|Elevation Gain||646 ft|
|My Time||1 hr 36 min|
|Food Nearby||Lu’s Main Street Cafe|
Hiking High Dune at Great Sand National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the most visually stunning national parks I have seen. A wall of mountains surround a giant complex of sand dunes. High Dune is one of the most popular hikes through the dunes and takes you to the top of the tallest dune you see from the parking lot. It is not the tallest in dune field overall. That distinction goes to Star Dune. Hiking to High Dune will give amazing views of the park and will challenge all levels of hikers.
There is no real trailhead in the traditional sense to get to High Dune. Instead there are several sandy paths from the parking lot that lead out to the first flat sand field. Depending on what time of year you are visiting the first sand field may have a shallow river running through it but on my trip in February it was completely dry.
Before leaving the parking lot make sure that you are prepared for a totally exposed hike. The sun and wind can be pretty intense, especially in the summer months. Also, blowing sand and sand in the shoes is a very common occurrence. Once you are geared up, head across the sand and towards the dunes!
The Low Dunes
The flat sand field at the beginning of the hike always surprises me at how long it is. It looks like the dunes are so close but they are about a half mile across the flat sand. Walking across the the flat is like walking across a beach. The sand shifts underfoot a bit but for the most part there isn’t too much sinking.
After the first half mile the incline begins, albeit gradually. The first set of dunes are the first feel of the softer and taller dunes that each footstep will sink down into. This first set of dunes have between a 8-10% grade depending on which route you take and have an elevation of about 20-40 feet above the flat sand start. This first set of low dunes is a spot where a lot of families with younger kids come to sled. (It actually looked really fun!)
This low dunes are the easiest of the hike so if it seemed challenging to get here it is only going to get more challenging. There is a really nice view from this set of low dunes though so make sure to take it in before heading up or sledding down!
Choosing a Path
One of the unique things about hiking on the dunes is that there are no set trails. Hikers are mostly free to find their own way up to the top of High Dune. I changed my mind a couple times as I started my trek up. Another thing is that since it is all sand it can be hard to see obstacles and ridgelines until you are up on them.
Some people will try to walk straight up the most direct path, which may be the steepest. Others may opt to take a circuitous route around certain dunes. This makes predicting distance and elevation gains impossible as each path will be different.
I ended up taking a path that started up the middle, then looped to the right and then cut across a ridgeline back to the left. To get to the middle ridgeline I had to hike up a dune that was a consistent up hill and had an incline that was between a 10-28% grade. Steep inclines are always a challenge but steep inclines with soft sand is a whole different kind of challenge. Each step is more difficult and each step can lead to the feet sinking deep into the sand. It is a bit like hiking through snow and punching through the soft spots. It is one heck of a workout especially when the inclines push a 28% grade.
Once I made it up the steep middle dunes I had a bit of a reprieve on a flat ridgeline. The sand seemed a bit firmer around the ridges, especially with a bit of snow around the edges that would melt or freeze the sand the sand in place.
From where I made it to the ridge there was about a third of a mile walk across to get to the final push to High Dune. The ridgeline also opened up the views to see just how was the dune field is. The dunes stretch out a pretty amazing 30 square miles!
If you take this route to the ridgeline it is a really nice place to catch your breath on the way to High Dune. The day I did the hike the wind was pretty light but on hot summer days this ridge would be very exposed to the sun and wind so keep that in mind while you make your plan.
The last push to get up to High Dune is another relatively steep but short incline that registers at around a 13-15% grade. At the end of a long hike this last incline was way harder than I thought it would be.
The good thing is that after this last bit of an incline the hike flattens out and takes you to the top of High Dune. The last few feet of the hike is the perfect time to sit and enjoy the views. You can now find a spot to sit in the sand and enjoy the accomplishment of making it to High Dune!
The views from High Dune are simply majestic. The rolling fields of sand framed by the mountains is a spectacular sight. I really enjoyed visiting in winter so there was still snow on the mountain tops and a little bit on the dunes themselves. From High Dune you can really see how big the dunes and the park really are.
The mountains are really what got to me though. The mountains surround the dunes on two sides and seem so massive from the flat sand at the start but a little more attainable from the top of High Dune. The sunshine also gave the peaks a special glow and the contrast from the sand to the dark rock is also quite impressive. One of the most spectacular and beautiful parks around.
The good news is that coming down from High Dune goes relatively quickly. The paths down the sand are a lot easier and the soft sand cushions the landings so you can almost run or float down the dunes and the soft sand slows the descent. I think I made it down in about a third of the time it took to get to the top. It would have gone even faster if I brought a sled!
Video of Hiking High Dune at Great Sands National Park
Distance and Elevation
If you don’t have the AllTrails app you might want to check it out, I really love mine. It records your progress and is a great way to search for hikes that are nearby and gives you difficulty measurements. According to AllTrails today’s hike was around 2.93 miles and had a total elevation gain of about 646 feet including undulations. That put the high point at around 8,727 feet. I was also moving for a total of 1 hour 36 minutes.
I am a Pro member of Alltrails and love it. If you are interested in the platform, please consider using my affiliate link for AllTrails. It gives me a small commission with no extra cost to you.
While walking across sand sounds lovely on a nice beach, it gets really hard when you are walking up steep dunes! There really isn’t any technical challenges to hiking up the dunes. No trails to follow and just keep moving upwards but the wind and sand take it out of you quickly. The sun can also be a big factor, especially in the summers. Because of all the elements and how physically demanding walking up sandy inclines I am going to rate this hike as hard.
Terrain of High Dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Sand, sand and more sand! There really is no path to follow so it is just a matter of picking your favorite line up the shifting and sinking sands. The weather can be a big factor here and you want to protect yourself from wind and sun.
Finding High Dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located on Colorado 150. 150 can be accessed from 160 about halfway between Alamosa, Colorado on 285 and Walsenburg, Colorado on I-25. The park is part of the National Parks System and there is a $25/vehicle fee. A National Parks annual pass is accepted.
Wrapping up High Dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park
I really love Great Sand Dunes National Park. This was my third trip here but my first time being able to complete High Dune. My first attempt was thwarted by really intense winds that made me stop about half way up. My second trip was at the end of a longer road trip and I didn’t have the energy left to even try and hiked the nature trail instead.
This time I had really good weather and plenty of energy and determination and made it to the top. The views from the top of High Dune were so much better than I imaged. I suggest looking at the gallery on this one! The hike is a lot harder than it seems from the stats. Walking in sand takes so much extra energy but at the end it was definitely worth it. Even if you don’t make it to the top, Great Sand Dunes is a great place to explore. Making it to High Dune just made it that much better.
I have added this hike and all of my hikes to my interactive map page that you can find here. If you have a suggestion or comment you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!