Mt. Herard of the Sangre de Cristo range soars a mile above the Great Sand Dunes in the San Luis Valley. Mt. Herard, is ranked the 359th highest peak in Colorado, is located in the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve and is administered by the National Park Service. The geology and history of the dunes can be read on the Great Sand Dunes website.
It is climbed less often than it's higher neighbors to the north - the Crestone Group, perhaps due to a 10 mile round trip with over 3,700 feet of elevation gain. Add to this a trailhead reachable only by a 4-wheel, high clearance vehicle and a summit not much over 13,000 feet.
That being said, this mountain is definitely worth the effort! The views north to the Crestone Group or south to the Blanca Group and the Great Sand Dunes are amazing.
Getting to the trailhead is a great 4-wheeling adventure. The Medano Lake trailhead is located on a spur north from the Medano Pass road about a half mile west of the pass.
Medano Pass road is accessible from the west via Great Sand Dunes National Park. Take a left turn onto an unpaved road from the main park road just past the water/air station. This is the beginning of the Medano Pass road. Park Rangers recommend lowering tire pressure to about 25psi to better maneuver in the sandy road. Follow this road up towards the pass past several nice meadows and camping sites with firepit grills. The turnoff for the trailhead is well signed to the left about a half mile below the pass. You will drive through Medano Creek 8 times on the way to the pass.
Medano Pass Road is accessible from the east via C.R. 559 and Highway 69. From the intersection of Highways 69 and 96 in Westcliffe, travel south on Highway 69 for approximately 24 miles and turn right on C.R. 559. C.R. 559 is signed for Medano Pass Road. You will travel approximately 7 miles to the forest boundary. The last two miles to the pass requires 4-wheel, high clearance due to a few rocky steep sections. At the pass you will drive through the back entrance to Sand Dunes National Park. About a half mile past the pass turn right at the well signed trailhead spur.
There was one water hole that was over a foot deep along this short spur to the trailhead. The bottom was solid in early July, 2005 but you may want to scout the depth. Beyond this water hole there are two great campsites with firepit grills that are filled first come. Beyond the second campsite the road becomes rough again but is manageable to the trailhead parking area.
It is highly recommended that you contact Great Sand Dunes National Park to assure the pass is not closed due to snow or high water at one of the 8 creek crossings west of the pass. The Park site also includes maps of the area and directions to the park.
There are two crossings, one in particular, within the Park, that can challenge avid 4-wheelers during heavy run off years. Proceed with caution and rely on your experience. These crossings will often have water rushing over the hood of your vehicle. Stalling in the crossings could be catastrophic for you and your vehicles interior and your vehicle's engine.
It is recommended that you attempt this summit towards the second half of summer to avoid peak runoff and to arrive from the east, climb the mountain and return to your vehicle, proceed west to the Park, reach the sand, lower your tire pressure and then air back up at the air station in the Park.
If you arrive to the trailhead via Great Sand Dunes National Park you will pay an entry fee. The fee was recently three dollars per person but current fees should be verified at the Great Sand Dunes National Park website.
The approach through the Medano Creek valley has several avalanche chutes and the trailhead would be difficult to reach in winter as the Park Service typically closes the Pass in winter due to snow and in spring due to high water at several creek crossings. The best time to attempt this hike/scramble is July - September. Backpacking is allowed in the National Preserve with a few decent camping spots near treeline at Medano Lake.
Conditions should be checked with the rangers at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
There are numbered free campsites located in the National Preserve along the west side of Medano Pass. Two are located along the trailhead spur within walking distance of the trailhead. There are a few well used camping areas along the east side of Medano Pass within the National Forest. Overnight camping is available within the Great Sand Dunes National Park in the Pinyon Campground for a fee. Current fees should be verified at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Ulysses Herard and family homesteaded along Medano Creek in the 1876 and maintained a ranch there until 1948. He lost most of his hearing as a young man when he was kicked in the jaw by a horse. He communicated with people by having them shout into a hollowed out cow horn that he held to his ear!