Medano Pass

Westcliffe, Colorado (Huerfano County)

Last Updated: 08/20/2019
4.9 /5 ( 15 reviews )
Information
Nearby Trails
Status: Open
Typically Open: 05/20 - 12/01
Permit Information: Permit Required - Click Here
Difficulty: 2-4
(EASY - MODERATE)
Length: 12.8 miles
Highest Elevation: 9926 feet
Duration: About 2 hours
Shape of Trail: Straight Through
Best Direction to Travel: West
Nearest Town: Westcliffe
Nearest Town w/ Services: Westcliffe
Official Road Name: 559
Management Agency: US Forest Service
District: San Carlos Ranger District, Westcliffe, CO
Distance:
Showing 0 trails within 2 miles

Highlights

Highlight: Medano Pass

Medano Pass offers travelers breathtaking scenery, plenty of free dispersed camping, hikes, sand, and water crossings. Truly a gem in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, Medano Pass is your gateway to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The Great Sand Dunes offer a vista that can be found nowhere else in the state of Colorado. The Great Sand Dunes are the tallest sand dunes in North America, rising to a maximum height of 750 feet (229 m) from the floor of the San Luis Valley on the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Range, covering about 19,000 acres.

Video

Weather

7 day forecast for Medano Pass

Route Information

Advanced Rating System

Recommended Vehicle:
Stock SUV with High Clearance and 4 Low
Concerns:
Summary:
Easily traversed by a stock 4x4 with low range. Be cautious of oncoming vehicles in areas where the trail does not easily allow for vehicles to pass. Make sure to air down vehicle tires to aid in traversing the deep sand areas.

Technical Rating: 2-4
(EASY - MODERATE)

Typically, more rock or undulated road surface. Potential rocks and/or tree stumps less than 18" tall and/or vertical ledges less than 18" tall and/or near vertical ledges or waterfalls less than 36" inches. Tire placement becomes more difficult. Can be steep and off-camber.

Read more about our rating system

Description

Medano Pass is a great option for an alternate route into or out of The Great Sand Dunes National Park. The trail can be ran in either direction. This is a good trail for any beginner or veteran, and should be passable by just about any stock, high clearance 4wd vehicle. The scenery is beautiful and there is a good mix of rock, sand, and water crossings. On the road's east side, you'll find the trail is mostly dirt, trees, and rocks. On the west side, it gradually becomes more sandy with frequent water crossings. Be aware - the water crossings can be 2-3 feet deep during the spring snow melt season, and remain relatively deep throughout the year. Always use caution when fording water. Great Sand Dunes National Park charges a standard parks entrance fee for any non-commercial vehicle inside of the National Park. Entering the Great Sand Dunes via Medano Pass does not have a ranger pavilion at the park entrance. Drivers are asked to visit the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center to pay the entrance fee. Entrance fees directly provide for maintenance and improvements to the park and preserve.

Waypoints

1. Trailhead (0.00 mi)

Shortly after FS Road 559 enters the National Forest a land use information sign is found at the trailhead. The meadow before the trailhead offers great free dispersed camping with possible access for small travel trailers and RV's. Stay on FS Road 559 heading west.

2. Optional Climb (0.30 mi)

At this point the trail splits briefly. to the left line is a smooth and easy bypass while the right line is slightly more difficult with a steeper climb and loose rocks.

3. Scenic Waypoint (1.80 mi)

The beauty of the lush Wet Mountain Valley can be seen looking back to the east as the trail climbs to the top.

4. National Preserve Boundary (1.90 mi)

A gate can be found at this point designating the border to the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve. OHV access is prohibited from this point on. Only street legal registered vehicles are permitted on the trail.

5. Medano Lake Trailhead (2.40 mi)

The trail intersects with FS Road 559.1 to the north. This spur road leads to a hiking trail where the high alpine Medano Lake can be accessed. Continue due west on FS Road 559.

6. Water Crossing (3.30 mi)

The first of nearly a dozen water crossings along the trail. These water crossings can be fairly deep during Spring runoff and remain so well through the summer. Drive slowly and know your vehicles limitations to prevent damage while crossing. All water crossings along the trail generally will be about the same depth.

