White Sands National Park (formerly White Sands National Monument) is a 275 square mile, gleaming white gypsum dune field in southern New Mexico. The area is popular with families for its fantastic dune sledding, hiking, and camping.
Photographically, White Sands is truly one of the most remarkable landscapes in the American West. Its dunes aren't yellow, orange, or beige like other dune fields, but brilliant white. So bright in fact they look like fresh snow. I've photographed White Sands multiple times, and have learned a lot about the park itself, plus the best times and methods for capturing it.
If driving across the American west, White Sands is a fantastic detour — even for just a few hours. If flying, El Paso is an hour-and-a-half drive away (and closer than Albuquerque). There is no public transportation of any kind, so you'll need your own vehicle to get there.
Accommodations and camping
White Sands is situated between the towns of Las Cruces to the west and Alamogordo to the east. The latter is a quick fifteen minute drive away. Both towns offer small motels and privately owned Airbnbs.
Camping overnight in an RV or camper van inside the park is not allowed. Rangers clear out the parking lots and close the gates and the end of each day. Backcountry camping in the dunes (with a permit) is not available at the time of this writing, but could be available again by the time you read this. Check the White Sands camping page for the latest permit information and availability.
Opening and closing times
White Sands has firm opening and closing times with a single, gated entrance and exit by the main road. Park rangers open and close the gate at fixed times. Though rare, the park also closes for missile tests from a nearby military base.
For photographers, the park's opening and closing times can conflict with golden hour and blue hour photography. Visitors cannot enter White Sands before sunrise, nor can they stay after dark. Just when the light is getting good at the end of the day, it may be time to pack your camera and start hiking back to your car.
There are however a few ways to work around this.
One, plan your visit when the park closes an hour or more after sunset. For example, when I visited in late summer / early fall, sunset was at 7:30pm, and the park closed at 9pm. That provided plenty of time for me to capture golden hour, blue hour, hike back to my vehicle, and drive out before the gates closed.
Two, in summer, White Sands hosts one full moon watching night per month where the park stays open a couple of hours later (eg, 11pm instead of 9pm). When that day is depends on the full moon cycle, and park management. Lots of people come for this, so expect to see plenty of other people. Check the White Sands website for calendar dates.
Three, as mentioned earlier, White Sands also offers a limited number of camping permits to spend the night in a designated area inside the dunes. This option would be fantastic for astrophotography and capturing the dune field at sunrise, though at the time of this writing, camping is currently closed for rehabilitation.
Four, White Sands offers paid permits to arrive early and stay late. These aren't cheap ($75/hr when I checked, plus a permit application fee), and you have to apply for a permit at least a month prior to your planned visit. These could be a lifesaver to get the best light certain months of the year.
Hiking the dunes
White Sands has two official hiking trails: the Backcountry Trail and the Alkali Flat Trail. The latter is a five mile loop featuring the tallest dunes in the park. Both trails are sporadically marked with tall metal posts to help guide you along. There is no requirement to stay on either trail, or use the trails at all. You're free to hike and wander anywhere you want.
The further you hike away from marked trails, the more pristine the dunes. Dunes on the trails and near the road and picnic areas are used by families and casual hikers, and are thus full of foot prints and sled marks. But if you hike a mile or so further into the field, the dunes are more pristine. Literally the further you go, the better the dunes are photographically.
If you do wander off marked trails, remember that the San Andreas mountains are to the west, and the main road and parking area is east. I recommend checking the horizon from time to time to reorient yourself while hiking.
Better yet, bring a phone with GAIA GPS or AllTrails installed to record your hike and track your GPS coordinates. These apps are what I use and depend on anytime I go hiking, and they are especially helpful in White Sands.
Most importantly, remember that White Sands is a desert. There is no shade, and the sun can be intense when reflecting off white gypsum. I recommend bringing the following:
- Sun-hat. The wider the brim, the better. Boonie hats are perfect.
- Comfortable hiking shoes
- Trekking poles
- Long-sleeve, lightweight hiking shirt
- More water than you think you'll need
- Few snacks to munch on
Sand can also be more physically demanding to hike through. It takes more effort and slows you down, so a light camera bag is important. Here's what I packed in mine.
