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Denver to White Sands National Park Road Trip Itinerary

Denver to White Sands National Park

The Southwest, particularly New Mexico, has a mythical allure that conjures up images of cowboys, ancient tribes, and a wide-open desert. Known as the “Land of Enchantment,” New Mexico’s deserts and mountains enthrall all who visit. With a bustling art scene and a rugged, otherworldly landscape, New Mexico is a dream to visit. Our New Mexico Road Trip to White Sands National Park has something for everyone, whether you’re looking to explore a unique culture within the United States or for an otherworldly outdoor adventure. 

New Mexico Road Trip 

In southern New Mexico, a sea of pearl-white sand engulfs over 275 miles of desert landscape, creating one of the nation’s most awe-inspiring landscapes and New Mexico’s most visited park. As the world’s largest gypsum dune field, White Sands National Park offers visitors hiking, biking, dune sledding, and so much more in a setting that feels like a Star Wars film set. 

To explore White Sands National Park near Las Cruces, New Mexico, rent your camper van at our Denver location. 

Travel Time from Denver to White Sands National Park and Back

From our Denver location, this road trip will take a total round trip time of 18 hours and 50 minutes to complete. 

We recommend taking 5-7 days to complete this New Mexico Road trip. 

This road trip covers 1,203 miles across the Southwest United States. 

Best Time of Year for a New Mexico Road Trip to White Sands National Park 

While White Sands National Park is open year-round, the best time to visit this New Mexico National Park is from late September through November, when days are sunny, and temperatures are mild compared to the peak heat of the summer. 

Summer: As one can expect when traveling in the desert, the summer heat in southern New Mexico is relentless. During the summer, temperatures average 95ºF, with some days reaching as high as 110ºF. Summer nights in White Sands cool down to the 50s and 60s. 

Fall: Early fall and late summer are considered the rainy season in White Sands when the area receives the bulk of its annual 10 inches of precipitation, usually in the form of late afternoon and early evening thunderstorms. From late September through November, travelers can expect daytime temperatures to average 80ºF with lows around 65ºF. The evenings are significantly cooler, dropping as low as 40ºF. During the late fall, days are typically sunny with light winds.

Winter: Wintertime temperatures average 60ºF during the day, with chilly evenings averaging around 23ºF. Expect the occasional winter storm to bring rain and some snowfall. 

Spring: Spring brings the wind to White Sands. March through May sees daytime temperatures average around 75ºF, with evening temps dropping to around 40ºF. Winds can reach up to 50 mph during the spring. 

If you can’t make it to White Sands during the recommended travel period, check out our other Southwest road trip itineraries. 

Preparation for a New Mexico Road Trip 

Preparation is key. Anytime you head out into the desert, even if you’re traveling in a comfortable camper van.

Sun Protection: Regardless of the time of year you explore the Southwest, the sun is always a factor. Prep for your days by bringing ample sun protection, including sun hats, sunglasses, UPF clothing, and plenty of sunscreen.

Layers: In the desert, the weather is never constant. The days can be scorching, but the night temperatures can drop quickly as soon as the sun goes down. If you’re exploring New Mexico, bring layers for chilly nights and time spent high in the mountains. 

Water & Food: A Campervan allows you to take everything you need on the road. When exploring the desert, bring more water than you think you need. Add a kitchen kit to your camper van to plan out each of your meals during your journey.

Dispersed camping vs. campsites: Fall and Spring are great times to travel if you’re planning to camp. You’ll find more availability than traveling in the summer. A van makes dispersed camping easy. You can disperse camp for free on federal and BLM land. There are plenty of apps to help you find a dispersed camping site on your route. If you’re considering booking a campsite, either in a national/state park or a private campsite, make sure you book at least two months before your trip.

Phones & Chargers: Navigation is integral to your trip’s success. Make sure you bring a smartphone or GPS device and a charger.

Downloaded Maps: In the desert, you never know when you’re going to lose service. Download maps of the region offline in case you lose service.

