What happens when off-roading goes wrong? We found out when a normally straightforward 11-mile trail turned into a 24-hour ordeal.
In this article...
At the end of our last blog post, I left you on a cliffhanger. We were about to go off-roading on the Medano Pass Primitive Road in Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was late July 2019 and Diana's brother Jānis was still traveling with us on vacation. We hadn't had a chance to take Jānis off-roading yet, so we were all looking forward to this.
It was supposed to be a relatively easy and short trip. The reality was anything but.
We ended up stranded on the road, in an adventure that resulted in a 911 call to the Rangers and the trail being closed for several weeks.
Before we jump in, I want to give a little context in case you're new here. We love to go out on adventures. We love to explore - in fact, we're on a quest to explore all 419 National Park Units in the US. But above all, we try to be safe and responsible.
Even so, things can go wrong. We tried to make the best decisions we could with the information we had in the heat of the moment. For the most part, I think we did OK, but different choices could have changed the outcome - maybe for the better, maybe for worse.
I'm by no means an accomplished off-roader, but I have enough off-road trips under my belt to give me confidence in knowing what I and my vehicle can (and cannot!) do. And one of the things I've learned is to recognize when you're out of your depth and that it's better at that point to ask for help than risk making things worse.
We were well prepared in the truck, but nothing could have prepared us for what was about to happen.
While I've described our adventure in this blog post, I'd highly recommend watching the video for this one. We had cameras rolling most of the time and they captured the drama as it unfolded!
Before we left
Medano Pass Primitive Road is an 11 mile road that starts just north of the Visitor Center and winds its way all the way up to Medano Pass. Once you reach Medano Pass, you can either turn around and drive 11 miles back, or take a very long detour of over 90 miles via US-69. Assuming you drive there and back on the primitive road, the National Park Service estimates the drive takes 2.5 - 3 hours.
The road itself is passable only in summer months, and you'll need a vehicle with 4WD and high clearance to make it through some deep sandy sections. They recommend airing down tires to 20psi, so you'll need to carry a compressor to reinflate your tires at the end. It crosses Medano Creek 9 separate times, the level of which depends on recent rainfalls.
We felt we were well equipped. Our 2016 Ford F-150 has several modifications to improve its off-road capabilities - including suspension, brakes, tires, skid plates and more.
Furthermore, we always carry a good selection of off-road equipment to help us in an emergency situation - covering first aid, vehicle recovery, communication and essential supplies.
The Great Sand Dunes NPS website didn't list any alerts, but to be sure we dropped in at the Visitor Center and explained our plans to them. They confirmed that the latest information they had showed conditions were good - afternoon rains are common in Colorado but the forecast showed no cause for concern.
They gave us a paper copy of the map and mileage chart for the route, confirmed with us that our vehicle was capable, and sent us on our way.
After hiking and sandboarding on the dunes, we drove to the start of Medano Pass Primitive Road. As we were about to join the road, there was a truck coming the other way so we stopped to let them past.
It turned out to be one of the National Park Rangers, in a nicely equipped Ford Raptor. He stopped alongside us and we asked about conditions. He said everything looked good and told us to go and have fun!
Driving to Medano Pass
It started off well. The road winds alongside the dunes affording us some phenomenal views that many people will never see. And although we didn't see any, Big Horn Sheep roam in the area too.
One technique I've learned when off-roading alone is to avoid using driver aids or vehicle features prematurely. By keeping the truck in 2WD, you get a better feel for how much traction the tires have and I can quickly switch into 4WD if necessary. If conditions demand it, I can always engage 4WD Low or even the rear diff locker.
The only exception is if I see an obstacle where I might get stuck - then I'll equip 4WD and other settings if necessary. So we were pleased when we reached Medano Pass having driven the entire 11 miles in 2WD except for one very small section (appropriately called the Sand Pit) where I chose to engage 4WD to get us through.
Jānis hadn't been off-roading before so we had enjoyed the small creek crossings, beautiful scenery and general remoteness of the trail. In good spirits, we took some photos and then began the drive back.
Unfortunately, the way back wasn't as smooth.
After just a few miles it began to rain a little. Then the rain became harder - literally, as it began to hail!
