Fine Sand, Fine Scenery
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.
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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.