A World Away
Medano Pass Primitive Road had 25 campsites from bottom to top. We chose site 2.1. It was downhill from the pass road, surrounded by trees and Medano Creek flowed behind it, about as picture perfect a campsite in the Colorado Mountains as you could get. It was hard to believe that just two miles down the mountain were the largest sand dunes in North America with desert climate to match. As we breathed the cool mountain air and washed our dishes in the ice cold creek, we felt like we were in another world.
Before picking this particular spot, we had stopped at Site 1.8 just before this one, however, it was above the road and the trees opened up on one side to the strong winds that batter the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We also could have gone higher up the pass, but the higher you went, the colder it got, even in August. There could easily have been a 10-15 degree difference between this campsite and the ones nearer the top (above 9,000 ft). The campsite had three areas, the tent area, the fire pit and the bear box, each with several feet in between. The bear box was an essential part of the campsite as black bears were alive and well in Colorado and it was large enough to fit our cooler and two food bags. After pitching the tent, my husband, Jasmine the world’s greatest dog, and I all waded in Medano Creek. The creek wasn’t deep enough for Jasmine to swim, but was still running wide and swift for August. With Colorado in a drought the last decade, most creeks are just a dribble this time of year, but a decent snowpack last winter and plenty of June rains had things flowing nicely.
The only problem with the campsite was that we were not allowed to drive the Jeep down to it. A log blocked the path down to the site. We assumed this was to protect the area from tire damage, which was understandable, but it was still an inconvenience to haul all our stuff (such as our very heavy cooler) over the log and down the hill. This also meant that I would be unable to hear the Jimmy Buffet concert that would be played on Sirius Saturday night, unless I walked up the hill and sat in the Jeep. I was looking forward to hearing the show while roasting marshmallows by the campfire and gazing at the stars while the band played Southern Cross. Bummer.
The winds that created the sand dunes blew swiftly through the woods. The trees were in a constant state of motion and the wind howled making quite a racket. Even sitting next to each other by the fire, we had to speak loudly to be heard. This worried us at first, however, the winds turned out to be a blessing. When we went to sleep at night, they provided a “white noise” over which all the creepy sounds of the forest couldn’t be heard. (Have my husband tell you about our first camping trip sometime. I annoyed him all night asking “What’s that?” every five minutes.) At some point during the night, the winds died down. The silence woke us up each morning just as the sun popped up above the mountains. It was the most perfect time of day at the site, completely quiet with a soft light filtering through the trees and causing the shadow on the mountain face across from us to slowly recede. Within the hour the winds would begin again.
Medano Pass Primitive Road could be summed up in one word: FUN! A great place for novice and expert drivers alike and it included nine creek crossings. The first part of the road, down at the dunes, was sandy and flat, fun to build up some speed and slide around in. Traveling north, the road also hugged the eastern side of the sand dunes, where they were at their steepest and most dramatic. Then as we approached the park preserve, the road turned right (east), changed to dirt and the ascent began. Although very bouncy, the road was easy to navigate. Shortly beyond our campsite location, the road narrowed and the trees leaned in close with their branches swatting the Jeep. At approximately the middle of the ascent, the road became rocky and more careful driving was required. Here the road came to its narrowest point, rocks jutting out on both sides, and we had to slowly drive through. Our Jeep, tall and narrow, fit through just fine, however, one afternoon we saw a Ford F-150 heading up the road from our campsite. Sure enough, about 15 minutes after it passed we saw it go back down again. Unless you like to detail your giant truck with some new stripes, I wouldn’t recommend driving it up Medano Pass Primitive Road. Once beyond this narrow passage, the road widened out to a small valley and you could see Medano Creek weaving in and out of the tall summer grasses. From here it was an easy drive to the top, well marked by national park signs and about six miles from where the preserve began.
