In a recent article ("Exploring Utah's Canyonlands," Sept. '04) we began a series on four-wheeling in the national parks. While it sounds like an oxymoron, for beginners and experienced wheelers alike, 4x4 trips in the national parks can provide plenty of excitement and adventure against a backdrop of the best scenery America has to offer. Yes, dreams of long expeditions to far-off places like Africa and South America always elevate our pulse rates, but frequently, time and financial constraints encourage us to find adventure a little closer to home.
For many people, the words "National Park" conjure up images of traffic jams in Yellowstone, or crowds of people clogging scenic overlooks at the Grand Canyon. We've discovered another side of the National Parks-a side that allows us to get away from the crowds in our four-wheel-drive expedition vehicles and enjoy our passions of four-wheeling, hiking, camping, photography and enjoying nature. With a little research, you can find adventure destinations and surprises in national parks you probably didn't even know existed.
Colorado's spectacular mountain roads, trails and 4x4 opportunities are well known, but did you know that Colorado is also where you will find the newest addition to U.S. National Park system and the tallest sand dunes in North America? Every time we visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, the image of North America's tallest sand dunes highlighted against a backdrop of snow-capped 14,000-foot peaks inspires us. Best of all, a moderate four-wheel-drive road provides easy access to the dunes and gives 4x4 enthusiasts an opportunity to develop skills driving in sand; and, depending on the season, numerous stream crossings and deep snow can provide additional challenges.
We visited the dunes in March after a relatively dry winter, and with the exception of the mountain peaks, the snow was gone. Your 4x4 will get you to the base of the dunes by taking the Medano Pass Primitive Road (Forest Service road 235), but leave the quads and bikes at home, since only street-legal vehicles are permitted on this road and no motorized vehicles are permitted off of Medano Pass Primitive Road. In the summer, this is an easy trail for the family rig, but in winter and early spring when the snow blows or the streams are full, conditions can be very challenging. Snowdrifts big enough to bury a Jeep and 2-foot-deep water crossings are not uncommon.
On a previous winter trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park in the EarthRoamer ER2K, the streams were all covered with ice and the weight of the ER2K crashed through most of the ice bridges. Lockers were required to climb the slippery banks on the opposite side of the steam after crashing through the ice. We never needed our winch, but there were plenty of good-sized trees to throw a strap around if winching had been necessary. It was fun, but winter is definitely not the time to take the family grocery-getter on the Medano Pass Primitive Road.
If you want to get away from the crowds and camp remotely, camping alongside the Medano Pass Primitive Road in the national preserve is permitted as long as existing camping spots are used and no vegetation is damaged. You must be in the national preserve and not in the national park. The boundary is marked and is located 5.2 miles from the west end of the road and 6.1 miles from the east end of the road. You must use existing fire rings and collect and burn only dead and down wood and your vehicle must be parked within 100 feet of the road.
If you want to stay in a developed campground, camping is available at Pinyon Flats campground year round, where there are 88 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Fire grates, picnic tables, flush toilets and drinking water are available. Winter temperatures average between 0 and 13 degrees Fahrenheit, and no electrical hook-ups are available, so a self-contained, four-season camper is highly recommended for winter visits. In the summer, daytime highs rarely reach 90 and nighttime lows can drop into the 40s. The campground is open year round, but nighttime temperatures were still getting near freezing during our March visit, so the dump station had not yet opened. With the dump station closed, we were more than a little happy to have a cassette toilet. We simply emptied our cassette into the campground toilets-no dump station required. The RVs in camp with conventional black-water systems had no way of emptying their tanks after they became full.
After watching the sun set behind the dunes, the fire was stoked in earnest and the steaks began to sizzle. The kids enjoyed roasting marshmallows over the fire and watching movies before retiring to the 'Roamer and dreams of adventure the following day.
The next morning we cooked a nice breakfast on the diesel stove and made our plans for the day. With the other RVs tethered to the pavement, we headed out the next morning on the Medano Pass Primitive Road for an afternoon of exploration. We quickly came to the point where the two-wheel-drive vehicles were relegated to a parking lot. After locking in the hubs and airing down, we dropped into four low and headed out through the sand.
This is a good place to let inexperienced four-wheelers get some practice driving in sand. Keeping up the momentum and not spinning tires is the key. With a steady foot on the accelerator pedal and the massive torque of the Power Stroke turbodiesel, we kept the 'Roamer rolling and made steady progress. After a few miles of sand driving, we parked and headed out on foot to explore the dunes. A cool stream of melted snow run-off from the nearby mountains was a refreshing contrast to the scorching solar-heated sand.
Climbing the dunes involved a continuous process of taking three steps forward and then sliding back two steps. It made for slow progress but it was a good workout. With no motorized vehicles permitted on the dunes, people used their ingenuity to develop alternative recreational methods. We were provided with ongoing entertainment by one couple skiing the dunes. Horses provided another mode of non-motorized transportation that looked a little more practical. After an afternoon of exploring and climbing the dunes we returned to EarthRoamer where lunch and cold drinks from the refrigerator along with the ample supply of water was greatly appreciated.
The latest addition to our National Park system has something for everyone and proves once again that the backcountry of our national parks is a great place to explore with a 4x4 vehicle. If you're looking for a tough challenge, tackle the park in the winter or early spring. If a fun family adventure is more your style, pack up the dog and kids and enjoy the park in the summer or fall.