Medano Peak (UN13,153) is a stiff Class 2 hike that should be paired with the Class 2 Mt. Herard. There is a fairly lengthy trail approach to these two summits, a beautiful, classic Colorado lake setting and a grand view of the Great Sand Dunes and the San Luis Valley from the summits. The only down side? The trailhead is accessible to only 4WD with good ground clearance and a fairly long driving approach. Wildlife viewing on the trail may be quite good.
The best and easiest access to the Medano Lake Trail is from the east side of Medano Pass. To get there, make your way to either Westcliffe or Walsenburg. From Westcliffe, drive south on CO 69 for 24.7 miles (mileages may vary) to a marked turnoff on the west side of the highway for Medano Pass. This would be CR559 to Creager Reservoir and beyond.
From I-25 north of Walsenburg, take exit #52 west and turn onto SH69 that goes to Gardner. Begin measuring where the highway in Gardner makes a jog to the south, then back west. Continue following CO 69 for 9.4 miles NW to the same signed turnoff as coming from Westcliffe, CR559.
For both accesses, proceed west on CR559 which will head generally WNW past Creager Reservoir, (Private) then turn more to the west to begin the climb to Medano Pass. At 7.2 miles from CO69, CR559 will come to an area of multiple roads turning off including FR412. Stay left on what will now be FR559 to Medano Pass, another 1.8 miles. There is some good camping at this intersection and just before. The last quarter mile before the intersection was a little rough and rocky but still passable for passenger cars.
The last two miles to the pass are the only part that require 4WD and in 2004 and again in 2019, we did not find it either too slow or difficult to drive, but steep in sections with numerous berms. Driving the road at night can be a little tricky because of the sharp switchbacks. The only problems were some potholes. From the wooded summit of the low pass, continue SW through a gate marking the boundary for the Great Sand Dunes Monument for .6 mile to an intersection. Turn right and drive a short distance to the trailhead. There is a small sign at the intersection. There are a couple campsites with firerings as you drive in, but without facilities here. Bear boxes are provided. You are now in the Great Sand Dunes National Park. No permit is required to camp in this location as of 2018. We'll call this the "Medano Pass/Creek Campsite."
Some points about the Medano Creek trail: We hiked much of this trail in the summer of 2019. Be advised that from the trailhead parking area, you must immediately cross Medano Creek and there is no bridge or set of logs to assist. Be prepared to wade. At 1.5 miles up the trail, it crosses over to the north side of the stream on a sturdy log-built bridge. The next crossing back to the south side of the stream is at 1.4 miles farther up. There will be a minor tributary to cross before reaching the main fork about 100 yards later. There were some logs to assist with this crossing as well, but not as nicely built. After that crossing, the trail gains significant elevation, winding through some nice areas of bluebells and delphinium. After a set of 4 switchbacks, the trail will pass the bottom of a couloir/runout. If you're interested in going up UN12,925, it may be tempting to leave the trail here and head up, but be patient. Keep going to these coordinates and a second clearing along the trail a few hundred yards later: N 37° 51' 38.0 W 105° 28' 35.6"; elevation 11,200 ft. If continuing up the trail for Herard and Medano Peak, the trail will cross back to the north side of the stream again at about 11,400 ft. to finish the trip to the lake.
The main Medano Pass road continues west on out to the park visitor center and main campground, several slow miles away. When you are done with your hike/climb, if you want to continue driving this road, be advised of the following: 1. There are some "backcountry campsites" along the way that a permit may be required for. 2. The road initially goes fairly speedily, but you'll soon encounter rocky stretches that will slow progress considerably. 3. Farther down the road, as it begins to come near the sand dunes, it will become quite sandy and tricky to drive, especially with some vehicles approaching from the other direction. You'll want to keep your vehicle moving whenever and wherever possible as stopping may prove to make it difficult to get moving again in the sand. At times, this lower section of road becomes impassable, either because of the sand or because Medano Creek is flowing high. You should not attempt to drive this without checking with the park first. If driving this road north from the park entrance and the visitor center, you will cross Medano Creek 8 times. In the high runoff part of the season, a couple of the crossings may be impossible to make because the water is so high. Therefore, if driving to the trailhead from this direction, it is definitley best to wait until the runoff has subsided. Go to the park website at: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/index.htm for more information or call the headquarters at 719-378-6395. Rumor has it that the park levies heavy fines for vehicles that get stuck. ATV's and similar vehicles are not allowed.
