Feature > Backcountry Adventures
Colorado’s Great Beach
by Angela Titus
photography by Peter Massey
Snowmelt in early spring feeds Medano Creek and can make crossings impassable without a lifted vehicle.
There is sand four-wheeling in Colorado. In fact, Colorado’s 750-foot Great Sand Dunes are the tallest dunes in North America — and they are massive! This unusual dune system covers 39 square miles, and a four-wheel-drive trail remains open within the dune system (which recently achieved National Park status).
This strange desert-in-the-oasis was developed thousands of years ago when the Rio Grande River changed course. Sand and silt deposits left by the river were blown by southwesterly winds across the San Luis Valley. Hitting a mountain barrier, the wind dropped the deposits at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This is the process that built the dunes — and they’re still growing.
Medano Creek flows along the east side of the dunes during spring and early summer.
The dunes became a national monument in 1932. It became Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve on September 14, 2004. You’ll have to leave the sand rails, dune buggies, and ATVs at home, unfortunately, but the 4WD trail that runs through the dunes is spectacular and fun in its own right.
There is a park entrance fee to complete the Medano Pass Trail, but the experience is well worth the cost. The trail is easy at first — but it becomes rough and narrow as the road switchbacks toward Medano Pass. Beyond the pass are several creek crossings, which can get deep in early spring from snowmelt in the mountains. After rainfall, use caution as the road becomes boggy.
Medano Creek crossing at Big South Canyon.
Massive scale of the dunes becomes evident as the trail draws closer.
The steep-sided dune known as Castle Creek Wall towers above Medano Pass Trail.
Just before entering the park, patches of sand on the trail increase. In this area, soft and treacherous sand often covers the tracks intersecting the main road.
After entering the Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve, the road travels within yards of the towering dunes. The dunes are amazing. Keep in mind that getting bogged in the soft, deep sand is exceedingly easy, but it’s just a short walk from here to the creek and face of the dunes.
Sand dunes stand incongruously beside the 13,000-foot (and higher) Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Lower tire pressure to avoid getting bogged down. Tires can be pumped up at a compressed-air station near the end of the trail.
Within the park are several campsites, and you can hike the dunes to your heart’s content. But be aware: for every two steps up the face of a dune, you’ll slide back one. In the summer, Medano Creek, which flows over the sand, is a good place to build a sandcastle.
As the trail proceeds, the sand gets progressively worse. Signs near the most difficult section warn to lower tire pressures. Tires can be pumped back up at the compressed-air station near the end of the trail.
Overlooking the trail ahead snaking through Hayden Creek Valley and ending in the town of Coaldale.
A section of easy shelf road on the east side of Hayden Pass.
The Hayden Pass Trail is the quickest way to get back to where you started. The trail starts out in Villa Grove, once an important supply center for the Bonanza mining district. The trail is easy to navigate, but has a few steep sections on the east side that are rough and require high clearance. The trail passes the Rainbow Trail, a 55-mile hiking trail, and two USFS campgrounds before ending in Coaldale.
Information on driving these trails and hundreds more is available in “4WD Adventures: Colorado” and “4WD Trails: South Central Colorado” guidebooks. Detailed trail directions, GPS coordinates, maps, and color photos ensure you’ll never get lost. Fascinating descriptions reveal little-known facts about ghost towns, mines, and other amazing sites on the trails. Purchase these trail guides at www.4wheelparts.com, 4Wheel Parts retail stores, and local book and map stores. For more information, call 866-SUV-TRIP. s
Hayden Pass Trail climbs out of the forest to nearly 11,000 feet at Hayden Pass.
Trees at Hayden Pass are stunted and bowed from the wind and harsh growing conditions at timberline.
Great Sand Dunes peaking above the horizon on Medano Pass Trail.