I really love Paris. I’ve been three times. But sometimes I feel like I’m paying thousands of dollars just to eat and shop in a different place. Major cities have never been my favorite vacation spots.
Nope, my favorite travel spots actually combine adventure and awe-inspiring landscapes. The best part is that neither of those has to cost much money at all.
What if I told you about a place where the landscape is so unreal, you feel like you’re on another planet? An under-the-radar spot you haven’t read about a million times. And it’s right here in the United States.
Today I want to show you one of my favorite budget-friendly destinations: White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, the largest white dunefields in the world. Don’t be tricked by the name–it’s not an actual monument, but 275 square miles of powdery soft, dazzling white gypsum crystals. You don’t know whether it’s snow or if you’re on the set of a Star Wars movie.
New Mexico is a big state, and when my husband and I were first working out an itinerary a few years ago, we quickly realized we couldn’t cover it all in a one-week vacation. We had to choose: either northern New Mexico or southern New Mexico. Most people head north to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos, but we both love spectacular interesting landscapes, so the southern part it was.
And we want to go again.
Why White Sands Should Be on Your Bucket List
Three reasons why it’s a must-visit, besides, you know, besides it being gorgeous and all:
1. It’s one of a kind. Sand dunes by themselves aren’t a rare natural wonder. There’s the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, Dune 7 in Namibia and Simpson Desert Dunes in Australia, to name a few.
But none of those dunes are white.
There’s nothing in the whole world quite like White Sands. How cool is it to have a rarity like that right here in the US?
2. It’s not crowded. I expect any national park to be crowded. They’re cheap, good for families, and most people in the US don’t have to travel far to get to them.
So imagine my surprise when we pulled the car over, climbed up over our first dunes, looked out…and there was no one.
Perfectly quiet, with nary a footprint to taint the ripples of gypsum. Maybe we were just in an unpopular spot, we thought.
We drove further into the park. STILL no people and pristine, glistening dunes.
That’s when I realized: Because it’s so vast, every part of the park feels remote. Every part of the park somehow feels like it’s YOURS.
And unlike more popular parks like the Grand Canyon or Bryce Canyon, one of White Sands’ biggest charms is you have the freedom to truly roam. Imagine climbing the dunes barefoot (the gypsum doesn’t get hot), running up them as fast as you can, and then sledding down them like a kid.
3. It’s total Instagram bait. If we’re being honest with ourselves, a tiny reason most of us go on trips is because of all the cool pictures we get to document our experiences. With the bright white rippled hills contrasting with the blue sky, it’s hard to take a bad picture here. That’s why it’s a great spot for editorial photo shoots. Fashion brands like GQ, J. Crew and Urban Outfitters have shot campaigns there, and Cereal Mag has a feature on it if you want to see more stylized pictures.
I took these pictures with an iPhone 5s, and none of them are edited.
What we’re glad we did or wished we had done.
Bring sunscreen, water, and sunglasses. OK, first, let’s talk safety. Don’t underestimate the Southwestern sun–it’s the desert and it gets HOT here. Especially if you go in the day when the sun’s rays are strongest. Sunscreen is an obvious must, but you also need sunglasses because it’s so bright it can be hard to see. My husband never wears sunglasses, and even he admitted that he needed a pair. I also wished I had brought a hat to shield my face.
Make sure you bring enough water. The are water fountains in the visitor center, but once you’re off in the sand dunes, there’s nowhere to re-up. Since we weren’t going too deep into the dunes, we brought a 20-ounce bottle of water each, but if you’re going on a hike you’ll want to bring more.
Pay attention to where you’re going. Many of the sand dunes look the same, and the landscape is always changing. With footprints getting filled in with every wind gust, it’s easy to lose your way. One morbid thing my husband and I do is Google any deaths that have happened where we’re planning our trip. It’s a necessary reality check so we don’t underestimate our safety. My husband and I did some hiking on the Alkali flats trail, where a couple had gotten lost and died a few years earlier, and we were super cognizant about following the bright orange flags along the trail. We also chose not to hike the entire thing because we were paranoid about getting lost.
Pack your own food. There isn’t any food besides a few snacks at the Visitor’s Center, so eat beforehand or bring a lunch. And then enjoy your meal at one of these retro, yet somehow futuristic picnic tables.
Go back at least twice. The park looks totally different depending on the time of day, and it’s really neat to see it at the different stages. A sunset here is stunning and NOT to be missed, because the white dunes take on the colors of the sun.
I’m kind of mad at myself for not going back yet a THIRD time to see the stars, because the pictures I saw looked insane.
I would recommend going a total of three times: in the morning (when it’s not hot yet), right before sunset, and then at night.
