Willow Lake (read here) had blown our minds on Thursday. Our next Colorado hike was to be Lakes of the Clouds. Friday morning, we broke camp and made the two and a half hour drive from Crestone to the town of Westcliffe, where we would stay at the nearby Alvarado Campground. In that two and a half hours, we had driven completely around the north end of the Sangre de Cristo Range, only to pitch our tent eight and a half miles from the site we had called home the night before. Of course, those eight miles were guarded by a 13,000′ blood-of-Christ ridge line. At a cost of eleven and a half miles and 4,400 feet, we could have hiked from one to the other … but, well … the car. Since we had no time to start a full-day hike, we looked for something shorter to fill our afternoon. Venable Falls fit the bill. Better yet, the trailhead was right outside the campground entrance.
Less than five minutes after leaving camp, we were at the Venable Falls Trailhead. We started off through an area that was neither forest nor field, but an amalgam of both. Beyond the aspens and pines that studded the grassy fields around us, we could see clouds gathering over the Wet Mountain Valley to the east. We passed less than a quarter mile in this hybrid area before coming to a quaint wooden bridge over Venable Creek. The spot was picturesque, the creek glassy as it passed under the bridge. It also marked our entrance to the San Isabel National Forest. The trail began to climb.
When we had hiked a half-mile, the Venable Trail merged with the Rainbow Trail for a few hundred yards before splitting off to climb up the Venable Creek Valley.
The Rainbow Trail is a fourteen-mile north/south track in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. It’s nice, but open to ATV traffic. That’s a deal-breaker for us.
The trail was often choked with rocks, and we had to keep our eyes down to keep from tripping. When we were able to look around, we saw the pyramid-like Horn Peak poke up from behind the surrounding hills ahead of us. Behind us, the views over the valley to the easterly Wet Mountains continued to improve. Eventually, we were swallowed up by the forest and creek valley, and expansive views were replaced with stands of aspen and pine, along with copious wildflowers.
In every direction was another splash of color in the brush that edged the trail. Spiky goldenweed burst from the grass to one side, while the bell-like blooms of hairy clematis hung solemnly on the other. Purple beardstongue, its trumpet-like flowers pointing every which way, grew next to the tufts of ground plum which grew next to Indian paintbrush which grew next to heartleaf arnica. We climbed twenty-five feet down an embankment to shoot some pictures of a great blanketflower. It was the only one we saw on this route. A lonesome sprig of western wallflower stood alone near some fallen logs. Well, no surprise there.
There were stretches where the trail leveled out and wound among the tall straight aspens. These stints were a delightful liberation from the climb, and we savored them, taking in the grandeur of the Colorado mountain flora. The sun splashed across the trail, striping it with the shadows of the near-white aspens that lined our path – a colonnade of natural pillars with leafy capitals. The temperature was in the mid seventies, and a breeze gently rippled through the valley. All felt right in south-central Colorado. We pressed on.
The trail turned upward again, though not as sharply. The forest was getting closer and the backward views of the valley harder to see. Eventually, we came to a fork. The Venable Trail continued to climb up and to our right, while another path veered down into the creek valley. At this junction stood a weathered sign so faded from the elements that we had to get within five or six feet of it to read the words engraved into the dark wood: Venable Falls.
We traipsed down the spur to the rim of a deep, narrow gorge. Water rushed, unseen, through the canyon below. Time to explore. The trail split again, running both up and down Venable Creek; we dropped our packs and headed downstream, slipping and sliding down a steep and gravely path to a spot below the falls. Looking back upstream, we were treated to a thirty foot cataract tumbling down at least three tiers. Framed by ferns and pines, the creek churned as it crashed down a narrow rock chute to swirl over colorful pebbles. After a time, we struggled back up the steep spur, now continuing beyond the split in the trail.
There were many social trails along the creek. Some dead-ended at the edge of the gorge, supplying us with dizzying views down into the chasm, which was only six or eight feet wide in places. Other trails twisted among the pines that grew along the gorge. One of these topped a rise and then tracked down into the ravine, which was less deep at that particular spot. I found myself on a small level area at the edge of the creek about fifty yards up from the main falls. Looking downstream, the view was of Venable Creek roiling over rocks as it rushed to the spillway. In the other direction, the view of the creek was mostly blocked by a large rock face – until I stepped out onto some rocks that sat in the swirling water. Suddenly, I could see Venable Creek splashing down a flight of rocky steps, changing direction as often as it plunged down a short drop. Farther up, the creek disappeared into a jumble of rock and chaparral. Here was our reward. Having to climb down the bank and out onto some rocks to discover this glimpse up the cascading creek made it feel like a secret treasure.
To add to the splendor of this hideaway gem, a single, shockingly pink, stalk of Parry’s primrose stood in a small hollow on the opposite bank. I crossed to snap a picture of the lone bloom.
Note: Use caution if you cross the creek – though it is neither deep nor fast, this spot is at the top of a small cascade.
Once we had filled our coffers with the sights, sounds, and smells of Venable Falls, we turned east and headed back toward the Alvarado Campground. The shadows grew longer as we retraced our steps down the draw. Still, we made it back to camp well before sunset. We bought a bundle of wood from the camp host and enjoyed dinner and a cup of wine by the fire before turning in early. We had a ten-plus mile hike to Lakes of the Clouds scheduled for the next morning. Unfortunately, some inconsiderate RV campers, who found themselves uproariously funny, had other ideas. They cackled until well past 11:00pm.
Find a reason to visit the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We hit up two hikes while we were there; they were both worthwhile. Unlike Willow Lake, these trails are not convenient to Great Sand Dunes National park, although they are less than an hour and a half from Pueblo. If you have more time, this hike can be extended up to the Venable Lakes for an additional four miles round trip. If you’re really looking for a challenge, hike past the lakes and return to the campground via the Comanche Trail for an eleven and a half mile loop that packs 4,400 feet of elevation. But if you’re like us, and just need to fill an afternoon, the trek to Venable Falls is a venerable one.
Date: July 2, 2020
Location: Westcliffe, CO
Trailhead: 38.082586, -105.564621
Distance: 4.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,372 feet