7. Medano Fire Burn Area (4.70 mi)

The trail passes through some sections of forest that were burned in a 6,249 acre wildfire in 2010.

8. Dispersed Camping (5.80 mi)

Excellent free designated camping spots are found along the trail inside the Preserve, 21 in all. These spots are marked by a sign post with a tent symbol and a number designation. They include a steel fire ring and a bear-proof locker for campers to store food inside of. These spots are first come, first served and do not require reservations.

9. Dispersed Camping 2 (7.20 mi)

Another example of the excellent camping spots found within the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.

10. National Park Boundary (8.00 mi)

At this point the trail enters Great Sand Dunes National Park. There is no Ranger present at this boundary. Entrance fees to the National Park can be paid at the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center. More information can be found here with the National Park Service.

11. Sand Dunes (9.20 mi)

At this point the dunes come into full view and the trail surface changes drastically, turning into loose sand. Make sure vehicle tire pressures are lowered appropriately to ensure that it won't sink into the sand.

12. Castle Creek Picnic Area With Modern Pit Toilet (10.70 mi)

A great area to stop for a break or lunch, Castle Creek picnic area offers a modern pit toilet and and easy access to the dunes and beach-like setting of Medano Creek.

13. End of Trail (12.80 mi)

The trail ends as the road turns to pavement. Nearby is established RV camping at Pinion Flats Campground and the National Park Visitor Center can be found by continuing southeast along the paved road.

Directions to Trailhead

Trailhead Coordinates: 37.863090, -105.409850

Starting Point: Westcliffe, CO

From Westcliffe: Head south on CO Highway 69 for 24 miles. Turn right on FS Road 559. Follow signs for Medano Pass and Great Sand Dunes National Park. Take FS Road 559 west for 7.4 miles. Trailhead is located on FS Road 559 at the Forest Service information sign. If you enter Great Sand Dunes National Park through Medano Pass, be sure to pay the entrance fee to the park on your way out.

Camping

Dispersed
Designated

Medano Pass offers many options for camping for those who visit the area. Free dispersed camping with stone fire rings can be found along the trail in the national forest outside of Great Sand Dunes National Preserve. Inside the National Preserve camping is limited to 21 numbered and marked camp sites that are offered free of charge. These camp sites offer steel fire rings and bear-proof cabinets to store food. Inside Great Sand Dunes National Park there is an established RV friendly campground at Pinon Flats that can be reserved for a fee. Camping outside of Pinon Flats campground is prohibited inside of the National Park.

Camping: Medano Pass

Trail Reviews (26)

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
We camped a few miles in at one of the designated spots just outside the park. Very windy but otherwise a great place to camp. The sand in the park was soft but not too bad. All the creek crossings were 18” or less. The trail is very tight on the west side though. I put limb risers on and I was glad I did. Definitely got some pinstriping still.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Per the National Park Service: The road is now fully OPEN all the way over the pass. Sandy sections of the road beyond Point of No Return are somewhat soft. Some high-clearance 4WD vehicles will need to drop tire pressure to 20 psi to drive through the sand.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Temporary Closure
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Update from the National Park Service as of 8/2/19: Lower portions of the road on the west side the range have extensive damage from recent flash flooding. As a result, 5.2 miles of the road are currently CLOSED between the entrance of the road near Piñon Flats Campground and the park/preserve boundary. Parking areas at Point of No Return, Sand Pit and Castle Creek are not currently accessible by vehicle. The road is still OPEN from State Highway 69 to Medano Pass and down the west side of the range to the park/preserve boundary. Crews are working to repair the road, but there is no estimated time for reopening.

Author:
Status: Impassable
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Trail is washed out with 5'-6' deep trenches carved out from a flash flood on the 23rd by the "deep sand area". Multiple washed out areas with quick sand in the road. All river crossings are passable.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Temporary Closure
Offroaded on:
Rating:
The road is now CLOSED at the western entrance of the road, and at Medano Pass. The road has extensive damage from heavy thunderstorms the night of July 23. Crews are working to repair the road, but there is no estimated time for reopening

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Ran from the center of the park up northeast to highway 69. No problem in the sand at 15psi. Water crossings are free of debris and never went above floorboards. Thanks to those who cleared this trail out. It is a must-run for scenery and landscapes.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Reported as open 7/16/19: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/medano-pass-road.htm

Author:
Status: Partially Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Still only open from the West to the 4th crossing. Fairly busy, even with it closed, about 50% of the campsites where in-use. First time on the trail, wish I had the time to explore from the east.

