Peak(s):  High Dune - 8691
Dune 8860
Date Posted:  08/01/2014
Date Climbed:   07/30/2014
Author:  jdorje
 My god-it's full of sand: Dune 8860  

With monsoon rains bringing all-day rain to most mountainous areas, it had been a week since I'd gotten outside. With at least another week of serious monsoon in store, I started looking at other options. I hadn't visited the Dunes yet this year, and once I hit on the idea I realized the timing would be perfect. The rain they have received would (hopefully) pack down the sand a bit, making for easier hiking. An overcast Wednesday seemed like the perfect day for an afternoon dune hike.

Distance: 6.9 miles (per GPS)
Elevation gain: 1527 feet (per GPS) (2051 feet per
Total time: 3.5 hours

In writing this report, I find there is little to talk about other than beta and topo discussions. Although I took a lot of pictures, it's hard even for me to tell what they are; it's all just sand. However, it was a pretty awesome hike. Walking deep into the dunes is like entering another world, often with no view at all of the outside. It's similar in that to alpine environments, but a lot more unique.


I've been up High Dune a few times; though a fun spot it's rather too short even for a half-day hike. Star Dune I have visited just once, which I can only describe as "hell" - the sand was hot and soft that day, and the closer I got to the Star Dune the softer it became.

LoJ references a "Dune 8860", north-northwest of High Dune by almost exactly 2 miles. The 8860 elevation is interpolated from the USGS topo maps. Looking at the spot shows an outer 8600 contour with seven inner contours. Five of these seven have the little inward-facing ticks indicating a reversed contour; i.e., those 5 are 8600 contours. The other two can maybe be assumed as 8800 contours, and one of them has another contour inside it for 8840. However, the high point of the area is not within either presumed 8800 contour, but rather along the midpoint of another set of contours.

Examining the map I realized it made more sense if those two "8800" contours were actually 8600's. Though lacking the reversed-contour marker, all the intermediate contour lines would work out. This would also make the high point's location at the actual high point (ridgeline) of the map. Openstreetmap's topo map seemed to confirm this - it's in metric units which puts the topo lines in different places (OSM's topo is also based off of inferior worldwide topographic data, and not good for backcountry use despite its superior road mapping).

It seemed like a fun place to hike. I had no idea how long it would take to cover two miles across the dunes, or how much vertical would be required.

High Dune

With all the rains recently, Medano Creek was flowing day-round. Apparently this is very unusual for this time of year. From the parking lot below high dune, it's about a half-mile slog through sand and across the creek to the start of the dune area, then another half-mile to gain the 600 feet to the summit. High Dune is advertised as the highest dune in the park, right before they point out that Star Dune, being lower in the valley, is actually a bigger pile of sand and High Dune is just a higher absolute elevation. The rangers will also tell you it takes 1.5-2 hours up high dune and 30 minutes back down. Certainly, the terrain is difficult, and in bad conditions could take 2-3x longer than a similar hike on a good surface. But with the relatively packed sand, even at a slow pace it was just 12 minutes for the first half-mile and 36 minutes for the second half-mile.

I didn't stop for photos on the High Dune, but only took my time to pick out the next destination. This was harder than it should have been, since I didn't particularly want to take out my compass (yes, I had a gps - without which the task would be extremely challenging in this land of useless topo). Star Dune is easily visible straight west of High Dune, but to the North and NNW there are two more separate sets of highish looking dunes. Of course, it's the NNW one that is the 8860 area. I took note to walk straight toward Mount Herard, which was pretty impressive from this angle.

One final note on High Dune: the topo map is way off! This map comes from Caltopo, which is scans of USGS topo quad maps, which is about as accurate as you can get. And yet, it was a football field's length off as to the location of the summit. Does this mean the dune ridge has migrated 300 feet northward?
High Dune on topo

The Lost World

From High Dune, a lengthy and slightly winding valley was visible heading most of the way to the 8860 area. At first I wasn't sure if I wanted to be in the valley or on the ridgeline; I headed down into the valley and experimented with getting up onto the adjacent ridge that headed the same direction. This was a big mistake. Down in the valley there is no wind, the ground is packed, plants grow, and strange yet nonthreatening insects crawl the sands. Up on the ridges it is hot, windy, sandblasted, and the sand is soft. I said above that crossing the dunes was like entering another world; really I should have said it was like entering two completely different worlds.

Anyway, I descended back down to the valley, and contoured along it in approximately the direction I wanted to go. From this point forward I put less priority on avoiding elevation gain, and more priority on avoiding soft sand; it's like the difference between walking across a grassy field or bushwhacking through dense forest. With a little practice it's not hard to tell the sand density from a distance, helping to pick the route. Further, in addition to the rains making the sand more packed (there were large areas of straight-up moist sand, though it had not rained yet this day), I also think this area might be a different kind of sand than the looser stuff out near Star Dune.
Looking north in the valley

Herard in the distance

After heading north and downhill for half a mile, I was able to turn northwest. The terrain remained flat and well packed, as I stayed low in the valleys of the dunes. For something like a mile there was no need to go up to the ridges. I followed a line of plants, which on real terrain would be called a creek or gulch area. Here there was no flowing water, and the route went up and down through closed basin after closed basin. But clearly, there was moisture.
Looking northwest at Herard and 8860

Right below: the first of many large areas of plants

The path onwards...

...and onwards...

