National Park Guide

How to Plan a White Sands National Park Stargazing Trip in 2024

Nestled in New Mexico‘s Tularosa Basin, White Sands National Park is an ethereal landscape that offers a pristine canvas against which the majesty of the night sky unfolds; if you’ve ever wanted to go stargazing in an otherworldly place, there are few better contenders than White Sands.

After my recent trip to visit White Sands National Park in March 2023, I had a chance to experience the unique beauty and prime stargazing conditions of this park. Based on that, I knew I had to put together a guide on planning your own White Sands National Park stargazing trip so you could see it for yourself.

White Sands National Park Stargazing © Nicole Smoot
Photo credit: Nicole Smoot, used with permission

Below you’ll find a comprehensive guide to stargazing in White Sands, including how to get there, where to stay, and where to go stargazing within the park… as well as the unique permission you need to do so. Ready to understand everything you need to know to plan your White Sands stargazing trip? Let’s dive in!

In this post, I promote traveling to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Mescalero Apache, Tampachoa (Mansos), and Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache) peoples, among others. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

This post was originally published in July 2023, and was updated most recently in April 2024.

How to Get to White Sands National Park

The first thing we need to tackle when planning your White Sands stargazing adventure is how to get there. White Sands National Park is located in southern New Mexico. Unlike other parks, it’s quite difficult to reach the White Sands unless you have a car.

To access White Sands National Park, the primary route in and out of the park is through I-70 and Dunes Drive. This road leads you to the visitor center and continues beyond the park entrance, taking you on a lengthy loop road that ventures into the heart of the park.

If you don’t have a car, you can rent one in the closest cities: Alamogordo, at about 16 miles southwest, and Las Cruces, which is 52 miles northeast. Larger cities, like El Paso, Texas, are about 96 miles south of the park. 

Where to Go Stargazing in White Sands National Park

If you’ve seen a photo of White Sands National Park, you’ve noticed that the 145.726 acres that make up the park are basically dunes with occasional patches of tall grasses here and there. So, there are not many specific places to go stargazing in White Sands – though I like to  think the opposite, that every nook of the park is suitable for a night with a telescope. 

Anyway, there are a few spots you can take note of for your next visit. First, the Visitor Center offers open skies views as does the Interdune Boardwalk, which takes you through the dunes.  Both are easily accessible. Then, the Playa Trail is a great option if you want a unique setting;  it takes you to the park’s playas (dry lake beds). For the adventurous ones, Backcountry Camping Trail and Alkali Flats Trail are great alternatives for a more immersive stargazing experience. 

Early & Late Entry at White Sands 

You can’t plan your White Sands stargazing trip without knowing what the park’s opening hours are. And White Sands is quite particular when it comes to operating hours. 

Both the park and visitor center operating hours vary by season. And, if you’d like to enter early or stay late to enjoy a sunrise or the night sky, you must request a permit to enter early or stay late.

How to Request an Early Entry or Stay Late

  1. Download the application and read the White Sands Special Park Uses FYI document.
  2. Email your request to WHSA_permits@nps.gov. Enter the requested date and write “early entry or stay late” in the subject line. The application must be received by the park no less than 21 days prior to the day you are requesting the early entry or stay late. Applications will not be considered without payment of the application fee ($100).
  3. Once received, most application requests for early entry or stay late will be processed within 21 days.
  4. After your early open or stay late request is reviewed, you may be contacted to provide additional information or to discuss the details of your request if the request cannot be approved with the information provided.
  5. Payment In the form of a credit card, personal checks, traveler cheques, cashier’s check or money order. Make checks or money orders payable to the National Park Service. Credit card payments can be made by calling 575-479-6124 ext. 206.

Where to Stay Near White Sands National Park 

White Sands Stargazing - Tent on the Dunes

Next up, we have to plan where you’re going to spend the night or a few days on your White Sands Stargazing trip. 

