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A Most Tricky Scenic Drive: the Medano Pass Road

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If you are wondering what you’ll find in the mountains behind the Great Sand Dunes, and don’t care for hiking on trails, you may consider driving the primitive Medano Pass road. Not your vanilla scenic drive, traversing its tricky terrain requires the proper vehicle and a bit of planning. The reward is the opportunity to discover the often overlooked mountain environment of the park, particularly glorious in autumn.

The Medano Pass road is only 22 miles long, however it usually takes 2-3 hours to drive. The Park Service says that a high-clearance, 4WD is required. They state that “Mini-SUVs, wagons, and all-wheel drive vehicles will get stuck”, and based on my experience, I believe them. Although I’ve been on much more difficult roads (such as Teapot Canyon in the Maze of Canyonlands), I find that the combination of deep sands, creek crossings, and rocky and steep sections presents a unique challenge. Here’s the NPS detailed Medano Pass road guide. The road is usually open from Memorial Day week-end through the first serious snows in October.

Starting from the west side, the first obstacle you encounter is a 4 miles section of soft sand, between the aptly named “Point of No Return” and the “Sand Ramp Trail”. The sand is pretty deep in some places. In June 1999, I was driving a Jeep Cherokee, a capable high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, but as it was my first time driving in such conditions, I failed to keep the momentum going and got stuck. I got lucky that, a group of hikers helped me by pushing the car. After that incident, I did not dare to stop in the sandy section, missing out on some great views of the dune field from the east.

Between the west end of the road and Medano Pass, there are 8 places where Medano Creek crosses the road. There are no bridges, so you must ford the creek. On that June drive, I found the crossings very intimidating. Some were so long and deep that I was always afraid that the car would not make it. The creek was flowing strong, and you could not see the bottom – which fortunately is rocky rather than muddy. The park rangers drive Jeep Wranglers equipped with snorkels for good reason. However, on my second visit, in September, the crossings were easy in the low water conditions.

Complicating matters further, a rocky roadbed near the pass requires full tire pressure, whereas in some conditions, dropping tire pressure may be necessary to increase traction in the sandy sections. Unless you carry an air compressor, it is best to drive the road from east to west, as a free air compressor is available at the western entrance to the road. The eastern end of the road starts on County Road 559, along Hwy 69, about 16 miles south of Westcliffe, and is marked with a sign.

Remembering my difficulties in the sand fifteen years ago, and given that the vehicle that I rented (AWD with 8 inch of ground clearance) was less off-road worthy, I played it safe by driving from the east and returning that way. I skipped entirely the sandy section by turning back before reaching it. The rangers had discouraged me to even attempt that itinerary with my vehicle. I saw less than a dozen other vehicles, all of them pretty rugged. Another driver commented that the road was rough for my Ford Edge. However, I had no difficulties.

The drive was particularly rewarding in late September, when the golden aspen provide some of the most colorful fall foliage I’ve seen in any of the western national parks. The most beautiful section was near Medano Pass. There are also great views of Mt Herard near Medano Pass, with the best light being at sunrise and early morning. You can camp at a number of designated primitive campsites along the road. They are secluded and never fill up, unlike the Pinyon Flats campground, which was full on a late September week-end. Last, but not least Medano Pass is the trailhead for Medano Lake and Mt Herard, which will be the subject of the next posting.

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