Sangre de Cristo is Spanish for "Blood of Christ," but no one is quite sure why the region was given this name. Was it because of the bloody hues washing the slopes at sunset, or the cry of the dying priest, "sangre de Cristo," as his martyred blood flowed onto the ground near here? Of the long and colorful Spanish influence in these mountains and in the San Luis Valley below there is no doubt. Two four-wheel-drive roads over Medano Pass and Hayden Pass, as well as access to Lily Lake, were slim exclusions from Wilderness designation and split the area into four distinct sections. Unlike most of Colorado's mountains, the high and magnificently rugged Sangres were uplifted suddenly in massive blocks, creating a range of dramatic vertical proportions. Four fourteeners are clumped together in the midsection of the Wilderness, including Crestone Needle (14,197 feet). Many climbers, consider the Needle to be Colorado's most challenging 14,000-foot peak. Three more fourteeners stand together just south of the boundary. Melting snow feeds many creeks and small lakes, and nourishes a forest of oak, aspen, and spruce. Black bears and a few mountain lions live here, along with elk, deer, and bighorn sheep. Long (about 70 miles) and narrow describes the area, the state's third largest, and the going is rough for the hiker. Most of the 180 miles of trails end at alpine lakes set against virtually unclimbable walls. Great Sand Dunes National Preserve in now part of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.
A portion of the wilderness area is located within Great Sand Dunes National Preserve which is located adjacent to Great Sand Dunes National Park. The Medano Pass 4-wheel drive primitive road passes through a corridor within the wilderness area and can be accessed from the west side through Great Sand Dunes National Park or from the east side off Colorado Highway 69 about 25 miles south of the town of Westcliffe. Two other roads, one leading to the top of Mosca Pass and the other leading to the east side of Music Pass provide access to hiking trails leading into the wilderness area and preserve.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000 - Public law 106-530 (11/22/2000) To provide for the establishment of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in the State of Colorado, and for other purposes
To visit the portion of the wilderness located in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve from the San Luis Valley (west) side, drive east on U.S. Highway 160 from Alamosa for about 16 miles. Turn north onto Colorado Highway 150 and proceed 15 miles to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Stop in at the visitor center for more details and maps of the area. Visitors planning to drive over the primitive Medano Pass road will need a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle to negotiate soft sand, stream crossings, and a road that can be rough in places.
Music Pass/Sand Creek Lakes/other alpine peaks provide stunning alpine scenery. The eastern trailhead for Music Pass is accessed via Highway 69, 4.5 miles south of Westcliffe. Turn off Highway 69 to the west at the sign for Music Pass and South Colony Lakes Trailhead. At the 'T' junction turn left onto South Colony Road. At the end of the ranch fence on the right, you'll see another sign for Music Pass. 2WD drivers should park at the Grape Creek Trailhead which is where the Rainbow Trail crosses. From here it's about 4 miles to the top of the pass. 4WD drivers may drive another 2.7 rough miles to the end of the road (this road requires very high clearance). From here it's just a steep one mile hike to the pass. From the top of the pass descend into the basin to two alpine lakes or to any one of the 13,000' peaks above the basin.
Medano Lake/Mount Herard: Access this trailhead from the Medano Pass 4WD road. Beginning at 10,000' elevation, the trail climbs through lush meadows and forests, ending at an alpine lake just above timberline. For advanced hikers, continue on to the summit of 13,297' Mount Herard for a spectacular view of the Great Sand Dunes.
Mosca Pass Trail: This trail may be accessed from the west near the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center or from the east via Huerfano County/USFS Road 583 which will take you right to the top of Mosca Pass. The trail is 3.5 miles one way. Indians and early settlers used this route for travel into the San Luis Valley.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
Elevation of the wilderness area varies from 8,500' to over 13,000' above sea level. Winter snows result in road closures approximately 5-6 months of the year. At higher elevations snow drifts may cover trails into late June or early July. Weather is typically sunny but temperatures are relatively cool all year. Summer highs can approach the low 80s F (21 C) with lows in the 40s F (4 C). High winds can develop at any time creating cold wind chill factors. Afternoon thundershowers are common from July through September.
Safety and Current Conditions
Be sure to bring rain gear, layers of clothing, and sunscreen. All water should be treated before drinking. Bears are common in the area so take appropriate precautions with food, garbage, and other items that may attract them. Plan to complete ascents of alpine peaks prior to noon each day as thunderstorms with lightning are common.
Drink plenty of water. At over 8,000 feet (2,499 m) above sea level, altitude sickness can be a problem, especially if you're accustomed to lower elevations. Symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, and nausea.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.