Alkali Flat Loop

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Trip Date: Sunday, February 17th, 2019
Last Updated: Wednesday, March 27th, 2019
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★★(5/5)
Overall Difficulty Moderate
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 5 miles roundtrip
Time 3 hours
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons Spring, Fall, Winter
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

Hands down, the Alkali Flat Loop is absolutely the best hike you can do at White Sands National Monument. This 5-mile trek takes you deep into pristine white sand dunes, untouched by the hordes you'll see on other trails and along the road as you drive in. Halfway through, you'll reach the edge of the dunefield at Alkali Flat, a dry lake bed that feeds gypsum sand to the dunes. While you may have seen sand dunes elsewhere, there is nothing else that compares to being surrounded by the snow-white dunes and mountains here.

This entire loop is entirely on sand. If you've ever been to the beach, you'll understand that walking on soft sand is much more strenuous than pavement or a hard dirt trail. Compared to other dunes I've hiked like those in Great Sand Dunes National Park, the sand here was more compacted and didn't sink as much with my steps (however, this could have been because of recent rains). In addition, you'll want to wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from blowing sand -- the wind here is constant.

Starting from the trailhead, you'll walk along an obvious path until the trail splits. You can choose to go either direction -- difficulty doesn't change either way. Red markers about 3 feet tall with a diamond emblem will mark the looping route through the dunes. Standing at a marker, you can usually see 2 or 3 markers in the distance, so you won't have to worry about being lost in endless sand as long as you don't wander far. It's up to you to determine the best route between each marker. The undulating terrain like pictured below means the straightest path is often not the path of least resistance, and you'll find yourself following the curves of the dune crests rather than descending into the troughs and back up the dune again.

Red markers guide you through the trail-less white dunefield

Red markers guide you through the trail-less white dunefield

As you hike to the west, you'll be able to see the San Andres Mountains pictured below, granted they aren't completely obscured by blowing sand. Between dunes, you can also see a portion of the dry lake bed that the dunes cover. Later, you'll see more of this dry lake bed at Alkali Flat.
The San Andres Mountains beyond the blowing white sand

The San Andres Mountains beyond the blowing white sand

As you may expect, not many plants grow in this sandy wasteland. Most plants you'll see are small shrubs and grasses in the flat areas between dunes like pictured above. In other rarer cases, you'll see massive growths on top of the dunes like pictured below. Firmly anchored by an expansive root system, a mound forms where the shrub grows and the wind carves a bowl around it (click the picture for a better view of this).
Uniquely adapted plants grow in the sand

Uniquely adapted plants grow in the sand

After about a mile into the hike, any people you may see or hear will disappear and you'll be alone with nothing but white sand and blue sky. Unlike on the highly trafficked trails and dunes elsewhere in the park, you'll see the dunes in their most natural state. Most prominently, you'll notice the ripples that wind forms on the surface of the dunes, as shown in the first picture below. The tops of the dunes will be completely unadulterated by footprints, so ridges will be crisp and pointy like in the second picture below.
Wind forms ripples like ocean waves in the sand

Wind forms ripples like ocean waves in the sand

The crest of one tall dune

The crest of one tall dune

About halfway through the hike, you'll descend from the dunes into Alkali Flat, pictured below, a topographic contrast from the wavy dune terrain. This dry lake bed is the source of the gypsum sand composing the dunes. As winds blow down from the San Andres Mountains in the distance, they sweep up sand particles and deposit them on the dunes.
A lone shrub on the barren Alkali Flat with dust clouds obscuring the San Andres Mountains

A lone shrub on the barren Alkali Flat with dust clouds obscuring the San Andres Mountains

At the edge of Alkali Flat, you'll reach the boundary between the White Sands Missile Range and the park, indicated by the sign pictured below. When winds are calmer and visibility is good, you can see Air Force buildings to the northwest. The trail turns sharply here and heads back into the dunes.
The warning sign at the edge of the White Sands Missile Range

The warning sign at the edge of the White Sands Missile Range

The second half of the hike is more or less the same, but you'll notice different things since you'll be facing east rather than west. Near the end of the hike, winds began to blow fiercely, evident in the dust clouds shrouding the sun and sky in the picture below. I was thankful for my sunglasses as I felt sand whipping my cheeks and the beautiful blue sky disappeared above the cloud of dust. Let this serve as a reminder that despite nearly perfect weather, conditions can quickly change. Be prepared for the worst!
A sandstorm nearly blocks out the blue sky

A sandstorm nearly blocks out the blue sky

I can only reiterate how this is the absolute best way to absorb the beauty of the White Sands National Monument. The dazzling white dunes are something you should see once in your lifetime. Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

Dogs are allowed on leash (this is one of the few Park Service properties that allows pets). This is not a family-friendly trail; instead, head to the Dune Life Nature Trail or find an area along the road to play in the sand. Spring, fall, and winter are the best seasons to visit. Summer should be avoided due to the extreme heat exacerbated by the hot sand and lack of shade. Though the rest of the park may be crowded, most do not attempt this trail, and many of those who do attempt it do not hike the entire 5 miles. I visited during President's Day weekend with gorgeous weather and only saw a handful of people (and only one person once I was deeper in the dunefield).

Directions

From El Paso, take Interstate 10 west to Las Cruces. Continue onto Interstate 25 north, then take the exit for U.S. Highway 70 heading east. After about 45 minutes, turn left to enter White Sands National Monument. Pay the fee at the entrance station, and continue straight following signs for the Alkali Flat Trailhead.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

The entrance fee is $20 per vehicle per day and annual passes for White Sands National Monument are available for $40. Interagency passes are also accepted here. There is plenty of parking at the Alkali Flat Trailhead, and pit toilets are the only amenity -- fill up on water at the visitor center before entering the park.

External Links

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