by Thomas Cleary
Are you looking for a hike that will avoid the 14ers crowds, but still get you up into the high Sangres? Rito Alto Creek Trail is a nice option that reaches a lake within 7 trail miles and 3000 feet elevation gain; and as a bonus, a loop and several side hikes are available from it. Another opportunity is on the tried and true North Crestone Trail, but rather than following the Lake Fork the last steep 3 miles to the lake, try going up the North Fork Loop Trial around Venable Peak to Venable Lakes on the east side of the range, returning on the stunningly engineered Venable-Comanche Trail down the Middle Fork. I did a link up of these 2 areas last summer, running into more fish than people and seeing some wonderful country; here is what I learned:
To get to Rito Alto Trail Head, turn off of T Road at the sign onto County Road 65 and follow it about six and a half miles through several right angle turns until you see another sign for Rito Alto Trail Head. That sometimes rough road takes you about 4 miles to the parking lot; most 2-wheel-drive vehicles will make it fine if they have adequate clearance. While I have not hiked the lower miles of this trail, it looks to be an initially narrow to an eventually broadening valley without getting very steep. The loop possibility comes at about the 6 mile point; you could take a left fork that would take you north into Cotton Creek after a 4 mile hike with 2500 feet elevation gain and a 1000 foot loss over a 12,500 foot pass. From there you could drop 8 miles and 3000 feet to a trailhead a mere 15 minute drive from the Rito Alto Trail Head, making for a very nice multiday circuit. But rather than taking this loop, my route suggests you continue the last mile up the main trail to Rito Alto Lake. There are great established camps along the northwest corner of the lake. Day hike options from a lake basecamp include continuing up the trail for three quarters of a mile through beautiful forest until 11,800’ where, near treeline, you will see the grave of “B. F. VANCE, KILD (sic) OCT. 9, 1913” made famous in a Don Richmond song. Just beyond that the trail forks with the choice to continue 2.5 miles and 1250’ to Hermit Pass and an old mine where mountains goats sometimes hang out, or hopping over a small pass to San Isabel Lake a mile and a half away. This is a wonderful area well worth visiting for the stellar hiking, fishing, and camping opportunities, but do note that 4WD vehicles can make it up Hermit Pass from the east side; however they are not allowed to come to the west side.
Many of us have hiked North Crestone Creek, some have even made it the six plus miles with 3000’ of elevation gain all the way to the lake, but doing this bypasses one of the most spectacular short loop trails in the Sangres. At the 2.5 mile point in from the trail head (and a 1000’ foot gain) there is a sign to the left for the North Fork Loop Trail. There are a few small camps in the area. For this loop you will take this fork in the trail for another 3.5 miles and 3000’ to Venable Pass, then drop a mile and less than 1000’ to Venable Lakes for an above-treeline camping experience. The return trip completes the circumnavigation of Venable Peak by travelling to the south of it on the Venable-Comanche section of the loop trail. This trail was built during a more adventurous (and better funded) era of the US Forest Service. From the lakes you will be challenged to visualize the route across the steep east flank of Venable Peak. The closest rival I have found to this trail is the engineering and dry rockwork that etched the Milwaulkee Peak/Pass trail into the mountainside between upper Sand Creek and upper Cottonwood Creek. After the initial mile and 800’ foot climb back to the divide from Venable Lake, the trail traverses south for nearly a mile at 12,750’ before dropping down the west side of the range with a series of constant grade switchbacks until it joins the Middle Fork. The trail wanders between groves of aspen until reuniting with the main Lake Fork of North Crestone Creek. As a matter of fact, I strongly recommend this loop during aspen foliage season because of the variety of solar aspects, elevational diversity, and water regimes; these will provide surefire access to fall colors. Again, there are a few small camps at this junction or just upstream from the Middle Fork on the Lake Fork. From this location three miles and 1200’ elevation loss brings you back to the trail head and Crestone Creek campground.
Take advantage of these slightly off the beaten path routes and sample a bit of the high Sangre de Cristos. While there, please remember to tread and camp on durable surfaces (don’t cut switchbacks), minimize campfires, pack it in/pack it out (and leave what you find), and be considerate of other visitors and wildlife. Happy trails!