  • Hotels – If you’re looking for hotels near White Sands National Park, there are numerous options available in Alamogordo.
  • Camping  – Unfortunately for adventure lovers, White Sands doesn’t offer hotel accommodations or RV/car camping within the park. But, they do offer primitive backcountry camping in the heart of the dunes. But, as of late 2023, backcountry camping in the park is currently closed due to the rehabilitation of camping sites. No date has been determined for its reopening. (Check the link above for updates.)

What to See & Do During the Day in White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park offers a ton of activities to keep you entertained during the day. Here are some of the top things to see and do:

  1. Explore the dunes: yeah, I know, it’s pretty obvious. But the main highlight of the park is its stunning white gypsum sand dunes. Take a walk or hike along the marked trails to experience the unique landscape up close. The park offers several trails for all fitness levels, including the popular Alkali Flat Trail.
  2. Sledding or Sandboarding: Sure, hiking is a ton of fun. But renting a sand sled or sandboard and experiencing the thrill of sliding down the soft dunes is even more. It’s a popular activity among visitors of all ages, and the park provides designated areas for sledding.
  3. Take a Scenic Drive: get in the car and drive along the eight-mile Dunes Drive to enjoy the breathtaking views of the white dunes. There are several overlooks and picnic areas along the way where you can stop, take photos, and have a picnic.
  4. Picnic in the Park: Pack a picnic and enjoy a meal surrounded by the stunning dunes. There are picnic areas available at the park with tables and grills, so you can relax and savor the unique atmosphere.
  5. Join a Ranger Program: The park offers various ranger-led programs and guided walks. Check the visitor center for the schedule of activities, which may include nature walks, talks about the park’s geology and history, and stargazing events.
  6. Wildlife Viewing: Keep an eye out for the park’s diverse wildlife, including the iconic white sands pupfish and various bird species. 
  7. Photography: White Sands’s landscape is incredibly photogenic and it offers endless opportunities for photography enthusiasts. Either you want to do a photo session with your family or capture the unique contrast of the white dunes against the clear blue sky, you’ll go home with some stunning shots.
  8. Explore the Visitor Center: if you’d like to learn more about the park, stop by the visitor center, which has exhibits about the park’s geology, wildlife, and history.

Other FAQ About Stargazing in White Sands National Park

If you still have more questions about planning your White Sands National Park stargazing trip, I’ve written this FAQ section to help you out. 

When is the best time to go stargazing in White Sands?

The best time to go stargazing in White Sands National Park is during a new moon phase or when the moon is below the horizon. This ensures minimal light pollution and allows for better visibility of stars and other celestial objects.

Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing in White Sands? When?

The Milky Way directly overhead

Oh, yes! You can see the Milky Way while stargazing in White Sands. The park has some of the darkest skies in the United States, making it an ideal location for observing the Milky Way galaxy. The best time to see it is during the summer months when the galactic core of the Milky Way is visible in the night sky.

Can you see the northern lights in White Sands?

Unfortunately no, you can’t see the northern lights in White Sands as the aurora borealis is most commonly seen in high-latitude regions. Alaska is a great place to spot them!

Is White Sands National Park open at night? 

This is a tricky question. It is open daily year-round except for December 25, Christmas Day. However, as I said before, White Sands has different operating hours depending on the season. Please, always check their website to know what will be the opening hours for the time you’ll be visiting. 

Are there guided night tours in White Sands?

Stargazing in New Mexico - White Sands National Park

Yes! White Sands offers two ranger-led night programs: the Full Moon Night and the Full Moon Hike. Keep in mind though – full moons are not optimal for stargazing because the moon is so bright; you might want to plan your trip for other times if you really want to enjoy the dark skies above this part of New Mexico.

Is there a dark sky festival in White Sands?

Unfortunately, no, White Sands doesn’t organize dark sky festivals (yet!). But that shouldn’t stop you from having your own star party among the dunes. 

Have any other questions about planning a White Sands stargazing trip? Let me know in the comments below!

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Valerie is the founder and editor of Space Tourism Guide. She grew up in Alaska, has lived across the U.S., and traveled around the world to enjoy the night sky from many different perspectives. Join her on this journey to explore space right here on earth.

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