Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hiking the Comanche-Venable Loop

The past month has been quite hectic.  On June 13th Puma and I made our move from Maine to Colorado.  The weeks leading up to our move were busy planning the logistics, packing, and deciding which of our belongings moved with us.  After 52 hours of driving cross-country with our belongings, four dogs, four cats, and a pregnant goat; we arrived in Colorado.  After a couple weeks of settling in, things settled down a little bit and I finally had the time to head to the mountains.

Over the 4th of July weekend, I decided to do my first serious hike since I have been in Colorado.  I have done a couple of easy hikes and short mountain bike rides close to home but nothing too serious.  It has been nearly 15 years since I have hiked in Colorado and was eager to play in the Rockies again.  From our house, we have outstanding views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  After staring at these glorious peaks for several weeks, I decided my first destination should be somewhere within the Sangre de Cristos. 

View of the Sangre de Cristo Range from my house.

I headed to Westcliffe, Colorado early Saturday morning to hike the Comanche-Venable Loop.  I heard good things about this hike and figured it was a good place for my first trip.  The drive to the trailhead was a good start to the trip.  Along the way, the local wildlife was out and about.  Just on the drive I saw two coyotes, turkeys, numerous mule deer, a large herd of elk, and a pronghorn antelope. 

Shortly before 7AM I was on the trail.  My hike started around 9000 feet in elevation on the Venable Lake Trail.  The trail traveled through the woods in the beginning, staying relatively close to Venable Creek.  There were occasional peeks at the surrounding mountains but not much to see in the first couple miles in the forest.  The highlight of this section was a short spur trail that led to Venable Falls.  Not too long after the falls, the trail made its way to the lower reaches of timberline. 

Venable Falls

Not too long after leaving the woods

Venable Lake Trail travels through the drainage of Venable Lakes and is nestled between Spring Mountain and an unnamed peak.  The trail travels close to the stream in an open grassy meadow with fine views of the peaks that surround the drainage.  The trail passes through gentle terrain as it rises toward the Venable Lakes, which sits above treeline.

Higher up on the Venable Lakes Trail

Venable Peak is the rocky peak in the middle

One of the Venable Lakes

After the trail passed the first lake, it became rockier as it approached Venable Peak.  The trail passes below the nearly vertical face of Venable Peak across Phantom Terrace.  Phantom Terrace is a ledge that is not visible until you reach it.  The ledge is probably only 3 or 4 feet wide at its narrowest with a nearly sheer drop below.  In slippery conditions Phantom Terrace could be a dicey section but with beautiful blue skies and dry trail, the passage of this section was pretty simple.  Crossing Phantom Terrace was probably the most interesting section of trail on the hike.

Spring Mountain

Phantom Terrace crosses this face of Venable Peak

The trail across Phantom Terrace

After crossing the Phantom Terrace, the trail reaches the pass between Spring Mountain and Venable Peak.  There is no trail to either summit.  I first climbed 13334-foot Venable Peak, the high point of my outing.  Along the way, a marmot played hide and seek with me.  As I approached, it climbed out of sight, just to peek its head out at me as I approached.  From the summit I was rewarded with fine 360-degree views.  I didn’t linger long too long at the summit before descending.  Small wildflowers covered the grassy alpine tundra beyond the pass.  Much of the hike at the upper elevations smelled like a florists.

Looking down the Venable Basin

Views to the south near the pass between Spring and Venable

View to the north from Venable

Another look to the south

Looking south from the shoulder of Venable

Nearing the summit of Venable

Spring Mountain is the closer peak with Comanche 
above the snow patch 

From the pass between Spring and Venable, the trail traverses below Spring Mountain before reaching Comanche Pass.  I skipped the trail and headed up Spring Mountain’s ridge to its 13244-foot summit.  The summit register was not signed since last October.  I ate a quick snack at the summit while enjoying the grand views.  I headed down the southern ridge of Spring before rejoining the trail near Comanche Gap. Spring Mountain had the rockiest ascent of the three peaks I climbed on the trip.

A closer look at Spring with Comanche to its right

Approaching Spring Mtns summit

The Venable Lakes from Spring's summit

Looking down the ridge from Spring toward Comanche

The Comanche Lakes from Spring's ridge

Before heading into the Comanche Lakes drainage, I headed for the summit of Comanche Peak’s trailess13277-foot summit.  It is a fairly short and straightforward jaunt to the peak however up its grassy slopes.  Comanche probably had the best view of the three summits with its fairly close look at the rugged higher peaks nearby to the south.  There was a couple on Comanche’s summit as well as another larger group that I passed on my decent.  This was the only one of the three peaks that had anyone else on it.  As I searched through my pack on Comanche’s summit for a snack, I discovered something very useful inside for a hike to a Colorado peak, a bag of Canadian coins.  It was left in my pack from when we moved.

Comanche Peak from Comanche Pass

Looking south from Comanche's summit

Me on Comanche

Looking back at Spring Mountain and Venable Peak from 
the summit of Comanche Peak

My return to the valley followed the Comanche Lakes Trail.  Unlike the Venable Lakes Trail where I only briefly saw the lakes, the Comanche Lakes were in view most of the descent.  I stopped several times to take in the views looking back toward Comanche Peak as I descended.  Several groups were camped near the lakes.  I was also scolded by several groups of marmots as I descended.  Shortly after 1PM I was back at the trailhead.

Comanche Lakes from the pass

Looking back at Comanche as I descended

Comanche Lake with the summit in the background

A pair of marmots

Up close and personal with a marmot

This hike is fairly popular.  It is one of the few hikes in the Sangre de Cristos that can be hiked in a manageable one-day loop.  The trailhead was quite full when I arrived and even fuller by the time I returned.  Despite the busy parking lot, I didn't see too many people on the hike.  I passed only a handful of groups the entire trip.

The Comanche-Venable Loop is a beautiful hike that is well worth the effort.  The loop is about 13 miles long and I added a little over a mile with my side trips to the nearby summits.  With the side-trips to the three summits, I climbed just over 5000 vertical feet.  For a more leisurely pace, this hike could easily be made into an overnight trip with numerous places to camp along both trails and plenty of water.  I passed a few people with fishing rods, as the lakes are apparently productive for trout as well.

The parting shot of Comanche Peak before I entered the trees

The scenery along the hike is magnificent.  More than half the trip is above treeline.  Looking at the rugged peaks of the Sangre de Cristos helps the mileage pass by quickly. The trails are fairly easy as well.  The trails climb gradually with several switchbacks.  After hiking Maine and New Hampshire’s steep and rocky trails for the past eight years, the well-graded trails were a nice change of pace.  The gradually climbing trail helps with the effects of altitude as well.  This hike was a great reintroduction to the mountains of Colorado.


  1. Hi, is it best to hike this loop clockwise or counter-clockwise? Thanks.

  2. I hiked it counter clockwise. I enjoyed this way because the climb seemed more gradual and you can look ahead to Phantom Terrace even though you can't see it until you are nearly there.