Photographing White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Travel tips and recommendations for photographing the gleaming, white gypsum dunes in southern New Mexico

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 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.

Getting there

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, 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.

Airbnbs in Las Cruces, New Mexico
Airbnbs in Alamogordo, New Mexico

Camping overnight in an RV or camper van inside the park is not allowed. Rangers make the rounds at closing and clear out the parking lots. 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.

Covered picnic areas at White Sands National Park
Covered picnic areas at White Sands National Park

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. Just when the light is getting good at the end of the day, it may be time to pack your camera and leave.

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. This provided plenty of time for me to capture golden hour and blue hour, hike back to my vehicle, then 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. 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, if permitted.

Four, White Sands offers paid permits to arrive early and stay late. These aren't cheap ($75 per hour last I checked, plus an application fee), and you have to apply at least a month prior to your planned visit. A permit could however be a lifesaver to get the best light during months of the year when the park opens after sunrise and closes before sunset.

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 that features the tallest dunes in the park. Both trails are sporadically marked with red metal posts to 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 please.

Dunes on these trails, near the road and picnic areas will be heavily trampled with footprints and sled marks. If however you hike a mile or so further into the field, the dunes should be more pristine. The further you go, the better the dunes.

Red marker along the White Sands Alkali Flat Trail
Red marker along the White Sands Alkali Flat Trail

If you do wander off the marked trails, remember that the San Andreas mountains are to the west, and the main road and parking areas are to 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 free, and will record how far you've hiked and how to get back using digital breadcrumbs.

Most importantly, remember that White Sands is a desert. There is no shade, and the sun can be hot and intense when reflecting off the white gypsum. Sand is also more physically demanding to hike through, so consider your physical health and stamina before venturing too far.

I recommend bringing the following:

  • Sunscreen
  • Sun-hat. The wider the brim, the better. Boonie hats are perfect.
  • Sunglasses
  • Comfortable hiking shoes
  • Trekking poles
  • Long-sleeve, lightweight hiking shirt
  • More water than you think you'll need
  • Snacks to munch on

What to pack in your camera bag

When packing camera gear for White Sands, I would bring a medium telephoto lens (24-70mm or 24-105mm), then a wide-angle variable zoom (eg, 16-35mm). A third telephoto lens (70-200mm) could also be helpful for distant shots to compress the dunes against the San Andreas mountains, or tightly cropped abstract shots, but I'd only bring one if you have space and don't mind carrying extra weight. Also pack and use lens hoods to help mitigate flare and bright reflections (I made this mistake and lived to regret not mounting a hood).

Hiking with camera bag in White Sands
Hiking with camera bag in White Sands

Tripods shouldn't be necessary if shooting during normal daylight hours. 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 dramatic blur, motion and energy to the sky.

Also know that when the sun goes down, the dunes get dark. Very dark. If you plan to shoot through blue hour (which you absolutely should do!), bring an LED head lamp to help illuminate your return hike.

Oh, and drones are not permitted anywhere in the park, so don't bother bringing one.

When to photograph the dunes

If the sky is clear, the dunes will be gleaming white from late morning to mid-afternoon. Contrast will be harsh, and the bright light may obscure small details and textures in the dunes. In these conditions I'd recommend exposing for the brightest highlights, then bump your exposure a little brighter by a half-to-full stop, as you would when photographing snow. You can absolutely get great daytime shots, even in full sun (especially if shooting for high contrast black and white).

If conditions are cloudy and overcast, the sky will likely blend into the dunes, with little visual separation between the two. This would be a great time to exclude the sky and focus on subtle details and patterns in the dunes while the light is soft and diffused.

Overall, in my experience, 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 when looking north and south (they will likely appear flat to the east and west).

Photographing White Sands (video still)
Photographing White Sands (video still)

But best of all, the colors produced at this time are incredible. Atmospheric color bounces off the white gypsum, 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 intensity of color may change from day to day, but I think the dunes are always at their most beautiful during this time.

When shooting at sunset, remember that the best color and light may be directly behind you! Keep a watchful eye on the environment at all times for best results. Also remember (as mentioned earlier) it takes time to hike through sand, so it's easy to miss the best light when moving around. I recommend finding a composition you're happy with soon before 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 bag. I highly recommend waiting a little longer, for there can be final explosions of color just before the cool tones of blue hour set in. Again, pack a head lamp so you can stay in the dune field 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 a tall dune, most dunes at White Sands are more or less the same height. This can cause their outlines to overlap and fold together (which removes depth from the image. In this situation, I recommend getting a little lower so the dunes appear taller and more majestic, especially with side-lighting from the west.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Low position at White Sands National Park, New Mexico

It's also important with sand dunes to shoot your way in. Meaning, when looking for a composition, start by shooting at a distance using a wide angle or telephoto lens. Resist the urge to hike right up to a dune to photograph it, for every step you take will create footprints in the pristine white sand. I only move forwards towards a subject when I'm absolutely sure I've exhausted all other compositional options beforehand.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico
White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Finally, pay special attention to contrast. The dunes can become amorphous and indistinct when the light gets soft. This is especially true when facing east with the setting sun behind your back, low on the western horizon. I had the best luck shooting images facing north and south to catch angles of light and emphasize shape and contrast.

Final thoughts

However much time you spend at White Sands National Park, it truly is one of the natural wonders of the world. Great place 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!

Video

Check out my video on photographing White Sands National Park below.