Author:
Status: Partially Open
Offroaded on:
From the east. Soft sand and easy water crossings. Trail closed at six miles in. Buggy

Author: Official Crew
Status: Partially Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Per the National Park Service: updated June 21, 2019 The road is currently open only to the 4th creek crossing, 6.4 miles from the western entrance of the road. Only 10 campsites in Medano Canyon are currently accessible by vehicle. The road has had extensive damage from very high runoff, and repairs are underway. On the east side of the range, the road is still closed at Muddy Creek. The road will not open all the way over the pass until repairs can be completed. Snowpack was over 160% of average, resulting in heavy runoff this year.

Author:
Status: Seasonal Closure
Offroaded on:
From the website, verified in person: The road is currently open only to the first creek crossing, 4.5 miles from the western entrance of the road. Campsites in Medano Canyon are NOT currently accessible by vehicle. Creek flow is now over 50 cubic feet per second (cfs), mandating closure of the road to prevent vehicles being washed downstream.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Partially Open
Offroaded on:
From the National Park Service Website as of today 6/1/19: The road is currently open up to the 4th Medano Creek crossing, 4.5 miles from the western entrance of the road. Ten campsites in Medano Canyon are accessible by vehicle. Higher up there are a few snowdrifts on the road, and the roadbed is washing out from high runoff. On the east side of the range, the road is still closed at Muddy Creek. Water crossings are about 20 inches (50cm) deep. Sometime in the next 1-2 weeks, the road may be closed before the first creek crossing due to dangerously high water. The road will not open all the way over the pass until after flow has peaked, sometime in June. Snowpack is over 160% of average.

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Spoke to Park Officials today and while the pass is currently open, they will be closing in the next week or 2 due to dangerous high levels of snow melt.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Partially Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Road conditions per the National Park Service as of 4/26/19: "The road is now open up to the 4th Medano Creek crossing, 4.5 miles from the western entrance of the road. 10 campsites in Medano Canyon are now accessible by vehicle. Beyond the 4th crossing there are snowdrifts, so the road is gated at that location. On the east side of the range, the road is still closed at Muddy Creek. The first creek crossing is currently 14-16 inches deep and slowly rising from snowmelt. Sandy sections of the road beyond Point of No Return are relatively moist from recent rain. Most high-clearance 4WD vehicles are making it through the sand without dropping tire pressure. If you drop air pressure, the air station at the beginning of the road is open to refill tires after returning from the sand." https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/medano-pass-road.htm

Author: Official Crew
Status: Partially Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Per the National Park Service: Medano Pass road is open to the National park boundary only from the west. This is Waypoint #10 in the trail guide. This access is only from the west side within Great Sand Dunes National Park. The road remains closed from the Westcliffe side. https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/medano-pass-road.htm

Author:
Status: Seasonal Closure
Offroaded on:
Went to go run this pass to head to the Dunes but the trail was closed (probably for the best, as there was already lots of snow before the trail head). Ended up camping just before the trail head where there was a really wide area for multiple vehicles to camp. At the dune's it was gated off inside the park at the end-of-trail way point.

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Trail was clear over the weekend, just a little mud and low water. One crossing was deep enough to come up to the running boards of my stock Ford Raptor. Trail is a little narrow for a Raptor or Super Duty on the west side, but passable with some pinstripes, everyone else should be good.

