Medano Pass

Colorado has a plethora of amazing places to go four wheeling. Many of the more famous trails like Black Bear Pass and Red Cone have rightfully earned their place among the classics. However, throughout the state lie many lesser known trails that are amazing and unique in their own right.

One of our favorites among these lesser known and under appreciated trails is Medano Pass, a low mountain pass which crosses the Sangre de Cristo mountain range southwest of Pueblo in southern Colorado. The trail is notable primarily as the backcountry entrance into Great Sand Dunes National Park. This is a breathtaking and unique national park and wilderness preserve which is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America. The tallest of these dunes rise to heights of more than 750 feet above the valley floor.

The Great Sand Dunes are the result of a very specific combination of environmental circumstances. The San Luis Valley is a flat, wide valley with mountain ranges arranged north-to-south, forming the western and eastern edges of the valley. The prevailing winds in the valley blow from the west to the east. At the high altitude of 7,500 feet, the wind causes a desertification of much of the land in this valley. The dried out dirt and sand is subsequently blown into the western edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Most of the sand is collected within the Great Sand Dunes, while other sand is blown up the Medano Creek Valley where it settles. The creek then pushes the sand back downstream and into the dunes or upwind creating a conveyor belt-type effect which continuously feeds the dunes with more material.

Estimates place the Great Sand Dunes at less than 440,000 years old. The dunes are continuously growing in size.

Medano Pass Trail
The best way to drive Medano Pass is from East to West. Medano Pass is a moderate trail, with a 6+ (out of 10) rating. For those seeking more challenge, Medano is an excellent and scenic way to get to the trailhead of its more well-known neighbor, Blanca Trail (a 9 rated trail). With a summit of about 9,950 feet above sea level, Medano Pass is one of the lower passes in the state. Because of the lower altitude, it’s almost aways open by the beginning of June and sometimes by early May.

Most of the eastern half of the trail is easy, with a couple of moderately steep climbs and rocky spots. These can easily be crossed with careful driving and spotting for larger trucks. Once you cross the pass summit, the trail becomes considerably more scenic as you descend into the San Luis Valley.

Descending, the trail crossed a large burned area. This area is the result of a large 6,249 acre, naturally-caused fire from the summer of 2010. Although scaring from the fire hasn’t caused significant erosion on the trail when we drove through (May 2011), there was a noticeable amount of silt in the river and its possible the road quality may degrade in the next few years while the forest recovers. This extensively burned out portion provides a very surreal and intimate look at just how devastating forest fires can be.

Descending out of the Medano burn area, the trail features nine different water crossings, many of which can be quite deep in spring. On our May 2011 trip, we encountered a Jeep Grand Cherokee that was being towed out because the engine hydrolocked in one of the crossings. Perhaps they could have benefited from our Waterproofing your vehicle article.

Once inside Great Sand Dunes National Park, the trail parallels the southern edge of the dunes. This stretch of trail contains more than two miles of soft sand. Reducing vehicle tire pressure to 18 psi generally provides enough flotation to traverse the sand. Once you hit pavement, the National Park Service provides compressed air for refilling your tires.

Camping
On the western half of Medano Pass, there are 18 numbered campsites available for free on a first-come, first-served basis. These campsites are all located outside of the park boundaries. Inside the National Park, there is a large campground with hookups and improved camping facilities located near the end of the pavement. While much more crowded and less private than the primitive camping spots along the trail, these in-park spots can be reserved ahead of time through the National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/grsa/medano-pass-road.htm

Getting There
The trail starts approximately 26.5 miles south of the town of Westcliffe on Highway 69, [GPS Coordinates (WGS84) 37 50.19, 105 18.46). The trailhead is marked as CR 559. The trail follows the edge of private property before entering national forest land at mile 6.9

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