The beauty of seeing the dunes covered in white snow or hail was matched only by the terrifying speed at which the trail began to disappear in front of us. The relatively smooth, dry, hard pack trail had turned into a river. Loose sand had become thick mud pools. And creek crossings just a few inches high were now flowing swiftly and getting deeper by the minute.
By this point we were around half way back on the trail, and made the decision to keep pushing on. We didn't know how quickly conditions might be deteriorating behind us, and turning around would have taken us further from the park and hence civilization. Plus, even if we reached the top, it would have been a 90 mile journey back to the start via US-69!
I was watching the sides of the trail keenly to gauge the water depth, forced to make quick decisions on whether to stop and lose my momentum or keep going. At times the trail was completely underwater as far as I could see before it turned a corner.
I'm not going to lie, we were all scared. It was terrifying. If we had stopped, the truck could easily have become completely stuck. If we kept going, what would we find?
Soon, we found out.
I brought the truck to an abrupt stop, knowing full well there was no way we could tackle the obstacle ahead of us.
We considered our options. It was raining heavily still. The path ahead was impassable. The path behind us was quickly washing out.
We had phones with AT&T, Verizon and Google Fi, but no signal on any of them. We tried calling for help on our CB and FRS / GMRS radios on several common channels. Nothing. I even tried calling CQ on my Ham HT radio. Nothing. We'd optimistically hoped someone in the campground a few miles ahead might have heard us, but no.
As the rain subsided we ventured out to assess the trail ahead. It was bad. It was washed out into ruts over 3 feet deep, but worse the landscaping fabric underneath had been exposed and undercut, and there was no way it would support the weight of the truck. We couldn't see any way around it other than driving across the brush but we were very reluctant to do that, not least because we were in a National Park.
In the end we made the decision to use our Garmin inReach Mini satellite communicator. We had bought it a few months prior and had been carrying it around but hadn't had to use it in an emergency yet. Rather than hitting the SOS feature, we chose instead to use it to text one of our Xscaper friends, Keri, and ask her to call for help.
Since it was 7pm, the Visitor Center was closed. So we agreed that Keri should call 911 on our behalf (the Rangers later confirmed this was the correct thing to have done in this situation). They set out to come and find us.
The truck was well stocked up. We had food and water, plus blankets and supplies if we needed to spend the night in the truck. We still had about 3/4 of a tank of gas, so we weren't in any immediate danger - nobody was injured, and the truck wasn't damaged. In fact, we weren't even stuck, just stranded - unable to go forward and unwilling to turn around.
So we sent Jānis off on foot, hiking down the trail to find help and hopefully rendezvous with the Rangers. We gave him a radio so we could stay in contact with us. We were only a few miles from the start of the trail and safety.
As he hiked down he radioed conditions back to us. It didn't sound good. It quickly became apparent that the obstacle in front of us was just one of many we wouldn't be able to cross - at least not alone.
Then we had a message from Keri. The Rangers were on their way to find us, but they were stuck. Their Raptor had sunk into the soft sandy mud on the trail and they were trying to free it. If Jānis was correct, they weren't going to have an easy time getting to us.
So Diana and I locked up the truck, grabbed the supplies we needed and set off down the trail. Jānis wasn't making it up - the trail was in a bad way! Probably the worst was a HUGE canyon that had opened up across the trail - maybe 15ft wide and at least 15ft deep! Short of building a bridge, we weren't going to be crossing that any time soon!
We eventually made it to where the Rangers had got stuck - maybe a half mile from the start of the trail. The Raptor was buried up to the frame, and they had already snapped a tow strap trying to pull it out with an excavator. The excavator was now painstakingly digging out the trail all around the Raptor.
With the light fading fast, it quickly became apparent that we weren't getting out that night. Not wanting to be stuck in our truck overnight, we asked one of the Rangers if they would give us a ride back to our RV, a little over 30 miles away, once they had recovered their vehicle. He kindly obliged, and in a strange turn of events, we ended up being taken home in the same Raptor we had passed as we joined the trail, driven by that very same Ranger!
We were back in the RV, but things were far from over. Our truck was still stranded on the trail with no certainty around how we would recover it. To complicate issues, the clock was ticking - Jānis was due to fly out from Denver in 48 hours!
We slept well that night, and the following morning we settled on a plan. Jānis and I would cycle the ~30 miles back to the trail (we couldn't exactly drive there!). Once there, we'd be able to speak with the trail crews and better assess how to recover the vehicle.