What to pack in your camera bag
When packing camera gear for White Sands, don't bring every lens you own. I would first pack a wide-angle variable zoom (eg, 16-35mm), then a medium telephoto (24-70mm or 24-105mm) as my second lens. A third telephoto (70-200mm) could also be used for distant shots to compress the dunes against the San Andreas mountains, but I'd only bring one if you have space and don't mind carrying the extra weight.
Drones are not permitted anywhere in the park, so don't bother bringing one.
If you plan to hike and take images during normal daylight hours, you won't need a tripod. The bright white dunes and sky will force your camera to use a high shutter speed, which should negate any camera shake when shooting handheld. A tripod is only necessary if you intend to shoot long exposures or in dim light at golden hour and blue hour.
Speaking of long exposures, consider packing a high density, solid neutral density filter. Six stops or higher will slow the camera shutter and add a touch of blur / motion to clouds in the sky for a more dramatic look.
Also know that when the sun goes down, the dunes gets dark. Very dark. If you plan on shooting through blue hour (which you absolutely should do!), bring a head lamp to help illuminate your return hike.
When to photograph the dunes
Late morning through mid-afternoon, the dunes are gleaming, brilliant white under blue skies. The dunes are beautiful to look at, but not ideal photographically. Texture is lost and blown out by the sun, and the contrast can be quite harsh. On my first trip to White Sands, I made the mistake of trying to photograph the dunes at this time and kept few only a handful of images.
The absolute best time to photograph White Sands begins two hours before sunset. The sun is lower in the sky, just above the San Andreas mountains, which gives the dunes more shape and dimension. This is especially true when looking to the north and south (they will appear completely flat when looking east).
But best of all, the color and tonality at this time is incredible. The white gypsum crystals reflect the color of the atmosphere, resulting in a variety of hues from soft orange at golden hour to magnificent magentas and pinks to deep, rich blue at blue hour. The intensities of those colors may change from day to day, but the dunes are always at their most beautiful during this time.
When photographing the dunes at sunset, remember that the best color and light may be looking north, south, or even directly behind you! Keep a watchful eye on the environment at all times for best results. Also remember that (as mentioned earlier) it takes time to hike through sand, so it's easy to miss the best light when moving around. My recommendation is finding a composition you're happy with by golden hour, then sticking with it for the best possible light.
Finally, once the sun drops behind the San Andreas mountains, you may be tempted to start packing your bags. I highly recommend waiting a little longer, for there could be a final explosion of brilliant color just before the cool tones of blue hour set in. Again, pack a head lamp so you can stay as long as possible.
How to photograph the dunes
Compositionally, dunes are all about geometry. Pay attention to their shapes and outlines, and how their edges ebb, flow and connect. Pay attention to how much visual space there is between the edges of the dunes and the mountains in the background. The best perspective could be with a tripod set to its tallest height, or down low on the ground to make the dunes appear taller. The goal is simply ensuring that no lines overlap, which removes depth from a two dimensional image.
Capturing the entire dune field, from a high vantage point, can be challenging. Even when standing on one of the taller dunes, most dunes are more or less the same height, which can cause their outer lines to overlap and fold together (which can unfortunately remove depth from the image). More often than not, it was physically impossible for me to get the camera high enough for that type of shot.
Instead, I found myself shooting more often from the lower, flatter areas between the dunes. Focusing on one dune, or a series grouping of dunes, with the mountains or sky as their backdrop. From this perspective the dunes appear taller and more majestic, especially with side-lighting from the west.
I also learned to love the flats between the dunes. I initially avoided their busy green shrubs and textured patterns to focus instead on clean dunes, but they can provide much needed contrast and texture. I often looked for flats with interesting patterns and lines that mimicked the shape and flow of the dunes, link the image above.
It's also important with sand dunes to shoot your way in. Meaning, when trying to find the most ideal composition, start by shooting telephoto at a distance (eg, 70mm), then move forward when using wider focal lengths. This helps keep footprints out of your shot.
Finally, pay special attention to contrast. The dunes can become amorphous and visually indistinct when the light gets soft. This is especially true when facing east when the sun behind your back, low on the western horizon. I had the best luck shooting images facing north and south to help emphasize contrast.
However much time you have to visit White Sands National Park, it truly is one of the natural wonders of the world. It's great for families and casual tourists, but also for photographers looking for clean, minimal subjects. I could spend days shooting at White Sands, and never get bored with it!
Check out my video on photographing White Sands National Park below.