| Tallest Sand Dunes in North America: High Dune and Star Dune
Peaks: High Dune, Star Dune (unranked)
Route: Star Dune via High Dune, reclimb of High Dune with classmates
RT Distance: ~9 Miles
Elevation Gain: ~1,800 to 2000 Feet
Participants: stevevets689 for Star Dune and back; stevevets689, Chris, and Verenice for reclimb of High Dune
Rough outline of my route
This was a hike I had wanted to do for some time. Star Dune is the tallest dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park, and the tallest in North America (according to their website), rising 750 feet from the valley floor. I have seen it from a distance before but never arrived at its top, until May 23rd, 2007.
It was the end of the school year; the end of my years as a high school student. On the last day, it is school tradition to go to the Sand Dunes and have a cook out/hike/swim, whatever. Past times, I had traveled with the school and only summited High Dune, a tall dune which appears to be the tallest from the parking lot. This time would be special, however. I decided to leave in my own car and go much earlier than the school, so as to see the sun rise while hiking.
I woke up that Wednesday at about 4:15 AM in Moffat. I put a few things in my backpack and checked the weather, which called for a 60% chance of rain, most likely in the afternoon. I shut down my computer, nabbed my cell phone and camera, and quietly made my way to the refrigerator to get my victory chocolate. I slipped out the door as quietly as possible and got moving at around 4:45 AM.
I arrived at the dunes at around 5:45 AM. The way it works if you arrive so early is that, since no one is at the gate, there is a sign requesting you to pay your park fee ($3 per adult) on your way out. Don't try to scam them, it won't work, they do check for your permit on the way out. Anyway, there was no other car in the parking lot. It was a bit brisk, so I threw on my coat. I threw on my pack and moved through the trees to find a very high running Medano Creek. This creek only runs in spring, pretty much, from the melt water of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. I picked my way through the creek and got my shoes pretty wet, but the water was warmer than expected (though still cold.)
Medano Creek and High Dune
Creek out of the way, I saw my first destination: High Dune. Again, from the parking lot, High Dune appears to be the largest dune, but from the valley floor it's only about 650 feet tall. It is higher in elevation than Star Dune but that's not really how they rate these dunes. Anyway, off I went. I had the entire park to myself at this point, and most of the previous day's tracks had been swept away already by wind and rain from the night before. I could see traces of snow high on the dunes, and this was probably the prettiest I've ever seen these mountains of sand.
Mount Herard behind the Dunes
Sunrise over Mount Zwischen
A shoe is all that is left after yet another tragic sand snake incident
I made my way along the ridge crests, climbed that final really steep slope and summited High Dune at around 6:30 AM. A 45 minute ascent of High Dune is pretty good, but then again the sand was moist and firm, making for easier movement than the usual slog through the sifting sand. The sun had just come up, and the dunes looked great. I ate a banana and continued west, towards the obvious Star Dune. 1.5 Miles and 650 feet gained.
Final slope to the summit of High Dune
Dunefield from the top of High Dune
Star Dune from High Dune
The traverse to Star Dune took longer than the hike of High Dune. One has to go up and down over many dunes, hike along ridges, slide, scoot or run down dunes, climb up more dunes, before finally finding yourself at the base of Star Dune. Now I know why the national park considers High Dune as "moderately strenuous" but Star Dune as just plain "strenuous." This final dune is maybe 150 feet tall from were you stand, and it's very, VERY steep, I'm guessing 35 to 40 degrees. Plus, this slope had been hit by the sun for nearly an hour and was very soft, making for slow and painful progress. Finally I topped out and stood on the tallest dune in North America at nearly 8 AM. 3 Miles and ~900 feet gained. 2 other people sighted on High Dune but still only my tracks anywhere near me.
At the base of Star Dune
Summit Ridge of Star Dune
Dunefield from Star Dune, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind
High Dune from Star Dune
I made a few phone calls, took my first swig of water, ate another banana, and then noticed the forming clouds around the mountains and to the west. I decided it was time to head back to High Dune. Ascending Star Dune itself took maybe 20 minutes; the descent took around 2. I did what I fondly call a sand glissade. This isn't as fun and takes more work than glissading in snow as you don't freely slide and have to keep pushing yourself, but it is nonetheless quick and fun. I left a mark on Star Dune that will probably be there for… well… a day, until the wind erases it.
Looking back up at Star Dune. My ascent track is barely visible, but the sharp line you see is my descent
Eroded sandy ridge on the way back to High Dune
Collapsed sand snake pit
I arrived at High Dune for the second time at not quite 9 AM. There, I was going to wait for my school to show up and a couple of friends to hike up. But, after waiting for about half an hour, I saw no such pair approaching the dunes. My solitude was about to end anyway, as other school groups had arrived and a mass of people were heading up. I decided to go down at around 9:30 AM. 4.5 miles and ~1250 feet gained.
When I got back down to the parking lot (after getting wet in the creek again) it was ten 'til ten AM. No school vehicles were in the parking lot. I found this strange but then thought that maybe they had gone to a camp site to prepare for the cookout. I started walking through the sites and came across two other seniors, Dylan and Travis. They had just arrived in their own car and said that the rest of the school was on some kind of educational tour which they had to do in order to get in for free. A short while later, the bus pulled up, and out hopped Chris and Michael, who were eager to hike High Dune. They expected my company and got it, somehow. A whole troop of us started hiking up, but I knew that most of them would be turning back before arriving at the top. 6 miles and ~1250 feet gained.
I carried a lady friend, Verenice, across the deeper part of the creek (I'm soaked now) and we started up… again. About halfway up, Michael decides to stop. Verenice and Melanie are trudging up not far behind Chris and I but finally Melanie decides to stop. We wait for Verenice and continue on up, arriving at the top… again… at 11:30 AM. We take a few photos and go back down for the cookout. TOTAL DISTANCE TRAVELED: 9 MILES AND 1800 TO 2000 FEET OF GAIN THROUGH SAND.
Chris on the summit of High Dune
Verenice on the summit of High Dune
Suffice it to say I had about enough energy left to eat lunch, drive home (in the rain) and fall asleep during Night at the Museum. This was a good day, but I was TIRED. It was my last hike as a high schooler.
Moffat High class of 2007. From left to right, starting with the back row and working forward: Osvaldo, Travis, Dustin, Stephen (myself), Chris, Samantha, Dylan, and Alejandra. Not pictured are Kyle and Marty
P.S. Sand snakes don‘t exist
To see more pictures from this hike, please visit
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):