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Road: Medano Pass & Medano Primitive Road: High Clearance 4x4 only (NO AWD Subaru - rent a Jeep)
Stream crossings: 12 on trail, 9 on road
With the San Juan Forest closed, where the majority of my unclimbed 13ers are, I had to find another spot to hike something new. Herard and Medano looked like a good combo to start off the season, and not some 20 mile+ 6K day like most of my 13er plans! Anastasia had mentioned that the road wasn't that bad, so on the fly, I decided to extend my trip by a day and drive the road down to Sand Dunes NP for a little relaxation.
Since I was approaching from Westcliffe, google maps took me along a convoluted approach to Medano Pass. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, as if you miss a turn and ignore the signs, you'll find yourself on private property fast. The signs designating the private property involved a few with target practice on trespassers. I found it enjoyable and the road was easy after the initial washboard. Great views of the Crestones along the way too. Once on 559, the road gets much rougher and lives up to its high clearance 4WD reputation. Even had to gun it up a really steep hill in one spot. At the top of the pass, you enter into Sand Dunes National Preserve. A short descent later, and I found the road to the trailhead. I ended up camping at the last spot along the river, right next to the trailhead. Nice and shady to keep the new fridge in my truck cooler, so it wouldn't use as much external battery power.
I had wanted to get started at civil twilight, as there was some threat of thunderstorms after noon, but it just didn't happen. Thankfully my pace on the approach made up for the delay of an hour or so. Summer packs are soooo much lighter without all the ski gear from spring! Right after the trailhead came the first of 6 Medano creek crossings on the way up. For the next mile or so, there was also quite a few downed trees to climb over or crawl under. Some guy in the trailhead register mentioned that his girlfriend got tired. No shit, up and over trees is exhausting! Thankfully it didn't continue for the entire trail, at least not the bad tall downed trees that required lots of effort.
Even though the area is currently abnormally dry, the explosion of wildflowers was positively distracting! I didn't catalog all of the varieties, as I wouldn't have made it up to the saddle before noon! I'm using a new 18-150mm lens and didn't pack any others, hoping it would suffice for all my needs. Overall I think it did a great job on the macro flowers and wildlife zooms, but I will have to carry a better macro for some flower shots. Hopefully that lens is the smallest one!
Part way up I got a view out of the trees up to the saddle area before diving back into the trees until I reached the Medano Lake area.
At the lake I was taking a bunch of photos of the area, and that's when I noticed the 4 legged inhabitants of the area! I took one step towards them, and they jumped into the lake and swam to the other side. After I watched them clamber their way up the opposing slope, I started my way up the wildflower slope on the opposite side. Even that side had its own elk, who was calling to his friends on the other side. With all these distractions, I missed the trail (since it's swallowed up by willows and not highly visible anyway) and just made my way up amongst the wildflowers.
Once I got high enough, I met up with the trail, and noted where it met the lower lake trail.
It was a steep climb on loose trail gravel rock, but eased as I made my way up to the upper meadow basin. The trail contours high on the Medano Peak side as it makes its way up to the saddle.
The wind had been picking up steadily as I left treeline by the lake, but as soon as I made the saddle, it hit me full force. The hike up to Herard is short but steep initially before it levels off just below the broad summit plateau. Got a nice view of Medano Lake from the notch in the rugged ridgeline.
The summit plateau of Herard is so broad, you have to walk to it's edges to get the good views. So I walked over to the far edge by the Dunes to get the classic view. With all the smoke in the west, the views of the Blanca group were pretty obscured. I smelled smoke most of the morning, but the wind swept most of that away in the afternoon. I spent an hour on the summit of Herard, since I had made decent time on the way up, summitting around 9:30am (about 3 hours up!)
Tagging on Medano Peak is pretty easy and fast, though the wind had picked up a lot by this time, and so my summit stay was much shorter since I was getting cold. Spotted even more Elk on a nearby rounded 12er. Liking the zoom lens! Not as zoomy as some of my others, but a lens on a camera is better than one in the bag, when one wants to capture something quickly!
