the sand and most people give up on it after only a few runs.

a man goes sledding on the sand dunes at White Sands, NM.
Grandpa tries dune sledding at White Sands National Park

The White Sands Visitor Center gift shop charges $25 for a brand new sled, or $20 for a used one. That doesn’t even include the $3 for wax. If you return your sled, you’ll get a $5 credit for the gift shop.

Before you drop that much cash on a sled you’ll likely only use a couple of times, we encourage you to visit the dunes without one. If, after watching other people sand sledding, you think you’d actually have fun sledding, then go back to the Visitor Center and buy one. But we’re pretty confident that you’ll discover most people are disappointed in the experience.

a mother holds her baby while trying to go dune sledding at White Sands National Monument (it wasn't a national park yet).
We took our daughter sand sledding on our first visit to White Sands.

3. A Better Alternative to Dune Sledding

We were lucky enough to climb some of the highest sand dunes in the world on a pre-kids trip to Namibia. We tried sandboarding there and after the initial thrill wore off, we were equally disappointed with how slow and relatively boring the experience was.

One of our guides gave us a great gift – he taught us about the thrill of running down sand dunes. Unlike running down regular hills, where you eventually go too fast and tumble, you can take gigantic steps and run as fast as you can down sand dunes and you will not tumble. The soft, deep sand absorbs the impact of each footstep, allowing you to run full speed downhill. It’s a big thrill and is a way more fun thing to do at White Sands National Park with kids than sledding. Try it – we’re sure you’ll love it!

A family runs down a sand dune at White Sands, NM.
We ran down nearly every sand dune in the national park!

PS: lying on your side and rolling downhill is a ton of fun too!

4. White Sands National Park Junior Ranger Program

Without question, one of the best things to do in White Sands National Park for kids is the fun and educational Junior Ranger program. Kids must complete a number of exercises within the White Sands Junior Ranger Handbook, which are available from the park rangers at the Information Desk at the Visitor Center.

The Junior Ranger program is educational, but is designed to be a ton of fun for the kids. The White Sand Junior Dunes Activity Book for the Junior Ranger Program has a variety of activities tailored to different age groups. Kids need to complete a minimum of exercises to earn their Junior Ranger Badge, with older kids needing to do more work than young kids.

two kids talk to a White Sands Park Ranger while getting their Junior Ranger badges.
Our kids are excited to get their White Sands junior ranger badges

When our kids completed their required activities, one of the park rangers checked their work to ensure they earned their Junior Ranger Badges. Then the park ranger led them in saying the Junior Ranger Oath:

“I am proud to be a Junior Ranger at White Sands National Park. I will continue to learn about nature, and all people, so that we can work together to protect our national parks and the places we live”.

5. White Sands Visitor Center

The White Sands National Park has a modest visitor center compared to some of the National Park Service powerhouses like the Carlsbad Caverns. But that doesn’t matter as the White Sands Visitor Center still packs in a lot of useful information and services for visitors.

The White Sands National Park Visitor Center has a ranger information station where you can talk to a park ranger and get recommendations for kid-friendly thing to do in the national park. There’s also a small, but very informative interpretive center with many large colorful displays informing visitors about the flora and fauna within the national park.

The exterior of the White Sands Visitor Center building.

If you are looking for a place to have a family picnic within White Sands National Park, there are several picnic tables around the visitor center. And, as is typical at national parks visitor centers, there is a well-stocked gift shop for your kids to find the perfect souvenir of their family visit to White Sands National Park.

One of the most important services available at the White Sands National Park Visitor Center is the drinking water station. Located outside near the washrooms, this is the only drinking water station in the entire national park. Do not leave the visitors center without filling every single water container you have. Read on for the recommended water quantities for family visits to White Sands.

a man fills his water bottle at the White Sands visitor center.
Refilling my water bottle at the visitor center.

6. Dunes Drive

White Sands National Park is a very unique and scenic destination in southern New Mexico. It’s a thrill to visit White Sands even if you don’t get out of your car (although we encourage you to get out if you can!).

Dunes Drive is the only road into the national park. It’s an 8 mile (13 km) long scenic drive which takes visitors deep into the heart of the blistering white sand dunes. In fact, Dunes Drive is only paved for the first 5 miles, and then the road transitions to the white gypsum. You’ll be driving on the same gypsum sand as the incredible white sand dunes within the park. Amazing!

A sign on Dunes Drive shows where the pavement stops and the sand road begins.
the end of Dunes Drive in White Sands National Park is on the white gypsum sand.

7. Sunset Stroll

The Sunset Stroll is an easy, ranger-guided walk through the gypsum sand dunes. This 1-mile (1.6 km) walk with a park ranger is an excellent opportunity to teach your kids about the flora and fauna of the dunes, while enjoying the beautiful scenery. The timing of this kid-friendly walk has it ending right at sunset, providing some outstanding photo opportunities.

As the sunset stroll goes through the white gypsum sand, it is not stroller accessible.

a colorful sunset creates shadows on the dunes at White Sands National Park.