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Drove the pass east to west, starting in Westcliffe as instructed. Do not follow the way that google maps tells you to access the trailhead, it was not reliable. If you follow the instructions on this site they were accurate to the tenth of a mile. Just reset the odometer and you're good to go. The water crossings were all manageable with my stock 2006 Honda Ridgeline. It sounds like they would be much more challenging in spring and early summer. My truck has 8.2 inches of ground clearance, so I was mindful of choosing my path throughout the primitive pass and did not have any major issues. There were 2 sections that I briefly walked before driving to identify all the obstacles and find the best path. I only rubbed the bottom twice, once on an initial incline and hairpin turn combination, and once on a rock towards the end of the trail, nothing of significance though. It seemed like the first couple miles were more challenging than I had expected with some intense climbs and tight curves. I started driving the road around 7pm so the sun was down and getting darker fast. I would not recommend running it in the dark since it added difficulty and made it less scenic. The sand portion at the end was a relief and fun to drive this time of year. Make sure to bring a tire pressure gauge with you to drop to 20psi and then there is a free air pump located after the first left when you get to the pavement. Note: Hunting season is in full swing during the fall months. When we arrived we talked to one of the rangers who emphasized how important it is to wear orange if you're doing any sort of hiking. Lots of the campsites were occupied with hunters but there were still plenty of dispersed spots to choose from.

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
This is one of my favorite trails out here yet. The beauty and the variety of challenges. Ran it east to west. Fun slightly challenging hill climb at the beginning, a few stream crossings and sand at the end. The stream crossings were all pretty low except the first from the east. It was up to my knees if you stayed in the track. It was absolutely beautiful slowly coming down off the pass into the valley towards the dunes. You will get some trail striping it gets tight at times. Amazing campsites all along the pass although once your in the sand dunes park its forest service camping. Still free but defined sites. Would totally recommend this trail. Great way to see the sand dunes for the first time. Ran it in a stock Grand Cherokee.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
This is an awesome 4x4 road suitable for stock-height Jeeps and SUVs. We camped on the trailhead Tuesday evening and drove the pass early Wednesday morning while it was relatively cool. The deepest water crossing is at Waypoint 6, which was 15-16 inches deep on June 12th. We played on the dunes and Castle Creek for about an hour--very little traffic on a weekday.

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
A group of 4 mostly stock trucks from the Pueblo West Amateur Radio Club did this trek on a busy Saturday. It's a fun trip, but not nearly as scenic as before the 2010 wildland fire. Much of the trail passes through the burn scar so one is exposed not having the shade of yesteryear. The aspens are doing a good job of recovering, but the once beautiful forest is now just open bushy areas. Besides the advertised camping sites in the park, there are a few dispersed sites along the trail just outside the park on the NE side of the pass. There is also a big open camping area where the road transitions from a washboard dirt road to 4wd road and enters the forest. This is just east of the junction of 559 and 559.1

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Medano Pass was announced open by the Park Service on May 1, and I ran it on May 6, starting at the Sand Dunes and ending at Highway 69. The road was in good shape and I found it a pretty easy trail. The sand was still a little wet from a snowstorm a few days earlier (all melted by the time I was there), and I had no problems in the sand with the 35s on my Jeep aired down to their normal offroad pressure of 15psi. The creek crossings were all pretty low due to extremely low snow pack (the Park Service website said 10% of normal). The furthest east one was the deepest, around hub deep. There were a sections with small rocks on the east side of the pass, but still easy, before the trail turned into a 2WD dirt road out to the highway. Fun trail with great views of the Sand Dunes. I'd love to go back when I have more time to explore some of the side trails and hiking options.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Seasonal Closure
Offroaded on:
As of January 1st 2018, Medano Pass road is officially listed as closed for the season per the National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/medano-pass-road.htm#Current

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
The road to the gate is very rough, rain has really done a number on this road. The first water crossing was the widest and the highest. I would not advise with a stock vehicle. Fall colors just starting to come out, probably a week to early for the full effect. Trail was moderately busy more so as we got closer to the dunes and the camping areas. Overall a great trail and some fantastic scenery.

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
We ran the trail from the dunes headed east. Airing down for the sand is always advised. I dropped to about 20psi and had zero issues. I was a bit surprised there was such little activity on the trail for a Saturday in late August. We camped about a mile from the Sand Pit waypoint; it was nice and secluded and all marked site's had bear boxes and grated fire pits. In the evening we continued east out of camp and up the pass. All water crossings we encountered (save one) were pretty tame, slow flow, and no more than 12-14 inches deep. Then we came up on the last (first if you run east to west) water crossing, shown as waypoint 4 in this guide. This water crossing was much deeper and longer than any of the others. I waded out up to my thighs and wasn't even to the deepest part yet. Water at this crossing is still at least 2 feet deep. We turned back at this point and headed back to camp.

