Like the famous Teton’s of Wyoming, the Sangre de Christo mountains are fault-block mountains located in south-central Colorado. Sharply uplifted blocks, jagged ridges, and soaring pinnacles characterize the Sangre de Cristo mountains and create one of the most stunning landscapes of the southern Rocky Mountains. The third largest wilderness in the state, the Sangre de Cristo wilderness is named after the mountain range of which the northern most portion it contains.
The Sangre de Cristo wilderness area is long and narrow and bisected by two mountain pass roads: Medano Pass, and Hayden Pass roads. Surrounded on either side by broad valleys, the Sangre de Cristo range forms the eastern perimeter of the San Luis valley and the western edge of the Wet Mountain valley. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve abuts the wilderness on the west and provides much of the tourism and visitors to this area.
Due to the fault block geology, the Sangre de Cristo wilderness is crisscrossed east to west by short and narrow drainages that are terminated by impassable ridges and cliffs. Many, if not all of the hiking trails in the wilderness follow these drainages to high altitude lakes or the several fourteen thousand foot high peaks. Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, and Humboldt Peak are three of the ten peaks that exceed fourteen thousand feet in elevation.
During winter the area receives heavy snowfall, albeit less than its neighboring ranges to the west, the San Juans and the Elk Range. For this reason, some of the high elevation hikes may be snow free in early July while trails elsewhere may still be snow bound. Summer can bring sudden thunderstorms with frequent lightning especially near the highest peaks.
The Sangre de Cristo wilderness is located in south-central Colorado between the towns of Westcliffe and Crestone. The city of Alamosa to the southwest, Salida to the north, and the towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff are the nearest towns with accommodations.
Hermit Lake – An easy hike, accessible from the eastern side of the range via Hermit Pass Rd (Road 160) from Westcliffe. Hermit Pass Rd is steep and rocky and requires a 4WD vehicle with high clearance.
Venable Falls & Venable Lakes – A moderate, full day hike. Access is from the east (Westcliffe) side of the wilderness. From Westcliffe, head south on CO-69. Right on Schoolfield Rd. (Rd 140) and head west (toward the mountains). Begin the hike from Alvarado Campground. Click for a Google map: Alvarado Campground. Follow the Rainbow Trail north to the turnoff. The hike follows Venable creek to the alpine lakes.
If you are planning a trip, I highly recommend this tear-resistant, waterproof map by National Geographic. All of the surrounding backcountry access roads, forest service trails, ski trails as well as the local wilderness information is shown, all in this one neat map.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map of Sangre de Cristo Wilderness and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the surrounding areas including the roads near Crestone and Westcliffe, Colorado.