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Stop 1: Great Sand Dunes National Park 

The first stop in our epic New Mexico road trip is just three and a half hours southwest of Denver, just before the New Mexico state line–Great Sand Dunes National Park. Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest dunes in North America, grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. 

Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park 

Piñon Flats Campground: Located within the park, Piñon Flats Campground is open April through October and offers visitors 86 reservable campsites set amongst the pinon pines and sagebrush beneath the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Oasis Campground: Located just outside the park entrance, Oasis Campground offers 90 sites, including tent sites, RV sites, and cabins. Additionally, Oasis gives visitors access to showers, laundry facilities, a restaurant, and a general store. This campsite can be reserved online and is open from April through October. 

Zapata Falls Campground: This primitive campground is located on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and is located 11 miles south of the park visitor center. With stunning views of the dunes and the valley, this remote site is a dream for those looking for a secluded space.

What to Do in Great Sand Dune National Park 

Explore the Dunes: Great Sand Dune National Park is home to a 30-square-mile dune field that is easily explored on foot. High Dune on First Ridge is the most popular area to explore and can be reached via Medano Creek. If you’re visiting in the summer, avoid hiking in the dunes during the mid-day heat, as surface temperatures can get as high as 150 ºF.

Go Sandboarding or Sand Sledding: Make the most of your visit to Great Sand Dunes by sandboarding or sand sledding down the giant dunes. The NPS does not rent sandboarding/ sledding gear; specially designed gear can be rented in the San Luis Valley. Check out where to rent gear here

Take a dip in Medano Creek: The sandy shores of Medano Creek offer visitors a reprieve from the heat of the park. While the creek is dry during the late summer and early fall, it flows freely for most of the year. 

Where to Eat in Great Sand Dunes National Park 

Oasis Restaurant and Store: Oasis is the only dining option located within the park. It’s located near the park’s main entrance and is the only dining option within 25 miles of the park. You can also find sandboards for rent here. 

Sun & Moon Café: Located in nearby Alomasa, Sun & Moon Café is a classic American diner offering delicious burgers, sandwiches, and more.  

Mountain View Diner: Located in Fort Garland, this classic American Diner serves staple diner items with a view. 

Stop 2: Santa Fe, New Mexico

After the wilderness of Great Sand Dune National Park, our New Mexico road trip takes you across the state line to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe was founded as a Spanish Mission but now exists as one of the country’s most unique artists and outdoor communities. Santa Fe has everything from charming adobe architecture to galleries on Canyon Road, rooftop cantinas, and nearby mountains. 

Where to Camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico 

Black Canyon Campground: Located 8,475 feet high in the Santa Fe National Forest, Black Canyon Campground gives campers high alpine views and unparalleled access to the many trails in the national forest. Each site is equipped with a picnic table and campfire ring with a grill. Campers have access to vault toilets but must bring their water. This New Mexico campground is open from May through October and is available online. 

Rancheros de Santa Fe Campground: Located just outside of town, Rancheros de Santa Fe Campground is an RV resort that offers RV and Tent sites with dozens of amenities, including a pool. This campground gives you easy access to town in a secluded wooded setting. 

Big Tesuque Campground: Also located in the Santa Fe National Forest, Big Tesuque Campground offers picnic tables, grills, and vault toilets to campers, all under the shade of aspen trees. Hike and bike nearby on the Tequque trail. 

Where to Eat in Santa Fe, New Mexico 

Tesuque Village Market: Tesuque Village Market is a funky cafe and market offering modern takes on classic New Mexico dishes with craft beer, cocktails, and more. 

Coyote Cafe & Roof Top Cantina: Coyote Cafe is Santa Fe’s original rooftop Catania. They serve southwest favorites and are known for their silver margaritas. 

Plaza Cafe: Located in the town’s central plaza, Plaza Diner Cafe is an adorable dinner with world-famous breakfast, burgers, and more. You can’t go wrong with the blue corn pancakes. 