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Started by airing down slightly as soon as we got off the Highway 69. The road up to the first gate is is rough shape there have been heavy rains recently. The road was damp which was a plus to help with dust control.. Between the lower gate and upper gate the road was damp that showed signs of heavy rain and some wash outs. There was puddles in the low spots of the trail. from the upper gate to the first water crossing was not bad at all . just some puddles in the trail from the heavy rains. The first water crossing was the deepest. Made it through with no issues at all. We had a few rigs in our group the got some water inside there vehicle. Our jeep had 4" lift with 33" tires and the water was just a little below the front bumper. Through the burn area there is a section that was washed out in the spring and the trail was re-routed. The burn area is probably the roughest part of the trail. There is another water crossing that had some logs in the trail that someone put there for traction. This could be a little tricky area for stock vehicles. From the last water crossing to the dunes was smooth sailing. By the time we headed back out the same way we came in the trail was dry and a lot of the puddles had dried up. The afternoon clouds started rolling in and we did have a hail but didn't last very long. It turned out to be a great day of wheeling..

Questions & Answers (3)

Q: We are looking at taking the pass later this year (Early September) from Hwy 69 into the park. (Assuming it is fully repaired by then.) I understand a vehicle sticker is NOT required if driving though and NOT camping / staying over night... can any confirm this is correct? P.S. Spoke with the visitors center at GSD Natl' park and they stated a pass was not required. (Just want to confirm this!) They also mentioned that work is being carried out CURRENTLY on the trail, with hopes of reopening soon...
–Ryan Guthrie (08/06/2019)
A: From a legality standpoint and from what I have been told previously by staff at the Great Sand Dunes NP Vehicles coming over Medano from Hwy 69 are on an honor system to pay a National Park Entrance Fee at the Visitor's Center or the west entrance. If the National Park staff are telling you otherwise I would just use your best discretion as to what you want to do.
–Greg Stokes (08/06/2019)
Q: I'm planning on hiking Mt. Humbolt with friends next weekend (June 15th 2019) and we wanted to head to the Great Sand Dunes after. Do you know if Medano Pass will be open next week and if so how high will the river crossing be after the large snowpack year? Any updates on the trail status would be helpful. If it's closed, is there any alternative routes to the Sand Dunes besides all the way around on Hwy 160 (is that the fastest route)?
–Dan Wise (06/05/2019)
A: Hello Dan, With the high snowpack this year it will definitely be a gamble as to whether Medano will be open or not. Peak runoff is occurring and the US Forest Service and the National Park closes Medano during this time to protect the trail. I'll check as often as I can as your trip comes up to make sure if it does open up the guide will reflect it. I'm excited to run Medano also it's one of my family's go-to camping trips. If in the event Medano is not open I do not readily see another option looking at the Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Map. I will contact the local ranger district tomorrow and and inquire further.
–Greg Stokes (06/05/2019)
Q: Just got off the phone with Sand Dunes NP staff asking about conditions for this weekend and they mentioned that Medano Pass is closed for the season. Can we update this trail page or verify that it has seasonal closures?
–Max (11/29/2018)
A: Thanks for the info Max. Medano Pass is closed for the Winter. I updated the trail guide to reflect.
–Greg Stokes (12/04/2018)
A: Not an answer but more information since I cant edit my original question. This link here states (as of today 11/29/18) that it is closed at the picnic area which is waypoint 12. https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/medano-pass-road.htm
–Max (11/29/2018)

Writer Information

Greg Stokes

Mapping Crew - Colorado

Greg Stokes Is a Colorado native, born and raised in Colorado Springs. He has been off-roading since childhood, his parents say his first trip was a Jeep run over Medano Pass when he was only 14 Months old. Greg has been at the wheel of everything from dirtbikes, ATV's, early Jeep CJ5's that he has restored, Wranglers, and presently explores in a 1997 80 Series Toyota Land Cruiser and a 2016 Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle. Greg is a proud Husband and Father of 3. His passion in the off road world is the vehicle-reliant world of Overlanding. He hopes to one day make it to Canada to Explore the Yukon and Northwest territories.
For individual use only, not to be shared.