Best Hiking Trails within White Sands National Park for Kids

A reasonably small national park, White Sands has a handful of hiking trails for visitors to enjoy. The White Sands hiking trails are the single best way to get up close to the famous white dunes, to enjoy all the scenery and fun that comes with them.

a young girl hikes in white sands, new mexico.
Our daughter ventures into the dunes while hiking in White Sands National Park.

Even if your family is not very active, there is a hiking trail in White Sands National Park which is suitable for you.

Alkali Trail

The Alkali Trail is the feature hiking trail within the White Sands National Park. As the longest and most challenging hiking trail within White Sands, this hiking trail isn’t for everyone, but if it’s within your family’s physical capabilities, the Alkali Trail is one of the most incredible hikes your family will ever do.

The trailhead for the Alkali Trail is at the very far end of the Dunes Drive scenic drive. The hiking trail immediately leads you into the very heart of the white gypsum sand dunes. Our kids went crazy, climbing and tumbling down every sand dune they saw, and we bet your kids will too.

two kids slide down a white sand dune.
Kid approved fun on the dunes!

It got so crazy, that we had to step in and stop our kids from climbing yet another dune. The Alkali Trail is a long and challenging hike and we needed them to pace themselves. The last thing we wanted was for them to burn themselves out by going too crazy too early.

The best strategy is to let your kids go nuts on the sand dunes near the end of the hike. That ensures everyone will have enough energy to safely complete the family hike.

The most challenging part of the Alkali Trail is walking uphill on the steep dunes. As your feet will sink into the sand, it seems like you take 1 step forward and a half-step backwards. I’m a regular mountain hiker and my heart was pounding at the top of some of the steeper dunes.

two kids climb a tall sand dune at White Sands National Park in New Mexico.
Not all the sand dunes are this tall…

But the effort is well worth it. From the top of the first dune you can see how massive this dune field is. White Sands National Park is a truly special place.

We heard that many hikers enjoy the Alkali Trail barefoot. We were a bit skeptical, so we began the hike with our hiking shoes on, but it didn’t take us long to take our shoes and socks off.

I have very sensitive ‘city feet’ and can’t usually stand walking on gravel etc., but I was able to walk the entire loop without any discomfort. In fact, it was the exact opposite experience – walking barefoot through the soft white gypsum sand was an extraordinarily pleasant experience. We all loved it!

a young hiker carries her high-tops as she walks barefoot through the sand on the Alkali Trail

If your kids enjoy wildlife, they will likely have a challenging time finding some in White Sands National Park. But, if you keep your eyes open, you’ll almost certainly see signs of life. Watch for lizard trails in the sand, or little beetles working their way up the slopes.

After 4 miles of walking through incredibly scenic and fun sand dunes, you’ll reach the far end of the Alkali Trail loop. Standing on the top of a dune looking back towards the start, it’s easy to see why this special place earned national park status. It’s pretty incredible!

a family enjoys a hike on the Alkali Trail through miles of beautiful white sand dunes.
We could see white sand for miles in every direction on the Alkali trail.

Just beyond the final dune on the Alkali hiking trail, you’ll walk to a sign. Standing here you can see the remnants of Lake Otero, a former massive lake, which is now just a flat, white field. Please respect the warning signs and do not enter this area as there is a risk of stepping on unexploded ordnance.

The hike from Lake Otero back to the Alkali trailhead is a lot of fun. It has less sand dunes, but the trail takes you to a lot of large downhill drops. The trail is typically gentle uphill walks to the top of a dune, which you can then run or slide down. It’s a lot of fun!

a young boy runs in the sand on the Alkali Trail at White Sands National Park.
Just look how much fun hiking in the sand dunes is for kids!

The Alkali Trail is a loop, which most hikers (including us), do in a clockwise direction. As the sand dunes are alive and are constantly moving, there is no permanent trail, but rather the trail is marked by bright orange markers protruding from the sand.

It’s generally very easy to follow the bright orange markers – if you ever find yourself unable to see a marker, immediately retrace your steps until you find your previous marker. Although you shouldn’t completely rely on it for your safety, having the Alkali Trail map on your phone is a good idea.

a bright orange trail marker shows the hiking path on the Alkali Trail.

Interdune Boardwalk

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy walking trail in White Sands National Park which is suitable for all skill levels. This 0.4 mile (0.6 km) round-trip walk is along a flat boardwalk which is both wheelchair and stroller-friendly.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy walk in White Sands National Park for all ability levels.

The Interdune Boardwalk leads you through a field of white gypsum dunes, with a series of informative interpretive signs along the way, allowing visitors to learn more about the flora and fauna of the area. There are benches along the Interdune Boardwalk if your family needs to stop and rest.

Once you reach the end of the Interdune Boardwalk, there is a large viewing platform with nice vistas far off into the distance. There was a beautiful snow-capped mountain in the distance during our visit. 

Visitors to the White Sands National Park enjoy the views at the end of the Interdune Boardwalk.

Although it wasn’t nearly as exciting for the kids as the Alkali Trail, we thought the Interdune Boardwalk was enjoyable with some very nice scenery.