Santa Fe Hiking, Site Seeing, and More

Browse the Art Galleries along Canyon Road: While Santa Fe has almost too many art galleries to count, the city’s best selection of world-renowned South Western art can be found in the galleries along Canyon Road. With over 100 galleries, boutiques, and restaurants along a single stretch of road, it’s easy to spend an entire day strolling up and down Canyon Road. 

Hike in the Santa Fe National Forest: Located just over 20 minutes from downtown, the Santa Fe National Forest is home to over one million access to protected alpine forests with countless hiking and biking trails. Check out some of the best hikes here.

Ski Santa Fe: Ski Santa Fe is located just 16 short miles from the city and offers some of the state’s best skiing. With 660 acres of skiable terrain, 86 runs, and 1725 feet of vertical drop, Ski Santa Fe has something for every level of skier. 

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Stop 3: White Sands National Park

A trip to White Sands National Park feels like you’re being transported to another planet. As the largest gypsum dune field in the world, the glistening dunes of White Sands have to be seen to be believed. Located in Southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, White Sands is one of the world’s great natural wonders and one of the most unique landscapes on earth. With over 275 square miles to explore, the park is an endless adventure opportunity. 

Camping in White Sands National Park 

Backcountry Camping: While you may not be able to take your campervan with you, the backcountry campsites in White Sands are hard to beat. Hike out and sleep amongst the dunes for an otherworldly camping experience. The Backcountry Camping Trail is a 1.75-mile loop that gives you access to all 10 of the park’s backcountry sites. 

Oliver Lee Memorial State Park: Located about half an hour outside of White Sands National Park, Oliver Lee Memorial State Park is the closest public campground. Oliver Lee offers campers tent and RV sites with access to public restrooms, showers, potable water, picnic tables, and more. 

Aguirre Spring Campground: Located about 45 minutes from the park, Aguire Spring Campground offers camping amongst the cliffs of the Organ Mountains in the Chihuahuan Desert. This desert oasis offers campers 55 first-come, first-serve campsites with access to restrooms, potable water, picnic tables, and more.  

Lincoln National Forest: Lincoln National Forests offers seven first-come, first-serve campgrounds, as well as plenty of dispersed camping options. Lincoln National Forest is located about one and a half hours away from White Sands National Park. 

What to Do in White Sands National Park 

Take the Dunes Drive: Dunes Drive is a scenic drive that stretches 8 miles from the park’s visitor center to the heart of the gypsum field. This 16-mile journey will make you feel like you’re operating a lunar rover. 

Alkali Flat Trail: You may be surprised to learn that the longest and hardest trail in the entire park is only 4.5 miles long. The Alkali Flat Trail winds through some of the largest dunes in the park before depositing hikers on the Alkali Flat. This trail may sound easy, but it’s tough hiking through loose sand. The views of the gypsum field and surrounding dunes make this trek well worth it. 

Sled the Sand Dunes: The soft, white dunes are ideal for sledding, and you can even purchase plastic sleds at the gift shop in the visitor center. The Alkali Flat and Road Runner Picnic Areas have the best sledding in the park. 

Places to Eat in White Sands National Park

Rizo’s Mexican Restaurant: Located 18 minutes from the park in Alamogordo, Rizo’s serves authentic Mexican food just a stone’s throw from the park. Rizo’s is family-owned and famous for their handmade desserts. 

Bry’s Lunchbox: Bry’s Lunchbox is a local food truck in Alamogordo that serves decadent burritos and contemporary New Mexican favorites. Try their Green Chile Philly for a southwestern take on the classic sandwich. 

Waffle & Pancake Shoppe: Looking for a hardy breakfast before a day in the park? Head to the Waffle & Pancake Shoppe in Alamogordo for all your favorite breakfast dishes. 

