in National Parks, Outings

Offroading in Great Sand Dunes National Park

dunes-2The other 4WD club member bailed last minute, so I met up with Mike, a guest rider visiting from Louisiana, at exit 52 on I-25 at 10:15am. He loaded up and we drove up CO-69 until we reached our turn for County Road 559. It was a beautiful end-of-summer day, so we opened up the sunroof and took off the windows. The weather was mostly sunny in the mid-70’s with the beginnings of crisp air and a calm breeze.


We made our way up the dirt road that progressively got rockier and steeper. In parts, I had to use 4-Low to get up slippery, steep sections. Trees lined the road, so while we knew there were mountains in front of us, there weren’t a lot of vistas. The road wound up the hill, passing a number of campsites occupied by pickups and trailers. Before we knew it, we were at the top of Medano Pass. We stopped to read the signs, greeted the only other Jeep we saw, and headed back down the other side.

The road was covered in small rocks all along the way down; it probably couldn’t have hurt to air down a bit to be on the safe side, but we persisted. The trail was not very technical, however there were six creek crossings – the deepest being 18 inches or so. We had seen a number of stock pickup trucks make their way in the opposite direction beforehand, so we knew it was possible to ford.

As we descended, the canyon walls grew higher, the road got a little windier. Wildflowers were blooming alongside the road and up above the burnt forest, you could see the aspens were starting to change along the canyon rim. Up ahead, the dunes slowly grew out of the horizon as the trail turned from dirt into sand. We stopped for a selfie with a deer, made room for several more vehicles coming up, and found a shady place for lunch.

dunes-15We continued down the trail until we broke out of the woods and into the valley. The steep, towering dunes stretched out for miles in each direction ahead of us. The sandy road was becoming harder to traverse and I considered airing down again. Mike and I took a few photos and watched the skiers switch-back up the face of the closest dune. We passed a campground and a number of rental cars before reaching the paved road.


The trail itself was a little more than 17 miles and took no longer than 2 hours to complete. Had we more time, we would have taken a side trail over to Music Pass and attempted a hike. We parked in the lot in time for the rangers to bring out a fallen sandboarder to the waiting ambulance. The wide riverbed was nearby down a short path, but the river had reduced to a trickle. Families built castles in the sand while we crossed the inch-deep river, proceeding to climb the nearest dune.

People all over were playing in the sand, sand-boarding/sledding/rolling/falling down the dunes. Others were slowly trudging through the sand, hiking their way along the ridges up to the highest peaks. It was a lot hotter here and the increasing clouds were appreciated. Thankfully, we noticed no bugs.

dunes-24Having just recovered from a cold, I couldn’t make it too far without gasping for air. We returned to the Jeep and stopped at the visitor’s center for a passport stamp and some education. Afterwards, we drove down the road a ways and hiked up to Zapata Falls. It doesn’t look like it, but if you carefully walk up the rocks in the creek, you’ll enter a tall canyon where the falls are hidden.

It was later in the afternoon at this point, so we hit the road going south, heading east and eventually north, back to the meeting point. Mike and I stopped for dinner at the Silver Sage Steakhouse, no doubt the pride of Fort Garland, Colorado. The ride back was tiresome and it rained heavily in places. The dust from the trail combined with the smoke in the air made it hard not to rub your eyes.

dunes-stampWe parted ways around 6:45pm. Mike left to find a campsite for the night and I headed back to Denver, arriving shortly after 9pm. I would argue against doing another day-trip; an overnight would allow for a solid hike up in the mountains and more time to enjoy the dunes.

I would rate the trail as “Easy” and would probably air down my tires a bit for the south side of the trail and for the sand. My initial concern for going southwest to northeast on the trail (needing to air down for the sand and then not having air for the rocky trail) was unfounded, and I’d probably enjoy going up from the dunes side and back down again rather than go up and over.

Another park in the books!