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Can You Fly a Drone in White Sands?

White Sands National Park in New Mexico is a 145,762-acre park in the Tularosa Basin.

The park is named after the gypsum crystal white sand dunes, with the dunes the biggest on the planet of its kind.

You’d love to see the white sands of this national park with your own two eyes and capture its magnificence via drone.

Can you fly a drone in White Sands?

You cannot fly a drone in White Sands National Park without a permit. The park is in approximation to the White Sands Missile Range, so flying in certain parts of the park would violate military airspace.

This article will take a deep dive into White Sands National Park’s drone restrictions, so if you’re planning on visiting New Mexico soon, you can’t miss this!

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Can you fly a drone in White Sands National Park?

While the FAA establishes drone laws for the broader United States, when it comes to state and national parks, that’s the territory of the National Park Service.

According to the NPS via the White Sands website and the section entitled Drones, the policy is as follows:

“Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft, such as a drone, within White Sands National Park is prohibited…Unauthorized aircraft activity within the park also violates military airspace and potentially creates safety hazards to military operations.”

The policy mentions the White Sands Superintendent’s Compendium §1.5 G, which was put into effect in late 2019.

According to the compendium, §1.5 Closures and Public Use Limits, (a)(1),

  • “The Superintendent, or his her/designee, may close part or all of the national park for visitor, employee safety and to protect the resource.
  • …Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or the lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the boundaries of White Sands National Park is prohibited except as approved in writing by the Superintendent and Regional Director.

This restriction is necessary to maintain public health and safety, protect nationally significant cultural resources, protect wildlife, implement management responsibilities and avoid conflict among visitor use activities until the NPS can determine whether specific uses of unmanned aircraft on lands administered by the NPS are appropriate and will not cause unacceptable impacts on park resources and values.

This closure is a necessary, interim measure until the NPS considers how to address this new use on a long-term basis and that allowing the use of unmanned aircraft before the park has properly evaluated whether this use is appropriate could result in unacceptable impacts to park resources, park values, and visitor safety. Additionally this regulation is necessary to prevent unauthorized aircraft activity that would violate military airspace with the potential to create safety hazards to military operations.”

Although the verbiage makes it sound like the NPS’s restrictions are only temporary and can be lifted at any time, that seems unlikely.

After all, the NPS blanket bans most state and national parks for drone use, not only White Sands.

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What happens if you illegally use a drone in White Sands National Park?

The NPS and the FAA are federal entities. Violating laws will lead to federal punishments, which usually carry with them the stiffest penalties.

If you’re caught flying your drone without permission in White Sands, expect more than a warning. You will likely receive a fine, and you’ll have to appear in court.

During your court appointment, the judge could issue you an additional fine. Since these are federal crimes, the fines are traditionally higher than a non-federal fine.

You could even be imprisoned and have to pay the fine.

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Can you fly a drone outside of White Sands National Park?

Okay, so you know better than to venture onto the grounds of White Sands National Park with your drone. What about the lands right outside of the park?

Those lands are not under the NPS’s jurisdiction, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can fly there. Let’s explore what’s around.

North of White Sands National Park is the White Sands Missile Range. This is the military land the NPS referred to in its drone usage policy at the park.

The White Sands Missile Range is a military firing and testing area still in use today.

You’re strictly prohibited from using your drone within five nautical miles of a military airbase or facility, and the White Sands Missile Range counts.

To the west of White Sands is the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge.

This nature refuge within the San Andres Mountains includes streams, springs, seeps, woodlands, bajadas, and desert grasslands.

The area exists to safeguard desert bighorn sheep. Oryx also live here.

Since it’s protected land, don’t expect to fly your drone in and around the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge.

What about to the east of White Sands National Park? You’re still out of luck, as the Holloman Airforce Base isn’t terribly far from the park.

Although beyond that are New Mexican cities and towns, remember that you’re prohibited from using your drone within five miles of a military base.

Thus, many of those cities and towns would be off-limits to you.

South of White Sands is about the only place you can reasonably expect to use a drone near this national park. There, you’ll find such parts of New Mexico as Organ, White Sands, and Orogrande.

You may be able to use your drone in these cities or towns, but that depends on the local ordinances.

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5 great places to fly a drone in New Mexico instead

It’s disappointing that you’ll have to forego your plans of using a drone in White Sands National Park, but never fear. You have plenty of great places throughout New Mexico to explore with your drone instead.

Here’s an overview.

1. Turquoise Trail

Also known as New Mexico State Road 14, Turquoise Trail is a 54-mile state road in the northern part of the state.

Featuring the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, the 15,000-square-mile park also showcases views of the towns Cerillos, Madrid, and Golden and the Sandia Crest.

New Mexico State Road 14 starts in Tijeras at New Mexico State Road 333, the famed U.S. Route 66.

If you continue northward on New Mexico State Road 14, you’ll pass through Bernalillo County and Cedar Crest until you reach San Antonito.

You can get to Santa Fe from Albuquerque via this trail and vice-versa.

You can’t use your drone when driving, so plan to explore as much of the Turquoise Trail on foot as you can.

2. Pat Hurley Park

Albuquerque’s Pat Hurley Park features an upper and lower loop linked by a paved path. The upper loop includes a playground and playfields, and the lower loop has a playground and the Community Center.

The walking paths here altogether total 1.1 miles, as the lower loop trail is 0.36 miles and the upper loop trail is 0.33 miles.

The low-grade difficulty of the trail and the concrete walking paths make traversing the path easy so you can reach the ideal location with your drone and start capturing exceptional footage!

3. Laguna del Perro

Laguna del Perro is a lake with salt deposits that make it quite the unique body of water. Better yet is that the lake is like a hidden gem.

Compared to the many other attractions throughout New Mexico, this one surprisingly doesn’t attract very large crowds.

This means the Laguna del Perro should be open to you to explore without worrying about getting in the way of others.

Always follow FAA drone rules and take care not to land your drone in the lake!

4. Diablo Canyon Recreation Area

You should also plan to explore the Diablo Canyon Recreation Area, which showcases stunning deep cliffs by the Rio Grande.

The trails here aren’t overly challenging, but they’re long, encompassing roughly eight miles.

Rock climbers clamber to the Diablo Canyon Recreation Area, so make sure you don’t get in their way with your drone. You must also follow all guidelines for UAV usage before launching.

5. Balloon Fiesta Park

Another great place to visit in Albuquerque is Balloon Fiesta Park. As the name implies, this park is used for ballooning, but that’s not all.

You’ll also see special events like concerts, picnics, bike races, movie productions, golf practice, and model aircraft flying here.

The park is a favorite of drone enthusiasts. Make sure you get to the park early to beat out the other pilots so you have plenty of free space for shooting and maybe even doing some stunts. 

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White Sands National Park in New Mexico strictly forbids pilots from entering with their UAVs according to the NPS’s policy.

The park isn’t far from a military testing site and military base, which primarily explains why drones cannot fly there.

If you wanted to see White Sands, you can always visit sans drone.

For some great places in New Mexico to fly with a drone, try Balloon Fiesta Park, Pat Hurley Park, and the Turquoise Trail. Have fun out there!