Stop 4: Taos, New Mexico

The drive from White Sands National Park to our Escape Camper Vans location in Denver is nearly 9 hours, so why not break that drive by visiting one of New Mexico’s most pristine mountain areas– Taos? Taos offers a healthy mix of culture and adventure. In the winter, Taos is known as New Mexico’s premier destination for skiing and snowboarding. In the summer, Taos is a mountain-lovers paradise, with hiking, biking, climbing, and more. 

Camping in Taos, New Mexico

Taos RV Park: There’s no more convenient campsite in Taos than Taos RV Park. Mere minutes from town and with great access to the mountain, Taos RV Park offers both RV and tent sites along with modern restroom facilities, showers, and even a dog park. 

Canjilon Lakes Campground: Located in the nearby Carson National Forest, the Canjilon Lakes Campground offers campers relief from the desert sun with its high elevation. Enjoy swimming and fishing in one of the four lakes located along Forest Service Road 129. There are two campgrounds in the area,  Lower Canjilon Lakes and Middle Canjilon Lakes, offering 41 total campsites with picnic tables, restroom facilities, and easy access to trails. 

Las Petacas Campground: Located just outside of town off Highway 64, Las Petacas Campground is a short 10-minute drive from town. This small campground boasts 9 campsites, offering a secluded, riverside camping experience. This New Mexico campground has no access to potable water, so bring what you need. There are vault toilets on site. 

What to Do in Taos, New Mexico

Ski Taos: If you’re visiting in the winter, head to the mountains and enjoy the best skiing in the state. Taos Ski Valley is an independent ski mountain with 1,294 acres of skiable area and 3,281 feet of vertical terrain.  

Visit the historic Taos Pueblo: Taos Pueblo is the only living Native American community that is both a Unesco World Heritage Site and a National Historic Monument. The three-story adobe buildings in Taos Pueblo have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years. 

Hike the West Rim Trail: The West Rim Trailhead is located 11 miles west of town, near the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. This New Mexico Trail is a 3.8-mile out-and-back that takes hikers along the western rim of the Rio Grande River Gorge. With stunning canyon and river views, this hike makes an epic sunset walk. 

Scenic view from campervan window

Why rent a camper van for a New Mexico Road Trip?

The perfect blend of mobility and comfort: A camper van gives you unparalleled mobility and comfort and allows you to explore the far reaches of the New Mexico desert and mountains. While an RV may have a similar level of comfort, you’re limited on where you can park and stay. A camper van offers the best of both worlds–camping made comfortable and easy meals on the go. Navigate winding mountain roads with ease, get to remote, dispersed campsites, and enjoy all the freedoms of camper van travel. 

Easy to drive: Unlike giant RVs, camper vans drive just like normal cars, fit into regular parking spots, and are easy to use both in nature and in the city. Camper vans are unrivaled when it comes to dispersed camping. Access remote campsites and trails in the far corners of the desert and blend in seamlessly while exploring Santa Fe. 

Flexible Camping: Since camper vans don’t require electrical or sewer hookups, you have the flexibility to camp in tent-designated campsites and remote dispersed sites. New Mexico is a vast desert landscape that can be difficult to explore. Camp and explore in comfort with an Escape Campervan. 

Convenient and fun: With dozens of add-ons and several spacious models to choose from, our camper vans make spending the night in nature easy and enjoyable. You can pack everything you need for a multi-day and multi-activity adventure with you in your van, and not waste time setting up a tent or looking for RV-designated camping/ parking. 

Reserve with Escape Camper Vans for your trip to Glacier National Park 

A camper van is the ultimate adventure vehicle for a trip through Nex Mexico. An Escape Camper van makes camping comfortable while giving you the mobility to explore the far reaches of White Sands with ease. 

Fit in in Santa Fe and camp comfortably everywhere along your journey, from Great Sand Dunes in Colorado to White Sands in New Mexico. Pick your camper van up at Escape Camper Vans in Denver for your New Mexico road trip adventure.

Now that you’re armed with everything you need to know to have the ultimate adventure in New Mexico, book your camper van to start your journey.

Book My White Sands National Park Trip!

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