Two former co-workers and I arrived at the Comanche/Venable trailhead parking lot, which is close to Westcliffe, Colorado in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I like to use the Sky Terrain topo map for this area as it has the trails clearly marked with brief descriptions and estimated hiking miles, elevation gain, etc. The backpacking hike begins here at 9,500 feet. I’ve backpacked here several times and it has always been a good trip. If you like to hike, you can hike to the lakes, but you can also continue past the lakes and hike over Venable pass to the west side of the range into Groundhog Basin where you can head north to San Isabel Lake and Rito Alto Lake or west then south to North Crestone Lake. Or, instead of going over Venable Pass you can go south and hike the Phantom Terrace and continue over to Comanche Lakes which is the next drainage to the south.
The hike begins by crossing Venable Creek on a little foot bridge about a ¼ mile from the start. It’s about a half mile to Rainbow Trail, then head north for about 100 yards where we meet the Venable Lakes trailhead, Trail #1347. Ten yards or so from here we sign the registration log and enter the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.
From here it’s roughly 3.5 miles on a very decent trail to our initial destination. I’ve heard that not too many decades ago this was a well-used motorcycle trail . . . all the way to the Phantom Terrace. About half way up, and nearly 2 hours from the start, is a sign which reads Venable Falls. It’s a nice spot to take a break, replenish your water if necessary, and take a few photos. We stopped for a short break and continued on.
It took us about 3.5 hours to travel the 4.3 miles to the log cabin.
We veer off trail to the left at the cabin and head into the woods to find our favorite camping spot in this drainage. There are some camping spots just off the trail in the trees, but we like to go a bit further as it’s a little more remote and the views are great.
This spot is about 11,500 feet.
We got camp set-up quickly. I was using my one-man North Face Mountain Marathon tent. It’s a little cramped, especially because I can’t sit-up inside, but it’s fairly light weight and I use it when none of my sons are on the trip. One thing we noticed right away was that there were a lot of marmots running around camp. Previous experience with marmots means don’t leave anything on the ground that you don’t want chewed by the little buggers. We hung our packs and . . . . food in the trees.
Two of us then head up to the lower of the two Venable Lakes which is about 0.6 miles, all up-hill, from camp and at 12,000 feet. We notice, at this point, that there is nobody else in this drainage, and while I’m a little surprised, I’m also happy to know that seclusion is still possible in the wilderness. We fished for 45 minutes, or so, each catching some fish. Two were cutthroat and two were cutbows and they were between 8 and 12 inches.
My friend was using a Dare-Devil lure, but I was using fly and bubble. I’ve been using this setup for years but I was having trouble setting the hook. I had several fish within three feet of the shore, but they managed to wiggle free before I could land them. I was using an elk-hair caddis, but when the wind picked up it kept sinking my fly and we soon headed back to camp.
Saturday morning was sunny, without a cloud in the sky. Beautiful. All three of us headed up to the lower lake and fished for only a few minutes before taking the short hike to the upper lake. An hour goes by and I was doing pretty well fishing with a pheasant-tail nymph and elk-hair caddis when dark clouds began rolling over Venable Pass and peak. Within 20 minutes the sky was dark and it began to rain. Shortly after the rain came the hail. We donned our rain gear and header for cover. Stooping below some low hanging branches it was the best we could do. That was probably around 11:15AM. After about 20 minutes it stopped. One guy head back to camp, but two of us headed back to the lake. It looked like it would clear, but a little while later more dark clouds came over the pass. At this point the second guy headed down to camp. And, sure enough, it began raining, and when I arrived back at the trees, down came the hail. I checked my watch and it was 1:30. It hailed and rained with the wind blowing hard and thundering quite a bit for the next hour. By the time it stopped my Kelty day pack was soaked. I headed back to the lake noticing that two backpackers had made it to the lake and were now camping near the lower lake. I fished for another 30 minutes and caught another trout, and like the others released it, before more clouds darkened the sky. It was my turn to head back to camp. Overall, it rained and hailed off and on from 11:15AM until about 5PM. We were able to get a few things dried out with the little remaining sun, but it quickly dropped behind the mountains.
A Stage II Fire Ban prevented us from having a campfire so, like the previous evening, it got cool quickly and our cook stoves were our only source of outdoor heat. I would have used my old Coleman Feather 400A stove but after 26 years it appears the on/off valve has worn out. So, I borrowed my son’s Coleman Feather 442 and being nearly the same stove I was quite comfortable using it. One of the other guys had a JetBoil stove and I was impressed with this little stove. Like other propane/butane stoves I don’t care for the canisters. You can never tell how much fuel remains, and if it seems low you need to bring another tank. I guess I really just don’t like the uncertainty. However, if you just plan to boil water for dry food, coffee, etc. and only for one person this stove looks great.
Sunday morning was nice, and after breakfast and packing up camp we stowed our packs and headed up to the lakes for some more fishing.
We each caught at least one before more dark clouds and thunder arrived. Concerned we were in for a repeat of yesterday we headed back down to our packs, ate a light lunch and headed back down the trail. A last stop was at that bridge over the creek mentioned earlier, only this time off came the hiking boots and we waded into the icy cold creek. A nice finish to the hike.
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