Forget Paris, This Should Be on Your Bucket List Instead

White Sands National Monument

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.

White Sands National Monument

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.

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument

Tips

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.

White Sands Gypsum Ripples

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.

White Sands 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.

White Sands National Monument at Sunset

White Sands National Monument

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.

White Sands National Monument Yucca Plants

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

Carlsbad Caverns

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.

Carlsbad Caverns

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.”

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns

Hot Springs

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

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.

Hotel

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.

White Sands Motel in Alamogordo

Car Rental

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.

Entrance Fees

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

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  • Frugal Hackers

    WOW. I love being in empty landscapes like these and I’m sold! Amazing photos!

    • Haha, awesome! If I can convert the travel pros, maybe others will follow suit. I really think it’s a total hidden gem. No one I talk to has ever heard of it!

  • So my wife and I are trying to think about places we can check out with our Southwest Companion Pass that we’ll be getting next year. Looks like we could fly to El Paso and then rent a car. Then probably just camp somewhere. Might be nice for a long weekend trip!

    And for real, those pics are with an iphone 5!?

    • Yeah, you should have seen everybody else with their “real” cameras, and then me bumming around with my iPhone 5. Basically the landscape makes even photos from crap cameras look like they came out of National Geographic.

      This is a GREAT use of the SW companion pass. Def check out Carlsbad Caverns if you have time, too!

  • Dr. Curious

    I was just reading an article about the Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia (one of the items on my bucket list) and fantasizing about hiking up one of those 1000-ft dunes and sprinting/tumbling to the bottom. I think it would be a blast. Glad to hear there are options closer to home, and the white sand probably means less chance of foot burn 🙂

    • The Namibia sand dunes look EPIC. A bucket list item for sure. Sometimes I feel like people forget we have treasures close to home, too. Especially if you can’t afford to fly internationally. And yes, being able to run around barefoot without foot burn was pretty priceless!

  • This is awesome! I’ve been to France many times and … I’m probably unpopular for saying this, but I really really don’t like France! I love the idea of taking domestic travel; there are a lot of cool things to check out here in the US on the cheap. Looks gorgeous!

    • No worries, lots of people aren’t in love with France, and I totally get it. I personally love it a lot, and always find something new to discover every time I go. But those trips cost $$$$. Last time we used points, but still spent tons just on food alone.

      But yeah, you don’t need to go international to take a fun trip! Sometimes it seems like there’s a contest as to who can go to the most exotic place or furthest distance (says the person who’s going to New Zealand in a few months). But people should remember we have gems close by, too.

  • Done by Forty

    We’re just across the way in Arizona, and we still haven’t been.

    Shame time: we still haven’t seen the grand canyon. After eight years. What’s wrong with us?

    Beautiful shots and we really should go…

    • Damn, man, what’s wrong with you? JK. Although, yeah, what’s the hold up with the Grand Canyon? I can’t really talk. I have some tourist sights where I’m from and it took, like, 20 years for me to actually check them out. Probably something about taking where you live for granted. And I’m pretty uninterested in lots of tourist things in NYC.

      Yes, you should definitely go, especially as it’s not too far for you.

  • Miss Mazuma

    I’m so glad you posted this because it took me back to a cross country road trip I took with my friend when we were 18. Of course, they were doing missile testing that day so we didn’t get to go in. Immediately after reading this I googled if dogs are allowed (they are!) and when the temp is best. Adding this to next years spring or fall adventures!

    • It’s a GREAT place for dogs to run around! What a bummer you missed it when you were 18. Well, I can attest it’s still worth a go! Hope you get to go so I can read about it on your blog 🙂

  • GYM

    Never heard of this until now! Those pictures are gorgeous, the sand almost has a pink tinge to it from the sunset, I bet. I’ve ridden a snowboard down a sand dune before in Peru and in Oregon, it was fun and not as scary as it looks (not as fast as snow lol). I love bare landscape and one place that was amazing for that and I won’t ever forget is Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. People get into car accidents all the time there because there’s no depth/perspective except for complete whiteness.

    • Yep, the sand takes on the colors of the sunset, so it really looks different at various times of the day. I didn’t actually do the sledding thing because sledding down sand is actually hard! But it’s a fun thing for kids to do. I’ve been looking at those dunes in Peru and I’ve never heard of that place in Bolivia. Just Google’d it and still wrapping my head around how unreal it seems!

