Peak(s):  High Dune - 8,691 feet
Star Dune - 8,617 feet
Date Posted:  02/28/2008
Date Climbed:   05/23/2007
Author:  stevevets689

 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):

 Comments or Questions

Thought I‘d give...
02/05/2011 00:22
...The new ”other peak” TR feature a shot. Thanks, Bill!


02/29/2008 00:44
I never get tired of the view from the top of the Star Dune.


02/29/2008 03:21
isn‘t there a way to name the peak instead of it saying ”other peak, other peak” for the mountain listed in the trip reports section?



11/30/2010 17:28
Maybe you could just have a "Peak:" field that you can just type in instead? That would be nicer...


11/30/2010 17:28
I'm working on that. I got stalled with the page changes because I was skiing Quandary!
The page will soon provide a place to enter the peak name/elevation when ”Other Peak” is selected.


Thanks Bill
02/29/2008 21:34
This is definitely really cool, I‘ll be making use of it


Wonderful, Steve!
02/29/2008 22:13
I never get tired of going down to the dunes ... especially during the off season. Once the sun hits one side, you get that neat feeling of solid, damp cold sand on one side of the crest and loose, soft warm sand on the other side of the crest. Thanks for the trip report and nice pix! And, what a great tradition with the hike and cookout! Zapata Falls is cool this time of year, too, as you get to use your crampons!


Other Peak names
02/29/2008 22:47
Steve, I‘m using your report to do some testing and you might notice that on the main TR page (all reports) you will now see the names of the ”other peaks.” I haven‘t updated the TRIP EDIT page yet, but soon you will be able to make change to the other peak names and elevations...


Mosca Pass
03/02/2008 15:52
Nice report. I enjoyed the dunes on my one trip out, did the hike in the morning, and then hiked up Mosca Pass in the afternoon. The pass has great dune views, and is a nice tame (and relatively empty) afternoon ”off day” walk.

Not sure if anyone else has done it, but I‘d love to check out the sand creek trail up to the Sangres.


03/01/2008 00:20
Sounds good, you can use this report as you need to.


10/22/2008 10:35
Your sand snake comment made me laugh! That was awesome!
Good pictures Steve! It looked like you guys had an awesome time.


08/28/2008 00:37
Steve, I never saw this report! Very cool!!! I keep telling myself to go check out the Sand Dunes, but everytime I go down there I end up climbing something in the Sangres. Why does this keep happening? This does look like a fun trip to do!

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