If coming from the north end of the San Luis Valley on US 285, follow US 285 south to Poncha Pass from Poncha Springs, and continue south to Villa Grove. Five miles south of Villa Grove, turn off to the left onto SH17, which is the more direct route to Alamosa. It's 30 miles to Hooper (you may nearly miss this little town) and from Hooper, continue south another 6 miles to County Road 6N where you will turn left (east). Drive 16.4 miles east to where 6N intersects with SH150. Make a left and drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance.
See above. The national park has a full-service type campground but without hookups: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/pinonflatscampground.htm. Follow this link for other camping information outside the park: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/area-campgrounds.htm.
From the trailhead, the Medano Lake trail makes a wide, sweeping arc, first heading NW, then west, then SW to Medano Lake over 3.5 miles, with a little under 2,000 feet of elevation gain, so most of the trail gradient is relatively easy. This trail hike offers several wild game viewing opportunities. We had not been on the trail for more than a few minutes when we encountered a large group of wild turkeys. Farther on, there was a cow elk grazing in a stand of thick aspens, grouse and high on the peak, ptarmigan.
In 2004, a small bridge took us across Medano Creek at about 9,700 feet. That bridge was not there in 2019, so we had to immediately wade the stream from the parking/kiosk area. For the next mile, the trail is an old jeep track (but now barely recognizable as such) that passes through classic Colorado forest of aspen, pines and wildflowers. In the first 1.5 miles, there is only about 600 feet in elevation gain. At about 10,120 feet, after passing through a nice meadow, the trail crosses Medano Creek on a sturdy log bridge, and then begins to gain more. Per a recent report from one of our site contributors, there has been a significant modification to this trail not shown on any maps including the one at the trailhead. It has been reported to us, and then verified by us on site, that at about 10,915 ft., the trail crosses from the north side of the creek to the south side (with a more makeshift log bridge assist) and gains a fair amount of elevation above the creek. At about 11,400 ft., the new trail section crosses back to the north side of the stream and finishes on the old trail to Medano Lake. The section of old trail on the north side of the creek that has been abandoned is largely unidentifiable. The new section on the south side is almost impossible to spot from the old trail because the new section lays higher above the creek. These changes are not shown on the large map at the trailhead. They are also not evident on the Trails Illustrated map, FSTopo 2016, USGS and certain GPS programs. Despite the changes, in about two hours, you should arrive at the beautiful Medano Lake, nestled in a great, glacial-carved cirque with sheer cliffs and rocky bluffs on three sides and soaring peaks. This is "classic" Colorado. Note that the map provided shows these changes and the trailhead plus the first two creek crossings have been field verified and you can obtain the coordinates from the map.
From perhaps a hundred yards or so before the lake outlet, we began the ascent to Medano Peak. Basically follow a steep, grassy, flower-laden slope NW past some scraggly trees aiming for the east ridge of Medano, high above. The grass and tundra continues for the most part all the way to the east ridge. If you intersect the east ridge just below 12,800 feet, then head on up the ridge through a minor rocky stretch. After that, the ridge moderates and you can finish on mostly tundra and embedded rock with minor amounts of rubble. The summit is uneventful but offers views into the San Luis Valley and lower Sand Creek drainage. Medano Peak is sequenced with Mt. Herard. It would hardly make sense to not continue on and bag the only other 13er in this group.