Our reward for all that driving was a heavily forested area with log benches and parking for about six vehicles. Two other Jeeps, Wranglers just like ours, were already parked at the top, both with Kansas plates. Six people, all retired couples, were already there and eating a packed lunch of sandwiches and cheese and crackers. They had come up from Highway 160 from Walzenburg and wanted to head the way we had driven to see the sand dunes. One of the couples said they spent winters in Phoenix and told us about all the Jeep trails they had been on in Arizona. The two couples in the second Jeep were friends of theirs, but still lived in Kansas and met them in Colorado just to go 4-wheeling. They asked us about road conditions since they were headed in that direction. My husband was glad to oblige.
There wasn’t much to do at the top, other than let the dog run around so we strategized our next move. Off to the north was a gravel road that wasn’t marked on the map. With the possibility of an adventure waiting to happen, we put the dog back in the Jeep and took off. It immediately got very steep, but the rocks provided plenty of traction. As near as I could tell, this road followed the national park boundary, but the map did not show it as a road. We drove about a mile ascending a particularly steep portion. At the top we stopped. Mountains were all around us, including Mt. Herard (13,297 ft) to the northeast and Blanca Peak to the south (14,345 ft). Since the trees were becoming scarce at this high point, we guessed we were about 12,000 ft. As we took photos from this vantage point, a black Jeep Wrangler with two guys in the front and three kids in the back came lumbering by, continued past us and up the road. I wondered aloud how far the road went, but my husband told me we weren’t finding out because we had less than ½ a tank of gas and he wasn’t about to get stuck on top of a mountain without any gas. Just as we were putting the dog back in the Jeep, the black Jeep returned heading back down. Well, maybe the end wasn’t much farther anyway. We waved at the kids and followed them down to Medano Pass. Here they parked their Jeep while we continued back down to the campsite.
On the way down, we decided to let Jasmine cool off in Medano Creek and stopped where the creek widened out into the mountain grasses. It was an area that was wide enough for us to pull completely off the road incase another vehicle drove by. It was also very sunny and beautiful with blue sky above the tall Aspen trees on one side of the road, green grass and amber water on the other side. Jasmine enjoyed her wade through the creek, still not deep enough for her to swim, but she walked around and lapped up the water. The cool water felt good on her belly. As I walked around, I found a carcass of something that once lived on the edge of the road. There was no skull, but a long, thick spine and possibly a pelvic bone parallel to the road. Could be an elk; we had heard there were many around here, or mountain goats. Whatever it was, it was big and sun bleached.
Speaking of animals, we didn’t see any until the morning we left. We had gotten up early to beat the Sunday traffic on I-25. We drove down at about 8 a.m. when we spotted our first critters: A group of mountain goats eating a breakfast of grass in an open space between the trees. There were five altogether. We stopped and took photos. They looked us over and when they realized we weren’t getting out of the Jeep, went back to eating breakfast. One of them disappeared into the trees, probably not happy we disturbed him. Then just before getting back on the paved road, we saw a momma deer and two babies eating grass next to a tree, the babies’ ears barely visible above the grass. We also took photos of them as they ate their way around the tree until we couldn’t see them anymore.
Leaving the park we drove past the towering dunes again, a reminder of how different the terrain was from our campsite to the San Luis Valley. From alpine to desert and back to the city, all in four hours.
Please note - The National Preserve at Great Sand Dunes and Medano Primitive Road require a 4WD vehicle. Medano Primitive Road starts just past the RV campgrounds in the national park at Pinyon Flats and is a dirt road for about 1.2 miles. Although this first part does not require 4WD, that does not mean you should drive your Ford Taurus or Toyota Tercel here. Then you come to the Point of No Return. They aren’t kidding; there is a sign that says “Point of No Return” along with a parking area and turn around for those without 4WD. From the PONR the road turns into sand and you must maintain a little bit of speed to get through it. Some vehicles may even have to let air out of the tires to maintain traction. You’ll drive between 3-4 miles before the road turns back to dirt and begins climbing Medano Pass. WARNING: If you drive your non-4WD vehicle on this road and get stuck, the fines for being towed out start at $600. When we arrived a truck was towing a car back to Pinyon Flats. The car held four people who looked barely old enough to drive. Don’t be an idiot!