...and onwards

Finally I started gaining elevation regularly, though there was still half a mile to go to reach 8860. Leaving behind the idyllic dune floor, I ascended up toward the chaotic ceiling. Contouring up along a slope to get to the top of one ridge left me looking down into a gaping hole. Sand, solidified by moisture, was quite steep and breaking off cliff-style along one edge of the hole. This was the first portion of the hike where I felt falling off the edge of a sand cliff would not be a good idea. It was easy to contour around this hole, but the topo was again way off.
A few bad topo lines

The Massif

The dunes in the 8860 region run pretty much straight north-south. For most of the year the wind blows from the west, building up sand from the west as it falls off toward the east side. At times the wind is reversed, moving the dune in the other direction and keeping it symmetrical. This is called a "reversing dune", and is the most common type found in the Great Sand Dunes. Elsewhere, the Star Dune area is dominated by star dunes, complex interlocking networks of ridgelines created by inconsistent winds. Meanwhile, I believe High Dune and the ridgeline guarding the dune field to the south is a transverse dune. That page is an interesting read.

What this meant for me is that to approach 8860 from the southwest, I had to cross several lines of dune to get there. Each was higher than the last, and would mean going all the way up and over the dune and then down into the next valley, often dodging an even deeper basin in the process. At the top of each dune was a very interesting formation: what is apparently called a Chinese Wall. The dune would be hard-packed sand up to the top, then the last 12 feet or so would be significantly steeper soft sand. Since the wind was coming from the east (reversed from the normal direction), the wall was slightly more packed on the east side and soft and steeper on the west. Crossing these was an experience unto itself: at the base of the 12 foot wall on the west things were calm, but looking right above my head I could see wind whipping across from the east and taking sand with it. The most efficient way to climb these is to scramble up them as quickly as possible, keeping up momentum so that I slid back as little as possible. When crossing the top there was a 1-2 foot gap where there was no alternative but to take a pound of sand right in the face. Then I'd be through it and standing on the (relatively) hard-packed sand of the eastern side of the dune. Crazy.

Every Chinese Wall I crossed was basically the same height, but as the dunes got higher the wind picked up and they became more challenging. At last, I broke through one final wall and I was at the top. This area, though fairly close to the eastern edge of the dunes, was incredibly unique. A single long reversing dune runs north-south, with three high points. The dune drops low in between each point, and connects to the almost-as-high dune just to the east. In the center is a very low point, a deep closed basin. I quickly came to think of these four high points as the N, S, E, and W summits of the dune massif. From the S summit, I decided to make a full circle: contouring over to the E summit, then down along the ridgeline and down to the low point, up to the N summit, and back to the W summit. Climbing up to the N summit from the low point was clearly the crux of the hike, involving about 30 vertical feet through sand soft enough that I had to spend a few seconds digging out each step before moving on.

Naturally, the topo map was again inaccurate. The dune field drifting ENE by about 300 feet versus the map is the closest thing to making sense out of it, but it's still off. Assuming it was once accurate, the shape of the massif must have changed as well, and the point once called 8860 (E summit) has lost elevation while the western dune has grown.
Dune 8860 area

The E and S summits were slightly lower; I could not visually tell which was higher between the N and W summit. My GPS claimed the N summit was 7 meters higher than the W summit. It is the N summit that LoJ has as the high point, though I measured it about 75 feet southeast of where he has it. My GPS (note: gps elevations are not particularly useful) listed 8847 feet for the N summit, compared to 8628 feet for the low point in the center. The 8860 massif is clearly higher than the High Dune, which is not the "highest" dune in the park.

The numbers, though fascinating, paled in comparison to the view from the north summit.
Looking down on High Dune (left center) and Star Dune (right)

The W and S summits of the massif. Note the Chinese Wall.

North and northwest, the dunes continue. Sand Creek is on the right.

Medano Pass area. Mount Zweischen burn area to the right.

Traversing to the W summit (very similar to the view above)


The final task was to escape from the dune field. Rather than return across the high ridgeline around High Dune, I headed from the S summit almost straight south into another valley. The sand was again very firm, leading to an easy contouring traverse down into the obvious exit valley. Back on the dune floor, I was treated to the greenest flora so far, as well as the yellowest.
The route out



Getting out of that valley, and up to the south rim wall, was more work. At last I was at the wall, with one last Chinese Wall to cross.
One last chinese wall...

...with a poltergeist on it

All day the blowing sand had made weird ghost-like shapes, moving silently over the ground like a shadow. But as the wind picked up and a storm came over the mountains, the wind blowing off this dune made the strangest formation yet: a helix of sand swirling off the dune as a gust of wind traversed it. The one final wall lead to one final faceful of sand, but then it was an easy walk downhill to Medano Creek and a mile or so walk back to the parking lot. I picked up gas and a meal in Alamosa as the storm finally did arrive.

The following day my knee started complaining, letting me know that sand isn't as easy on the joints as it seemed at the time. It was a bit strange, since I've had no knee trouble recently on hikes many times longer. I think maybe plunge-stepping down the dunes leads to a bit of side-to-side instability in the knee on each step, since there is no anchor point for the foot but rather a bit of downhill-facing torque.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

 Comments or Questions
Brian C

08/01/2014 19:19
I can only imagine how toasty it is up there right now. Nice work!


Rocky Mountain Sun Flowers
08/01/2014 19:57
I think so anyway.

I tried to climb the hight dune like 15 years ago, I was out there without GPS or altimiter and I gave up trying to figure out which one it was, I was lost in a Sea of Sand. This is how to do it right.

Looks like a great day.

   Using your forum id/password. Not registered? Click Here

Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

© 2021®, 14ers Inc.