Playa Trail

The Playa Trail is the easiest hiking trail in White Sands National Park. This short White Sands hiking trail is just 0.5 miles long round trip and leads you to a dry lakebed. To be honest, we though the Playa Trail was pretty boring and lacked interesting scenery. If you are looking for an easy family walk in White Sands National Park, we recommend the Interdune Boardwalk instead.

The Playa Trail is an easy walk within White Sands National Park.

Where to Stay Visiting White Sands with Kids

One of the things we liked most about visiting White Sands National Park was its remote New Mexico location. While its remote location adds to the ambience, it does make it a bit inconvenient for those on a family vacation wanting to stay close to the park.

The most convenient place for families to stay while visiting White Sands is in the nearby town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. It’s only 16 miles from Alamogordo to the White Sands visitor center and families will appreciate the wide selection of kid-friendly hotels and vacation rental homes to choose from.

Note, that White Sands National Park offers no overnight lodging or campgrounds. Backcountry camping is currently not allowed. Check with the National Park Service to see if it has reopened.

A family has fun running down a white sand dune in New Mexico.

Safety First – What to Bring to White Sands with Kids

Although it is an incredibly beautiful place, families who visit White Sands National Park with kids need to take some safety precautions due to the intense sun radiating off the gypsum sand. Every member of your family will need proper sun protection and plenty of water to stay hydrated.

A young boy hams it up while on a family hike in White Sands, New Mexico.
It’s hard to see without sunglasses.

Here’s a quick checklist of things to bring to White Sands with kids:

  • Plenty of sweat resistant sunscreen.

  • The intense glare of the sun off the white gypsum sands makes wearing sunglasses a must.

  • Sun hats, preferably with a wide brim.

  • Water, water and more water. The NPS recommends one gallon of water per person per day when visiting White Sands. The best way to bring enough water is to have each person in your family carry their own hydration bladder. Fill all your water containers at the visitor center before entering the national park.

  • High-energy snacks: Drinking water without high-energy snacks can also be dangerous. Be sure to bring some fruit, nuts and/or energy bars.

  • A fully-charged cell phone can be the difference between life or death if you get lost. Turn your phone onto “Low Battery Mode” and consider bringing a small power bank with you as a backup.

  • Downloaded maps on your phone. When all directions look the same, it’s easy to get disoriented and lose track of which direction you need to be headed. We tracked our progress using the Alkali Trail map on the AllTrails app, but the NPS has a new app which has downloadable park maps as well.

  • If you intend to explore the gypsum dunes, bring an extra day bag to carry unwanted shoes, flip-flops and/or socks.
a family carries their shoes while walking barefoot on the Alkali Trail.
We didn’t have enough bag space for our shoes.

Other Attractions Near White Sands National Park

PistachioLand

We love pistachios and always get excited to stock up on when we visit New Mexico with our kids. Every time we visit White Sands National Park with our kids, we can’t resist visiting PistachioLand in nearby Alamogordo.

Home to the World’s Largest Pistachio (a great family photo op!), PistachioLand is a must-stop for anyone who loves pistachios, or just needs a good souvenir for New Mexico. The high-desert climate around Alamogordo is perfect for growing pistachios, which PistachioLand does right on site. Daily motorized tours of the pistachio orchards are available.

Two kids pretend to hold up the World's Largest Pistachio in Alamogordo, NM.
Our kids holding up the World’s Largest Pistachio!

As much fun as a pistachio farm tour would be, we always visit PistachioLand for their well-stocked store and very generous free sample station. Here you can try all of their classic pistachio flavors including New Mexico staples such as red chili and green chili. We always look forward to stocking up on some of our favorites, such as Atomic Hot Chili Pistachio Brittle and pistachios in white chocolate – yum!

There’s much more to the PistachioLand store than just flavored pistachios – they have a huge selection of local goods, such as salsas, hot sauces, and much more. There’s an abundance of New Mexico souvenirs in the gift shop and even a café which serves Blue Bell ice cream (another of our favorites!) 

a young boy holds an ice cream waffle cone at PistachioLand in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Our son’s giant ice cream cone from PistachioLand

Another Kid-Friendly National Park in New Mexico

As you can see, our family had a ton of fun at White Sands National Park! If you have enough time on your family trip to New Mexico, we highly recommend you also visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park with kids. It’s a truly incredible experience your kids won’t soon forget!

a family trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

We Love US National Parks with Kids

We have visited lots of US national parks with our kids and White Sands National Park is one of our favorites. Find out which other parks made our list of the 10 best national parks for families.

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Dan Brewer is an intrepid family travel blogger with a passion for exploring the world's most captivating destinations. With 58 countries under his belt and a sense of wanderlust that knows no bounds, he has made it his life's mission to share his travel experiences and insights with fellow families who love to travel.

When Dan isn't traveling with his wife and kids, he's either out enjoying the Canadian Rockies he calls home or working on one of his three travel sites (Family Can Travel, Travel Banff Canada and Ultimate Sports Road Trip).