Whether you tackle it in a day or choose to spend a night under the stars enroute, this journey through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains reveals all the range’s secrets in a moderately challenging, easy-to-follow 12-mile loop.
1. Comanche-Venable Trailhead
From Westcliffe, Colorado, head south on CO 69 for 3.5 miles. Turn right onto Schoolfield Road (CR 140) and drive west for 6.5 miles toward Alvarado Campground. Just before reaching the campground, take the right fork and follow signs to the trailhead. To tackle the loop in a counterclockwise direction (Venable to Comanche) like we did, begin on the right side of the parking lot and follow signs for the Venable Trail (#1347).
2. Rainbow Trail Junction
After approximately a half-mile hike through forest, reach a T intersection with the Rainbow Trail. Turn left to stay on the Venable Trail, which climbs gradually above a rushing creek as it passes through lush evergreen forest speckled with stands of aspens. In the fall, the trees light the forest in a sea of gold.
3. Venable Falls Junction
After two miles, you reach a sign for a spur trail to Venable Falls. If you have time and energy for a short side trip, follow the trail to a cascade rushing through a small, steep canyon. Return to the main trail and continue climbing. The trees become sparse, revealing distant mountaintops and the sparkling waters of the creek rushing over boulders below.
4. Venable Lakes
Leave the trees behind and push through a series of switchbacks that deliver you to Venable Lakes. If you want to turn this route into a backpacking trip, this is a serene camp spot. If you’re pushing through in a day, break here, refuel, and explore the lake via a spur trail if you have time.
5. Phantom Terrace
Tromp through a willow-lined section of trail to reach a treeless, rocky portion of the route that marks the beginning of the Phantom Terrace, so named because even though it’s well-defined when you are on it, the route is impossible to see from below. The narrow and hidden trail that cuts across the jagged, colorfully banded rock face of 13,177-foot Venable Peak, is obvious and easy to follow. Take care in the few spots where the trail narrows or crosses loose scree.
After passing through the slim portion of the Phantom Terrace, you reach a high unnamed pass that delivers superb views back down Venable Creek drainage and out south toward 14,170-foot Kit Carson Peak. If you’re topping out on Venable Peak, which sits approximately 400 feet higher than the pass, head cross-country from here. If not, take in the sweeping view and head downhill, following a trail that curves around the south flanks of 13,244-foot Spring Mountain.
7. Comanche Pass
When you reach the next pass, pause for a moment to absorb panoramic views of Comanche Lake, a giant body of sparkling water nestled in the valley below. If 13,243-foot Comanche Peak is on your itinerary, you’ll gain approximately 550 feet as you climb south along its rocky flanks to reach the top. Either way, notice that at the pass, the trail splits. The right fork switchbacks west to drop deep into the Comanche Valley (a worthy future adventure). To complete our loop, turn left and follow the Comanche Trail east toward the lake.
8. Comanche Lake
Frolicking through the tundra, you’ll descend more than 1,000 feet to reach Comanche Lake, perched above treeline. Campsites surround the lake; pick one and spend the night.
9. Rainbow Trail Junction
From Comanche Lake, the circuitous trail passes through pine forest, aspen stands, boulder-strewn gardens, a lush riparian corridor and red, black and white cliff bands to intersect with the Rainbow Trail. Continue straight through the junction and remain on the Comanche Trail as it curves back to where you started.
10. Back at the Trailhead
Celebrate at your vehicle and start plotting your next foray.
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