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Camping (and sledding) in White Sands National Monument – Plus 360º Video

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Camping and sledding in White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument

I freaking love sledding. I grew up in Ohio where, no joke, my mom and dad would occasionally play hooky from work so we could all go sledding together. My dad has a vintage toboggan sled he shows off to literally everyone at the sledding hill. My mom and I prefer the big tubes that launch you down the hill at terrifying speeds. But I live in Texas now, which means no snow (except for this winter when it inexplicably snowed three inches one night…). So imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered I could go camping AND sledding in White Sands National Monument! Score.

Spoiler alert: it does not rival sledding on snow in a giant inflatable snow tube. In fact, sledding in White Sands is a bit, well, anticlimactic until you get the hang of it. Even after you get the hang of it, it’s still rather a tame outdoor pursuit. To build up any sort of speed, you must sit in your disc sled, lean back, fold in the sides of the disc, and stick your feet straight out in front of you. The steeper the dune, the better. Didn’t bring a disc sled? Fortunately, the gift shop at the visitor center sells them for an arm and a leg ($19). You can return them for a $5 refund after you’re done sledding, or you can pick one up for $10 at the Walmart or Big 5 Sports on your way through Las Cruxes. The folks at White Sands also tell you that you need wax (which you can also buy at the gift shop for $1.95 or some such), but honestly, I seriously doubt the validity of that suggestion.

Camping and sledding in White Sands National Monument
Sledding at White Sands National Monument. I discovered later than sticking your feet straight out helps you go faster.

We waxed the crap out of the bottom of our sled for whole minutes and honest to goodness, it didn’t go any faster than when we went down without it. Besides, when we turned over the sled after going down once, every streak of wax was gone anyway.

Still, we tried for hours hiking up gypsum sand dunes (White Sands is the largest gypsum dune field in the world) and riding down again. If you’ve ever tried hiking up dunes, you know how freaking hard it is. Naturally, we were worn out. Fortunately, we had shelled out a whole $3 per person to get a backcountry camping permit for the night (you can pick one up in the visitor center when you arrive), so we hiked into the camping area about half a mile or so and set up our tent, complete with waterproof ground cloth. We decided not to stake it because a.) we’d be staking it in the sand and how much good could that actually do, and b.) we were leaving our bags in it to weigh it down and there was little to no breeze, so it should be fine. We left the fly off and the flaps unzipped, too, because it was so dang hot.

Anyone familiar with Murphy’s law knows exactly where this story is going. We left the tent to attempt more sledding and go on a guided ranger walk. Honestly, it looked like rain in the distance over the mountains, but the ranger told us repeatedly that rainstorms rarely broke over the ridge unless it was monsoon season, which it was not. I felt confident in his expertise. I should not have.

Camping and sledding in White Sands National Monument
Sledding at White Sands National Monument. With the GoPro, obviously.

Twenty minutes into the walk he called it off due to lightning in the distance. Oops. We walked back to our car and drove to the parking lot at the campsite trailhead. We opted not to rush out to our tent as we watched the wall of water and lightning approach. This storm was no joke. It got windy. We joked that we hoped our tent was still there when we returned to our campsite. Worst-case scenario, I thought, was that our stuff got a little wet.

I was mistaken.

When the storm passed 10-15 minutes later, we rushed out to our site before another storm had the chance to roll in. What we found was an upsidedown tent no less than 50 feet away from where we had erected it, a very soggy couple of pillows, and no ground cloth in sight. Josh did a quick check over the surrounding dunes in the waning daylight, but to no avail. Our tarp was lost to White Sands.

All that was left to do was wring out our pillows, shake the puddles out of our sleep pads, relocate our tent, actually attach the rain fly, and crawl inside. At least we had left our sleeping bags in our packs and they were dry, but it proceeded to rain off and on all night and into the morning. In fact, when the sun rose and we lay awake listening to the gentle, soothing rain on the tent, we decided not to wait for it to pass, and crawled outside, dismantled the tent, and hiked out to our car.

Camping and sledding in White Sands National Monument
Me trying to protect my delicate skin at White Sands National Monument.

We were pretty soggy by the time we got to the car, but wanting to test a theory (and already as wet as I could be), I grabbed our sled and mounted the nearest dune. Hypothesis confirmed: sledding down wet gypsum was, in fact, quite a bit faster and more thrilling than on dry. Huzzah! It was not necessarily kinder on our behinds (wet gypsum means hard gypsum, which means bumps and divots in the landscape were highly unforgiving). It was quite entertaining, however, and we each completed several trips down before changing into dry clothes and exiting the park (after “returning” our sled, of course). And if I’m being honest, it was a little refreshing to be chilled for once instead of swelteringly hot.

All in all, camping and sledding in White Sands National Monument proved to be quite the experience. Not necessarily one I would prefer to recreate play-for-play, but I’d definitely make my way back. Maybe just not in June next time. Wander on!

Information about camping and sledding in White Sand National Monument

Entrance fees: $5 per person unless you have the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass, then free. Children 15 and under are also free.

Backcountry camping permits: $3 per person. There is no water and no toilets at campsites. They are literally just valleys between dunes. There are toilets at the trailhead parking lot. Come prepared to leave no trace.

Road closures: Occasionally the road to the dunes from the visitor center is closed for a few hours due to missile testing at White Sands Missile Range. Check here for scheduled closures.