It was a fairly quick hike back down to the saddle and down the trail back to the trailhead. My feet were a bit sore by the end, so I decided to keep my same camp spot instead of going down the road to find another. Didn't want to risk finding a worse spot, if enough people were coming up on a Friday night. I had easy access to Medano Creek to ice my feet and ankles, and it was reasonably quiet, until my neighbors showed up with their screeching kids. But as that was just before dusk, I would be hitting the sleeping bag soon after anyway with my ear plugs. Plus I had cold fridge drinks to keep me happy all evening!
I got up Saturday morning around the same time, since I wanted to see if there was a good sunrise (wasn't) and to drive down the narrow rough road before all the other off-roaders. Off-roaders are usually lazy and sleep in. This way I wouldn't have to find pull-outs and scratch up the truck. This road is no joke, and shouldn't be attempted by anything other than a high clearance 4WD. Don't bother with your Subaru, it won't make it. (I have a 3.6R Subaru and I won't risk it) Rent a Jeep! It's not just the road, but the stream crossings and the soft sand patches.
The first stream crossing (or crossing #9 as labeled from the NP) was the deepest, and it kissed the bottom of my 2.5" lifted Taco's bumper! And this is a low stream year! After that crossing, they got progressively easier and shallower.
Just before I reached the last crossing, another Toyota was coming up out of the stream on the other side. So with me being the downhill traffic, I back up and get myself into a good pull out. I sit and wait. For many minutes. I had waved them up... why aren't they coming? I honked my horn. Nothing. Hmmm. So I started driving down, totally expecting the other vehicle to start up again. Well, they weren't on the other side, and I never saw the vehicle again! They drove the entire sandy section, got to the stream crossings and rocky part, saw me and turned around and went back to the Dunes. Weird!
There are lots of signs posted about airing down ones tires to 15-20psi. Anastasia mentioned that she didn't need to in her truck. The NP website mentioned that after the recent rain, that the soft sand patch north of Castle Creek was easier, but that was a week ago. I figured I was early enough, if I got stuck, I could quickly air down and get myself out. My Taco tires are around 26psi, versus my 3.6R at 36psi, so I was hoping I was close enough to the desired rating to make it. As I went through the worst soft sand section, I did notice a bit of fish tailing, even in 4Lo, but I made it. Likely because I was going downhill through the sand, versus up. There is a compressor at the NP side of the road, but not at the Medano Pass side. So bring a compressor if you go the opposite direction! (Note: The compressors that come in the emergency kits are sloooooooooow. Be patient)
I thoroughly enjoyed my drive down to the Sand Dunes. I checked out a few of the stops and trailheads along the way. Had to take my Taco promotional photos, since I love my 16 year old baby!
I figured my stay at the Dunes themselves would be short, since weather was supposed to arrive this afternoon at the latest. So I didn't hike up to High Dune or any other high point, since I've done all 3 named/ranked dunes in the park already. I just relaxed and walked around the lower dune area, watching everyone else play on their dune boards. The Medano creek is completely dry at this point, which is sad, since it's really nice to walk in the stream on the sand.
When the clouds got bleak and the sand was blasting my feet and lower legs, I left the Dunes and headed home. 10/10 would do this trip again!
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
12ersRule - Sangres have certainly been one of the best ranges for me. Lots of good rock and great views.
Doug - Hiking, what happens when I can't ski! Some amazing flowers out there now!
Trotter - Saturday would not have been a great day to do this hike. It was raining at the Dunes by 10:30am, and Herard clouded up before that. There's always this weekend!
Abe - I am loving the fridge! Makes bum life easier. Since I'm short the fridge and battery fits easily behind my seat. My passenger seat is all the way back, and the fridge would still fit. The fridge when empty is very easy to move around, almost like a cooler in weight. I'm able to run it on 12V through the truck while driving, and only have to use the external battery when hiking/camping/sleeping. So for 3 nights and 2.5 days I used about 73% of my battery (based on refill time). The hotter the ambient truck temp, the more the fridge has to run. So parking in the shade is imperative. Solar panels are on the wish list, since I like my +6 day trips in the SJ's. Goal Zero Battery - Dometic Fridge/Freezer
Rob - Yep, freeeee entrance.
Jay - Good to see you back out at it too! Hopefully soon I'll be back to my usual distance and elevation gain ratings.
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