White Sands NP
White Sands National Park
is one of my favorite places to visit. Each time I have gone the conditions have been different which make it challenging and fun to shoot. I enjoy being able to walk away with different types of images.
On our last visit ( 2 days / 2 nights) we had different conditions on each shoot. We arrived when the gate opened in the morning and one day we had fog and the next morning a layer of hoar frost. One evening we had spectacular skies and the next a spectacular rich alpine glow with the moon in the middle.
What to know before you go
Access. The park is currently opened 7 am to 7 pm. It is gated. Early access is only possible it arranged and paid for ahead of time. During COVID, this was not an option. Check the website for the latest. The other option is to camp inside the park. This is the best option to shoot night skies or to make sure you can shoot sunrise and / or sunset. This also requires a permit and was on hold due to COVID. There are no limits to where you can go within the park boundaries. The trails are great guides, but there are no restrictions for going off trail except for the good practice of leaving no trace and being careful not to disturb the natural beauty.
. Since White Sands is located next to the missile range, there is often military testing and exercises. These exercises will shut down access to the park (and access along the highways nearby). Yes, they literally shut down the road and you will have to wait up to a couple of hours. This page shows upcoming closures: https://www.nps.gov/whsa/planyourvisit/park-closures.htm
Drones. Drones are prohibited.
Services. The park is primitive desert. Except at the visitors center there are no services. There are pit toilets in a couple of locations. There is no water, no food and no cell coverage.
What to shoot?
White Sands NP is great for shooting the obvious – white sand. It is so white that it can look like snow in an image. In fact, you may want to bump up your exposure compensation at least 1/3 stop and up to a full stop to compensate. The area is good for shooting landscapes, macros, patterns and desert flora. I always look for patterns and leading lines, as well as curves within the sand dunes.
It is possible to just shoot sand, to isolate scrub trees and to isolate the iconic and distinctive soap tree yucca.
For larger landscapes, shooting to the east will have the Sacramento Mountains in the background, and shooting to the west will have the San Andres mountains in the distance.
If you are fortunate enough to be at White Sands at a time of year when you can capture the light from sunrise or sunset, you may find the sand glows and reflects the colors in the sky.
Wildlife is not abundant here. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any. It is a desert, so there is wildlife, but this is not the location to focus on fauna.
Where to shoot?
Depending on what you would like to capture, here’s where I would go.
- For interesting trees, patterns in the sand, etc. – I enjoy the Dunes Life Nature Trail. I use this trail as a guide and I go off trail depending on what I see. If you go south along the edge of the dune, you can isolate trees and soap tree yuccas on ridges. If you go southwest, there are some really cool trees. I have shot them in all sorts of light.
- For sand and more sand – I would head to the end of the drive and tackle the Alkali Flat Trail. I have not had much success here. Too many footprints and not enough elevation to capture interesting shadows and sculpted areas. I have only hiked about a mile in so maybe it gets better further in on the trail?
- For a mix – of soap tree yuccas and mountains in the background – I would look for a pull off area just south or just north of the Sunset Stroll Meeting area and shoot east. I have captured some beautiful blue hour shots in this stretch (quick ones as the ranger goes thorough the park and asks everyone to leave after sunset). My shots have been maybe 50 feet off the road. If I remember correctly, we found a spot just south of this area as we could see the ranger in the distance with the “sunset stroll” group. You may also want to check out the sunset stroll area. It does go up on a ridge which may provide a good viewpoint – if you shoot west, the parking lot and road are between you and the sunset. If you shoot east, you have the mountains in the background, but I don’t remember much subject material in the foreground.
- For isolating plants and some interesting sand curves (depends what the winds have done) – there is an interesting spot north of the sunset stroll meeting area on the west side (between that parking lot and before you get to the start of the end loop). I’ve hiked in here maybe a 1/4 of a mile and found lots of options. I have also done beautiful sunset images in this area – isolating the soap tree yuccas on a ridge with the colors behind.
When to go?
Winter. Due to the limited hours of the park (7am-7pm), the winter months provide the best opportunity to shoot near sunrise and sunset. This time of year offers a photographer the opportunity to photograph during the golden hour and possibly the blue hour. Winter weather can include fog, ice and snow making for a variety of interesting compositions. Spring. The opportunity to capture the iconic soap tree yucca in bloom would be my goal for spring. Also, this is a good time of year to capture blue skies against the white sand. Summer. The heat can be brutal and there is no escape from the sun. There is no shade. I would not recommend a summer visit. Fall. The weather is more likely to be pleasant, and it may also be a good time of year to capture blue skies against the white sand.
Lenses: I have shot the majority (~90% ) of my photos here with a 24-70mm, and the remaining 10% with a long lens (80-400mm)
Footwear: sturdy hiking boots above the ankles are best to provide support in soft sand and to minimize the sand getting in the boot.
Know where you are. If you go off trail, make sure you can see trail markers. It is very easy to get turned around or to loose your perspective and get lost in the “white”. I would suggest having a GPS and a map and know how to use it. There are a number available for the smart phone. Cell coverage here is poor so make sure you download your maps prior to arrival.
Desert. The summers can be brutal. There is no water in the park. Be prepared. Enough said.
Sand. Blowing sand is common. This can create interesting visual effects. It can also wreck havoc on your gear. Even if the sand does not appear to be in the air, it is. You can often see a cloud of haze and dust hanging over the park as you drive toward entrance. Keep this in mind when changing lens or leaving your camera bag open.