4x4 Trail Report: Medano Pass

After driving up and down the Mount Baldy trail, I felt like an accomplished off-roader!

That feeling was soon challenged by our next trail, Medano Pass.

Medano Pass is a "primitive" 4x4 road through the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and one of only two trails that allow you to travel over the Sangre De Cristo mountain range (the other being Hayden Pass which we drove over the next day).

Our original plan was to do Hayden Pass east to west and then drive the hour south to Great Sand Dunes and enter Medado Pass on the west and find a camp site. But the Jeep's starter shit the bed in Canyon City (thank god it wasn't at the top of a mountain!) and we didn't have enough time any longer. We were actually very lucky that the starter broke when and where it did because there was a NAPA only a mile up the road and they were closing in 30 minutes. Talk about a close call!

So we decided to enter Medano Pass on the East side, but that provided the benefit of the fact that we could air the tires back up at the air-up station on the west entrance, and we knew we could get away without paying by entering the park through the "back entrance." $20 saved!

To get there, we drove across the San Isabel National Forest (had to pull over once going up the steep mountain grade at highway speed to let the engine cool down) to Westcliffe. Then got on Highway 69 South and looked for the big brown road sign with the words "Medano Pass" and "National Forest Access." Once on that road (Colorado country road 599), we had to drive down it for a little while until it entered the national forest land and started getting steeper and became a 4x4 road. That's where the real fun began. There was some steep sections but they weren't very long, and there was one major boulder obstacle but most people just drove around it and that's what we did. Immediately after the boulder, we officially entered the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.

We came to our first river crossing and we had to check how deep it was, about a foot deep. No problem. However, there was one Medano Creek crossing that was quite deep and the water was up to the bottom edge of the doors. 

Medano Pass Great Sand Dunes Colorado primative road in a Jeep XJ Cherokee 4x4

We set up camp near the Medano Lake trail head. We hiked to the lake the next day and I highly recommend you do the same as well!

But there was still several hours of daylight left so I tossed the keys to my co-driver, Johnny, an experienced off-road driver. He drove back east to where the we spotted a spur trail and I was able to get a lot of pictures. It was a trail that I probably wouldn't have attempted myself as it was super rocky and steeper than anything I had yet attempted.

Medano Pass Great Sand Dunes Colorado primative road in a Jeep XJ Cherokee 4x4Medano Pass Great Sand Dunes Colorado primative road in a Jeep XJ Cherokee 4x4

Medano Pass Great Sand Dunes Colorado primative road in a Jeep XJ Cherokee 4x4

Medano Pass Great Sand Dunes Colorado primative road in a Jeep XJ Cherokee 4x4Medano Pass Great Sand Dunes Colorado primative road in a Jeep XJ Cherokee 4x4 Medano Pass Great Sand Dunes Colorado primative road in a Jeep XJ Cherokee 4x4 Medano Pass Great Sand Dunes Colorado primative road in a Jeep XJ Cherokee 4x4

Sitting in the passenger seat and observing (and taking pics) was a great learning experience. Johnny said he pretended like my diff pumpkins and transfer case were made out of wood, so he made sure to place the biggest rocks under the tires. And going up steep rocky hills was easy in 4 Low and in the low gear of the auto transmission. He said just make sure you go slow and steady and if things start to bounce and tires start to spin, that's when things can break or you can get into trouble. My technique for going up terrain like that was to give it lots of throttle and just blast up it - like you see in those hill climbing videos - but I soon learned how much better it is to crawl up the hills.

Watching him move the vehicle from one side of the trail to the other in order to oppose the axles' articulation was also beneficial to see.

The next morning we drove down the west slope of the mountain. I really enjoyed the variety of terrain: sand, mud, rocks, river crossings, steep grades, flat meadows, tight squeezes, etc.

Medano Pass Great Sand Dunes Colorado primative road in a Jeep XJ Cherokee 4x4

Once we were almost to the sand dunes, the road became nothing but sand. Very soon the sand became extremely soft and a big warning sign informed us to lower the tire pressure (tires where already lowered to 20psi) and to keep the speed up. I switched to 4 High, with the tranny in Drive, and blasted through the sand! It was fun! But I had to slam on the brakes for a Jeep Wrangler coming the other way. When I tried to get started again, I was stuck. Johnny told me to put it back into 4 Low. Why? Because if the tires broke free, they wouldn't spin as fast and dig down. This magically did the trick and I was off blasting through the sand again. So much fun! My differentials where definitely dragging in several spots but that just meant I had to press on the gas a little harder. 

Overall, I really enjoyed the trail. It actually blew away my expectations of how rugged, difficult and varied the terrain actually was.

Just right outside where the primitive roads meets the paved road was the free air-up station. We aired up and got on the highway north to Hayden Pass, where, once again, my expectations would be exceeded.

southern colorado map 4x4 trails and hiking trails in the sangre de cristo and san isabel national forests and mountains