I squinted my eyes to shield them from the stark bright white that blared all around me. Looking ahead toward the giant sand dune, it reminded me of a wave in the ocean about to crash on top of me. And like when you are in the trough of a wave where all you can see is blue, all I could see was towering white sand all around me. Once I climbed to the crest of the “wave” I could see miles of undulating white sand. I was amazed at the similarity of this dry and dusty place and being on a boat on the ocean. The Alkali Flat Trail takes hikers into the vast open space of White Sands National Park.
The Alkali Flat Trail is a 5-mile lollipop loop trail that takes hikers into the heart of the expansive dune field that makes up White Sands National Park. But don’t let the name fool you – this trail is not flat! You can read the park’s description here.
Challenges of Alkali Flat Trail
It’s hard to give an exact elevation gain or loss because the Alkali Flat Trail is constantly changing. Wind erosion is what makes the famous white sand dunes so the terrain of the trail changes.
Another thing to consider is hiking on loose sands is not easy. It’s especially hard if you are used to hiking on a hard surface. Before I began my hike, I visited with park rangers and asked how hard the sand was to walk on. “Yeah, your calves are going to be sore,” one ranger answered me. And they were.
A couple of dunes I climbed, the sand was so deep I had a hard time climbing up because I kept sinking and sliding. At the bottom of the dunes and in some places on top, the sand is firmer and easier to walk on.
Staying on the trail
Because the Alkali Flat Trail takes hikers over giant sand dunes, there isn’t a clear path to follow. The trail is marked with red trail markers with black diamond symbols on them that stick up out of the sand. When I was there I followed footprints in the sand from previous hikers. However, these can be easily and quickly erased, so you can’t rely on that.
Park officials at White Sands National Park advise that if you cannot find a trail marker in front of you, then you need to turn around and go back the way you came. It is easy to get disoriented or lost in the sea of white.
They also advise that strong winds can reduce visibility to only a few feet. This makes it easy to get lost. Also because of the proximity to the White Sand Missile Range, if you find strange or unknown objects or debris, do not touch them. Make a note of their location and notify park rangers.
Finding the trailhead
The trailhead for the Alkali Flat Trail is at the end of the Dunes Drive. You can either hike it clockwise or counterclockwise. It really doesn’t make a difference which way you hike it. The trail is a lollipop loop. I ended up hiking it clockwise because I failed to see the trail marker to my right when the trail split for the loop part of the lollipop. In some places, you really have to look for the markers.
Enjoying the Alkali Flat Trail
Hiking a little way into the Alkali Flat Trail is also a great way to find a nice secluded spot for sledding. Sledding down the dunes is popular at White Sands National Park.
The Alkali Flat Trail is a great way to experience the grandeur of White Sands National Park. And you can see why it was recently upgraded from a national monument to a national park. It’s a beautiful and unique place.