Medano Pass

Westcliffe, Colorado (Huerfano County)

Last Updated: 05/20/2022
4.9 / 5 ( 45 reviews )
Zoom in to see trails...
Status:
Partially Open
Typically Open: 05/20 - 12/01
Permit Information: Permit Required - Click Here
Difficulty: 2-3
( EASY - MODERATE )
Length: 13.13 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

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

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. Water crossings along the route such as the one at Waypoint 6 can be deep in the late spring and early summer. Make sure to air down vehicle tires to aid in traversing the deep sand areas near Waypoint 11.

Technical Rating

MANDATORY
2
EASY
OPTIONAL
3
MODERATE
Dirt and/or rocky road. Potential rocks and/or tree stumps less than 8" tall and/or vertical ledges less than 9" tall and/or near vertical ledges or waterfalls less than 12" inches. Good tire placement likely. Can be steep but with good traction.
Read more about our rating system

Community Consensus

Be the first to start building the community consensus! Leave a trail review below!

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 run 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 sandier with frequent water crossings. Be aware - the water crossings can be 2-3 feet deep during the spring snowmelt 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 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 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 (0.3 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 (1.8 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 (1.9 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 (2.4 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 (3.3 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 (4.7 mi)
The trail passes through some sections of forest that were burned in a 6,249 acre wildfire in 2010.
8. Dispersed Camping (5.8 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 (7.2 mi)
Another example of the excellent camping spots found within the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.
10. National Park Boundary (8 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 (9.2 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 (10.7 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 (12.8 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

Starting Point: Westcliffe, Colorado

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 campsites offered free of charge. These campsites provide 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 (66)

Questions & Answers (4)

Q: Is this pass doable pulling an offroad capable camper? Only 14ft tail to tongue with plenty of clearance.
–Steve (03/08/2022)
A: Yes!! We've done it with our Opus group. Good times. I especially loved the sign that said 'trailers not recommended' as a line of off-road trailers rode past. Air down, and get ready for sand. https://youtu.be/ANBfSDO-30k from timecodes 0:45-2:45 is Medano pass/Great Sand Dunes
–Daniel Schuster (03/13/2022)
A: Steve, I believe that towing an offroad trailer through Medano is possible. There are no really aggressive corners or steep spots that will hold you up. My advice is to be aware of oncoming traffic on the trail and watch the soft sand on the west side of the trail with the additional weight and drag of a trailer. Have a great trip!
–Greg Stokes (03/09/2022)
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.