We set out on our bikes, with a view to flag down any passing trucks who might be able to give us a ride at least part of the way. After about 10 miles or so, we managed to flag down a vehicle. Rhoda stopped in her Ford Explorer, and despite having her grandchildren with her, very kindly agreed to let us load our bikes into the back of her SUV and take us to the Visitor Center. Thank you so much, Rhoda - that was so kind!
Once back at the start of the trail, we began making our way towards the truck. The trail had dried out significantly overnight, but was still too soft and muddy to cycle in some sections so we walked our bikes. There was no sign of construction crews, but the trail had been closed with cones and a big sign.
Eventually, we made it to our truck, and were surprised to see two other vehicles parked behind us! At first I felt bad that our truck was blocking the trail, but then I remembered they wouldn't have been able to get past anyway!
It was a group of 4 young men, aged around 18. They had been camping along the trail the previous two nights and had woken up to this destruction, and were trying to work out what to do. Despite the situation, they were in good spirits and had plenty of food and water, but were now stranded like us.
Fortunately, we hadn't been there more than 15 minutes before the Head Ranger, Dale, arrived in his truck. He had successfully made it all the way down from the top end. The trail was badly damaged, but enough water had drained overnight that it would be passable. That was our way out.
Making sure the 4 men we had met were comfortable getting out and didn't need us to wait, we set off up the trail - we still had to get back to the RV, hook up and make it to Denver that day!
Dale was right - the trail he had driven down was in bad shape. But nowhere near as bad as the trail further down. He walked down to see some of it, and we showed him photos we had taken the night before and that morning. He said that storms like we had experienced the previous afternoon weren't unheard of here - about twice a year, a big storm will come down the east side of the mountains like that.
But in the 7 years he had worked at Great Sand Dunes National Park, he had never seen one of those storms cause trail damage as severe as this one. They ended up closing Medano Pass Primitive Road for several weeks while they worked on repairs. I guess we didn't time that trip well!
We drove steadily up to Medano Pass, still having to cross through some deep mud sections, and the water level in the creek was still elevated. We made it to the top, and then began the 100+ mile journey back to our RV. The first section was unpaved so it was slow going, but we made it.
Back at the RV, we hooked up and headed to Denver so that Jānis could make his flight the next day.
We always try to be as well-prepared as possible, making sure that we carry essential supplies and equipment with us whenever we can. This off-roading trip highlighted the reasons why.
Nobody could have predicted what would have happened. And although the situation was far more serious than any of our off-roading equipment could have dealt with (short of bridge-building apparatus or a backhoe, nothing would have helped us get through that trail), we had the supplies to be comfortable and safe in our truck, and the emergency equipment to call for help.
In fact, the Garmin inReach satellite communicator deserves a special mention. We bought it for back-country hiking and camping trips, and never thought we'd use it for off-roading. But we brought it with us anyway, and where every other communication device failed, it succeeded.
And it was the key to us making it safely out of this situation without harming the natural resources, injuring ourselves, or damaging the truck. We were stranded and are immeasurably thankful to those who helped us out.
Thanks to our friend, Keri, who managed to contact the Rangers and relayed all the messages and updates back and forth!
Thanks to the Great Sand Dunes National Park Rangers and staff who came out on that rainy, miserable evening to help us. And then had to work in the rain, mud and mosquitoes (they were so bad that they were biting us through our head-nets and micro-fleece tops) to recover their vehicles.
Thanks to Rhoda and her grandchildren who stopped at the side of the road to pick up two strange men and give them (and their bikes) a ride for 20 miles to the park!
And lastly, thanks to Dale who must have set out early the next morning to make it all the way to us on the trail by the time he did. Had he not attempted that, who knows how things might have ended.
These things seemingly happen when you least expect it, but I hope our story shows that it pays to be prepared and plan for the unexpected. At the end of the (second) day, everything ended well - nobody was injured and no vehicles were damaged (even the Raptor emerged unscathed).
Every time I think about the events of those two days, I can feel my heart-rate rise. If you want to get just a little sense of what it was like, then I strongly encourage you to watch our video about it on YouTube.
Let us know in the comments if you've found yourself in a situation similar to this, and how things ended for you!