Ever wonder what it’s like to camp at White Sands National Monument? It was a one of a kind experience, cool at night, very windy, and totally worth it.
Last week I attended an aerospace conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico and decided to tack on a short camping trip with my friend to White Sands National Monument. The monument is located only 50 minutes northeast of the city, just over the San Andreas mountains, and is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.
Quick Geological History of White Sands
The white sand dunes that you see today were created through a geological phenomena dating as far back as the Ice Age (24,000-12,000 years ago). Due to rain and runoff from both the San Andreas and Sacramento mountains, gypsum was carried down into Lake Otero lake below. After the end of the Ice Age and temperatures began to rise, the lake dried up into a playa exposing the selenite crystals, the crystalized form of gypsum, to wind and further erosion. Through the process of freezing and thawing, the selenite crystals continued to be broken down into smaller pieces, eventually into the fine white sand that we see today. The process continues every season with the snowmelt and run off from the mountains bringing down the gypsum, the drying of the playa, and the breakdown of the selenite crystals into sand. For a more detailed breakdown of the geology and timeline, please visit the White Sands National Monument website.
Backcountry Camping at White Sands
Camping at White Sands was a truly magical experience and I highly recommend it to anyone who has been thinking about it. There are a few important items you should know before camping there to make sure that you get a campsite and have a good time while you are there.
The first important step is to reserve your campsite. This seems easy in theory, however there are only 10 campsites, you can only book them for one night at a time, and they book up quite quickly. You cannot reserve a spot in advance, so you need to arrive early to make sure you get a spot for that night. My friend and I ended up staying at a hotel in Alamogordo, NM the night before to make sure I was in line when the monument office opened up the next morning. Always check the website for the office hours because they change based on the time of year. Another important item of note is the White Sands Missile Range is right next to the monument and they periodically close the park due to testing. Always check the park website for closures.
Packing for White Sands is entirely dependent on the time of year you plan to go. Being in the desert and at a high elevation (4,300 ft), it can be quite cold in the winter months. We went in early October and the temperature was in the mid-80’s (Fahrenheit) during the day and dipped into the low-50’s at night. Although the 50’s doesn’t seem that cold, keep in mind that the wind can pick up quite a bit in the dunes and the wind chill can feel significantly cooler. Be sure to pack for warmer temperatures during the day and cooler temperatures at night. Also keep in mind that you are in full exposure out in the dunes, so sunscreen, hats, and light clothing are an absolute must.
You can only reserve the campsite for one night at a time, so you don’t have to pack in that much gear. There were only two of us so we brought a tent, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, self-inflating pillows, clothing, headlamps, cameras, 3L of water each, and backpacking stove/pot to make coffee in the morning. If you plan to stay more than one night you may want to pack more food items, but the car is only one mile away if you need to get more stuff the next day.
Have fun and play in the sand! It is the softest sand I have ever felt and it feels so smooth to the touch. Play like a little kid, build sandcastles, so sledding down the dunes, and enjoy every minute. I promise you will long to be back as soon as you drive off the park grounds. Enjoy it while it lasts!
Be prepared to see some of the most beautiful stars you have ever seen! The sky was so clear that you could clearly see the milky way with the naked eye and even make out color variations within it. We saw shooting stars, planets, more stars than I ever thought possible. I highly recommend bringing a camera and doing some astrophotography. There are tons of tutorials online on how to set up your camera for this type of shot. One word of warning, the fine sand may be blowing around so be careful changing lenses because the sand will get in everything.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
The biggest challenge we had was staying warm with the high winds. At first we decided we would leave the fly off the tent so we could look at the stars, but once the wind picked up we quickly scrambled to get it on there. Between blocking the blowing sand and keeping body heat within the tent, it was a no brainer to sleep with the fly. There were a few moments throughout the night where I worried the tent might blow over, but it held itself together. Another issue we ran into was we didn’t have pegs for sand, so my normal pegs didn’t hold well with the wind. My friend mentioned some pegs specific for snow and sand, so I am definitely adding those to my ever growing camping wishlist. All in all I was quite proud of my Alps Mountaineering Ares 3 tent!
A key lesson learned was to just bring warmer sleeping bags next time. After looking at the weather forecast, I brought my warm weather sleeping bags (rated down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit) and I didn’t account for the wind chill. Thankfully a clear and easy fix for next time. Overall that was a minor issue and we managed to stay pretty warm throughout the night regardless.
An important thing to mention is there are no bathrooms out in the sand dunes. The closest bathroom is in the parking lot about a mile hike away and an important consideration to make before packing in for the night. Take care of your number two business before you get out there and peeing in the sand is no big deal. The park guidance states that you must walk 100 feet away from the campsite, dig a hole, and cover your human waste with fresh sand. Make sure to stay away from plants as it may disrupt them and other wildlife in the area. This wasn’t a huge challenge for us, but one I should mention especially if you plan to stay more than one night.
Camping in White Sands was a truly incredible experience and I highly recommend it to anyone. Now that I know what to expect, I can better prepare for my next trip down there. I hope this post was helpful in planning for your next White Sands National Monument adventure. Enjoy and please feel free to reach out if you have any additional questions.
Happy trails and starry nights!