  • We went to White Sands about four years ago. We flew to Vegas, rented a car and drove close to 12 hours to get to White Sands. It was the first leg of a three part trip with the two other places being Page, Arizona(another under the radar destination) and Valley of Fire National Park.
    It is definitely one of a kind because the white sand never gets hot. When we went there it was around 80 degrees and walking on the sand doesn’t reflect that, it always has this cool feel and it stays like that even if gets hotter. We did the sledding thing, bought lunch at KFC at Alamogordo and brought it on one of those unique looking picnic tables and did some hiking.
    We were planning to camp their overnight but we couldn’t secure our tent down and plus their were lots of beetles along our campsite so we ended up sleeping in our rental overnight at a campsite about 30 minutes from White Sands.
    Now after reading this, I want to go back now, lol!! Thanks Luxe!!!

    • I did a Southwest trip a few years ago with my mom and uncle. Started in Vegas like you, but only got as far as Arizona and Utah. And that was definitely enough driving!

      It sounds like you had a great time, and I’m glad I could spark your wanderlust again, haha.

  • I’ve never heard of this place but it looks fantastic! I thought it would be impossible to get to from here but apparently there’s direct flights from Edmonton to Albuquerque (that literally never happens), and right now they’re $300. Putting this on my vacation wish list!

    • It definitely is amazing! There’s something about looking out and only seeing white hills all around you. Wow, that’s a great flight price, although the park would be a long drive from Albuquerque. Northern New Mexico is supposed to be beautiful, as well.

  • A Journey to Fi

    This place looks fantastic. I’ve never been to NM so might need to put in on the list for 2018. SW’s companion pass will also be on the radar so could definitely add to our list. We have two boys who wil be 4 and 1 next year. Comments in kid friendliness or is it like a couples retreat kind of place?

    • Oh, this would be a great use of the SW companion pass! White Sands is EXCELLENT for kids. Especially because you can sled down the dunes and run around. It’s definitely not a couples retreat kind of place–kind of a regular national park vibe.

  • I never knew that we had such a fantastic destination so close to hand! Of course, we haven’t seen most tourist destinations in our area, I’ve never been to Tahoe even, nor the Grand Canyon. I think we’re overdue for an epic cross country road trip with at least one stop at White Sands 😉

    • If it makes you feel better, I’m from a place that has some tourist attractions and I never went to them growing up. I guess it’s that “taking stuff for granted” thing. I think road trips are a total blast! As long as you’re not the only one driving 🙂

  • gracesface

    Still trying to plan our belated honeymoon and this just put New Mexico back on my list! Though I have been to some sand dunes in West Texas and really enjoyed them.

    • Oh, that’s awesome! The dunes here are really out of this world, and I would totally recommend. You can do hot springs after, too!

  • Looks amazing!!! We have NM on our list, but hadn’t thought of the dunes – in fact, I wasn’t even aware they existed. Yeesh. Maybe we’ll make room for this by crossing off the “Breaking Bad Tour” from our Albuquerque stop… Jesse!!!

    • Oh, well I’m glad you know about them now! Haha, yeah it was a tough decision for us to decide between Northern NM and Southern NM, but Southern NM won out. Sorry, Jesse.

  • I can’t believe I’ve never heard of White Sands National Monument before. It seriously is so beautiful. Never thought I’d put New Mexico on my list but your pictures are so persuasive. There are probably so many more “hidden” cool places in the US that I’ve never heard of probably because I’m always looking to travel abroad. There’s just something refreshing about going somewhere completely different from NYC, where I don’t speak the language, the culture is different. But I seriously need to start exploring some places here.

    • Oh, I hear you, I’ve almost always prioritized travel abroad over US travel, but I’ve been mixing it up lately. I also am ashamed to say that I almost always visited US cities over the smaller towns. Not the way to broaden your horizons at all. But yeah, I always love seeing native New Yorkers getting out of the bubble every now and then.

      I think you’d love White Sands! I have no doubt you’d come up with the coolest photo shoot 🙂

      • Spot on when you say New York bubble. I can only speak for myself but I really did get too comfortable with how accessible things are at all hours of the day here. I feel like last weekend definitely brought me back down to earth a little when we had to figure out a way to survive the Dominican Republic heat and humidity without air conditioning, running water, or light. It was definitely an experience I’ll always remember.

  • donnafreedman

    This sounds lovely. But….May I suggest you also consider coming up to Alaska? Lots of adventure here. I live in Anchorage, which has several wolf packs within the city limits, along with black and grizzly bears, lynx, tons of moose, coyotes, porcupines, beaver….

    Plus ravens, which are the coolest, most attitudinal, damnably smart corvids of them all.

    • Oh, yes, I’ve always been intrigued by Alaska, as well! Maybe I could take mom on a cruise. Thanks for the suggestion!