The Great Sand Dunes: Lessons in cornering, sand, and stream crossings

Recently, as Motoman and I watched the evening news, we learned that Medano Creek in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes was running at record highs.  I looked at him and declared that we had to go see it for ourselves.  We’d taken our daughter to the Sand Dunes as a little girl and had such fond family memories.  With that, a vague plan was formed to ride dual sport motorcycles the following weekend to the Great Sand Dunes and camp on a mountain top.  My only stipulation to Motoman was that we spend only one long day on the backroads either going there or returning home, but not both.

We departed on the dual sport motorcycles Saturday morning heading south from Arvada to Sedalia, via the big concrete slab.  After turning west at Sedalia, it was a mix of dirt and gravel roads for the next 134 miles to Salida.  The open roads presented ample opportunity for practicing cornering at speed… or “speed” in my case.  Motoman is so fullsizeoutput_4d42much faster than I will ever be on a motorcycle.  I’ll be forever grateful to him for riding in front of me to illustrate technique and for riding behind me to speak technique into my ears and guide me through corners via the Sena device broadcasting within my helmet.  There were enough miles and curves between here and Denver, that I believe the technique may have finally stuck.  My struggle with technique on the dual sport has been the simple fact that I ride so much.  I ride a road bicycle, a mountain bicycle, a cyclocross bicycle, a street motorcycle, and a dual sport motorcycle.  Each of these has a specific technique based on the terrain.  Using the wrong technique on the wrong bike on the wrong terrain can have disastrous results.  And truthfully, sometimes it’s hard to remember which technique to use because I forget which bike I’m on.

After all this fun cornering practice and dinner in Salida, we finally made our way to the Great Sand Dunes rather late in the day.  The original plan was to frolic in the creek and camp along Medano Creek Primitive road in the Preserve as we had done so many times years before.  This requires passing through a substantial sand pit to get there. In the past, we had done this in a 4WD vehicle.  On this trip, we would be passing through this sand pit on dual sport motorcycles.fullsizeoutput_4d45

Have I mentioned that I don’t like riding through sand?  It is second only to my dislike for riding through deep mud puddles.  I’m told that the technique to utilize when riding through deep sand on a dual sport motorcycle (or cyclocross bike) is to weight the back wheel and lighten the front wheel so that it sort of floats through the sand.  I found that by placing my body weight on the seat of my dual sport and pulling on the throttle led to a whole lot of nothing. I’m sure this technique works great for motorcycles with more aggressive tires than what I was using.  In order to move forward, I had to essentially ride my motorcycle like a stryder bicycle for kids  through deep sand.  I’m so proud to report that I made it through that sand pit and only dropped the bike a handful of times.  At least the landing was soft and I was able to pick the motorcycle up myself and carry on.

We soon found ourselves in the dark and at a place where we had to make the first of a series of deep stream crossing, or turn back and struggle through all that sand again.  As I sat on a log and waited for Motoman to return from scouting out the road ahead on the other side of the creek, a camper, AKA “Ranger Dude”, from a nearby campsite approached.  He informed me we could not camp where we had temporarily parked the motorcycles.  He went on to say he had seen 2 jeeps attempt the water crossing in front of us and turn back.  I honestly don’t know why he felt compelled to offer this unsolicited commentary.  I told him we were scouting out the situation and would not be camping there – especially if it meant we would be next to his unhelpful soul.

When Motoman returned,  we considered our options and agreed that continuing east on Medano Pass road and putting as much distance between us and Ranger Dude was our best option. It was dark. We were tired. We just wanted to set up camp and go to sleep. We’d lost count of how many water crossing there were, but our best guess is 10.  We made camp high on a mountain top, saw the spectacular milky way, and had an unrestful night’s sleep.

The next morning we awoke to birds chirping and not another soul in sight  As we continued east, we encountered maybe 5 additional water crossing that continued to get deeper and deeper. At each of the crossings, one or both of us would dismount and wade through the water to figure out the shallowest path through.  We were also checking for rocks or any debris that might create a hazard.  On the deepest of the crossings, we removed pannier bags from Motoman’s KTM and walked bikes through the water on the shallowest path.  Water was hip high on my small frame at its deepest.  Finally, the earth began to drop away as the descent began; the water was finally behind us.  Eventually, we made it to Colorado Highway 69, which is probably the smoothest stretch of road I have ever encountered.  It was smooth sailing until I ran out of gas a half mile from the Shell Station in Westcliffe.

Remember at the beginning of this story when I mentioned that the reason for this trip was due to the record high levels of Medano Creek in the Sand Dunes?  We’re still trying to figure out how two reasonably intelligent adults failed to consider that the ENTIRE creek would be running fast and high, not just the section in the Sand Dunes.  The road is now closed at the very first crossing due to high and fast water as the Spring thaw continues.

Click here to see our route via a relive video.

IMG_3684IMG_3681IMG_3678