Check the NPS website before you go. Because the park is near the White Sands Missile Range, sometimes the park is closed because of missile testing.
What to Do at White Sands
OK, so it’s just some sand dunes. What is there actually to do once you get there? Well, you’d be surprised how fun it is just to explore with no agenda. But if you insist, here are some park activities:
Nature tours. If you want to learn more about the plants and animals that live in the park, then these are a good option for you.
Camping. I so wished we had thought to camp underneath the stars!
Hikes. White Sands has five hiking trails. As I mentioned before, we hiked the beginning of the Alkali flat trails. Make sure you’re up to snuff on safety first, though.
Sledding. Another popular activity is sledding. When we went there there were a few school buses of kids sliding down the banks. Sleds cost $10 from the gift shop that you can sell back for a fraction of the original price. But if you stay at a local hotel like we did, you might be able to borrow them for free.
How to Get There
White Sands is in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the closest airport is in El Paso, Texas. My husband and I actually flew into Roswell, New Mexico and flew out of El Paso because we also wanted to hit up some other sights.
Once you get there, you’re gonna need a way to get around, so pick up a car rental from the airport.
Side Trip Ideas
We didn’t want to travel to visit just one sight, so we also drove three hours east to see another gem, Carlsbad Caverns, an underground treasure of over 100 caves. Will Rogers dubbed them, “like the Grand Canyon with a roof on it.”
Carlsbad Caverns was also refreshingly uncrowded. Most of the time we were exploring it felt like we were the only ones there. Is it because New Mexico parks are the ugly, redheaded stepchildren of those in the other Southwestern states? If so, people are missing out.
We walked over a mile down to the bottom of the caves, and I can’t even begin to explain the sheer magnitude. I felt like I was on the set of that Jim Henson movie, “The Dark Crystal.”
If you’re looking for some relaxation, there are also 10 hot spring bathhouses in the funnily-named Truth or Consequences town, just west of Alamogordo.
How Much It Costs to Travel to White Sands
Estimates costs for a one-week vacation for two people.
Flights from New York City cost from $300-$400. My favorite tool for finding flights is Google Flights. I love the calendar view because you can easily play with the dates to see how the prices change. Plus, they have a ‘track prices’ feature in case you’re not ready to pull the trigger right away.
Since we wanted to go to White Sands more than once it made sense for us to stay close by. We stayed at the White Sands Motel, which was nothing special, but nice lodging wasn’t our priority. We did get the borrow sleds for free, though!
Motels in Alamogordo should cost less than $100 per night, with many in the $70-80 range. However, if you’re only going to visit once, then it makes more sense to stay close to where the food options are. Depending on where you stay, you’d be surprised how hard it can be to find food. We ate at Applebee’s three days in a row, and I’ve discovered that their wonton tacos are amazing.
Our car rental was expensive, because the pick-up and drop-off points weren’t the same. So, learn from our mistake and plan your driving route so you can drop off at the same place. A one week rental should cost about $200.
Current White Sands entrance fees:
Adults (ages 16 and older): $5
Children (ages 15 and younger): Free
By dumb luck, we happened to go during National Park Week so it was free!
Total estimated costs: about $750 per person, not including food, etc.
How to Get It for Less
My husband and I paid out of pocket for our trip, because we like to reserve points for international trips. But $750 is still steep for many people. So if we’re on a budget, let’s see how we can reduce our out-of-pocket costs.
Reducing Flight Costs
You should be able to get two plane tickets by signing up for either of these credit cards and earning the bonuses:
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus – Earn 40,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first 4 months ($69 annual fee NOT waived). If you want to spend the least amount of money to earn points, this is it. Note that it may take you 2-3 months to earn enough points and the the sign-up bonuses are likely to increase if you wait to sign up. From NYC to El Paso, I would need a little over 43,000 points. Go onto the Southwest site to confirm exactly how many points you would need from your local airport for the two tickets.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred (referral link) – Earn 50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months ($95 annual fee waived the first year). Then transfer the 50,000 points to United Airlines to redeem.
Reducing Flight, Car Rental OR Lodging Costs
- Chase Sapphire Preferred (referral link) – Earn 50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months ($95 annual fee waived the first year). You can use your 50,000 points to pay for $500 worth of travel expenses (car, hotels, flights, etc.)
- Barclays Arrival Plus – Earn 40,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months ($89 annual fee waived the first year). You can redeem these points for $400 worth of travel expenses as statement credits.
- Capital One Venture – Very similar to the Barclays card above. Earn 40,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months ($59 annual fee waives the first year). You can redeem these points for $400 worth of travel expenses statement credits.
Have you ever been to southern New Mexico? What are your favorite budget-friendly destinations?
Image: The Luxe Strategist