9 min read

Travelogue: Solo Backpacking the Venable-Comanche Trail

Half impulse, half lifelong goal. Meera solo backpacks Colorado's Venable-Comanche Trail.
Selfie of Meera with her backpack on the Venable-Comanche Trail.
There is no clever caption here. Just me in the woods.

It was half impulse, half long-planned lifelong goal. I decided I was going to go for it about three weeks ahead of time, as I was booking a work trip to Denver. I’ve always loved time alone in the woods (this is a natural thing when you grow up in the country), so it’s been a lifelong goal to solo backpack through the backcountry.

I’m a 5’1” woman, who spends most of her waking hours working an awesome job in space robotics in Texas. This is my journal (let’s be honest—random thoughts of an overworked, perpetually stressed person trying desperately to escape cell phone coverage) from my first solo backpacking trip in Colorado.

I wish I could say I chose the Venable-Comanche Trail in the San Isabel National Forest for high-minded reasons. But the truth is I was looking for permit-free camping with a nearby town not too far from Denver, since that's where I was for work.

I went entirely off the grid for the three-day hike, but I took a journal with me. This is a lightly edited version of what I jotted down as I hiked, camped, and reflected on life.

Meera's shadow on the ground at a campsite.
Pensive sun-assisted selfie.

Day 1 - Venable Trailhead to Venable Lake

The first hour or so was pretty rough, but that’s always true for me when it comes to hiking. After that, it got easier for a while (with the exception of a couple steep sections). The last mile was super rough.

Ok, let’s be honest, the last 1.3 miles were really hard.

I missed the turnoff to the lake campsites. Turns out I needed to look behind me… who knew? I met three people in total; two of them stopped to talk. They were all very friendly—and impressed that I was doing this, considering that I live at nearly sea level.

I was worried about encountering people I didn’t want to be around while out here. Luckily, that hasn’t been the case so far. This trail is a little off the beaten path; that probably helps. Plus, the nearest town (Westcliffe) seems like a small and friendly town—people waved when they drove by (even though I was clearly not a local in my little rented Toyota Corolla; everyone else drove a truck). I was a bit worried about getting the Corolla to the trailhead; it took some careful offroad driving skills I hadn't used in a while, for sure.

Before going off on this adventure, I had bought these practical, but not pretty, camp shoes. I honestly love these stupid Chaco slides. They fit right over my big hiking socks, and I can tighten the straps so they stay on or loosen them to accomodate my swollen feet. Who would’ve thought…

Giant hiking socks with sandals.
So ugly. But so comfortable. I love them, but they're ugly as sin.

I found out yesterday that I was exposed to COVID (possibly twice). Given that today is day 3 since exposure, I get a little worried every time I cough. I hope I’m fine (and frankly, I suspect I’d be doing much worse if I was sick given that I’m currently at 12,000 ft above sea level), but it still worries me. All this travel—I’ve been so careful—but I was exposed at work after all that.

I find myself putting off answering all those questions that I do badly need to use this time to address, but I'll get there, probably.

Uh oh. Here comes both a thunderstorm and people (a group of women, it seems). Hopefully both pass uneventfully… crap. There’s a dude here. I made the mistake of saying hi. I mean, he seems ok, I guess. Maybe a little odd. I don’t love this, but there’s not much I can do about it now.

Lightning inside a tent looks absolutely crazy. I fell asleep (sort of) counting the seconds between the lightening and thunder to make sure it wasn't getting too close. Only one strike was less than three seconds, so I felt pretty safe where I'd pitched my tent among the trees.

Day 2. Venable Lake, Phantom Terrace, and Comanche Lake

AllTrails, why you lie to me?? That was over another thousand feet up. Phantom Terrace was mostly ok, but there were a few places where if one foot was unstable, I would’ve fallen hundreds of feet. I was more nervous about Phantom Terrace than I really needed to be though. On the whole, I realized, it was way less scary from on the trail than it looked from down below (yes, it was the horribly tiny ledge I saw from my previous campsite—and that wasn’t even the scary part!).

But…the summit was over 13k feet up. What. Can you believe I did that? On my own? I really can’t. It was basically a saddle point between two valleys. The view was unreal.

The supposedly flat part was more of a gentle upwards slope (once again, AllTrails, you lie!).

Then it was a steep drop off once the trail actually started going down. I was able to move faster, but it was still really high elevation with a steep drop off on one side (and lots of loose rocks), so I was still moving a little slower, to be on the safe side.

I encountered some people with burros! Or maybe just mules? Whatever they were, they weren’t having this whole hiking thing. They were moving even slower than I was when I was going uphill.

I’m really worn out today. I know 13,000 feet up is nothing to scoff at, but still. I didn’t sleep well last night either, which is was mostly due to the hunter guy (or, as I found out in the morning, hunters) who kept getting up all night. In the morning, they just watched me pack up camp and get ready for the day. It creeped me out. I was going to wait on packing up the tent until the rain fly was dry, but I decided to not worry about it. I was done being watched.

I also woke up feeling a little bit queasy. Again, 13,000 feet is a lot. Well, I camped at 12,000, but still.

There are lots of people at this campsite, including two guys who are super friendly. They even let me set up camp right next to them. My mattress has a leak, and I need to set up on a soft surface, since that’s the surface I’ll be sleeping on. It's a slow leak, but definitely a problematic one. The guys seem super friendly—amazing how much friendliness makes a difference in the overall perception of a person.

The view from inside my tent. Not pictured: a slowly deflating sleeping pad.

The women from last night are here too. I hadn’t realized it, but they set up their tents at the top of a dome last night, above the tree line, when there was going to be a thunderstorm. Interesting choice.

Day 3 - Comanche Lake to Trail Head

So despite my mattress having a slow leak in it, I actually slept moderately well. The guys in next campsite over helped me look for the leak, but they couldn’t find it either. It was hard to find a location to use the bathroom at the lake. There were so many people around, I swear every reasonable spot had a view to another campsite.

I broke camp more quickly this time; I was almost at the point of having a routine down, but it certainly is slower to do it alone. I felt better this morning than I did yesterday, but still stayed light on breakfast.

Backpack and tent in foreground; mountains behind.
Getting used to this whole single-person tent thing.

I said good bye to my new friends and headed out. I ran into lots of people on the trail heading up. On a trail this hard, it’s pretty obvious who does this regularly. There were some people doing the whole loop in one go (all of whom seem to be over 50... geez, that’s who I want to be when I grow up!). There were a few people who were clearly experienced and from the area.

For the most part, though, people were moving very slowly (or struggling so much that I wasn’t sure they’d make it the whole way). I think, on the whole, I moved faster than the average hiker (throwing out the outliers, like the 70+ guy who was running—what?!?—and the very out-of-shape guy who was struggling less than a mile in), but paused more often to catch my breath (elevation… yeah it’s rough…who knew?).

Trail between trees.
Poplar trees question mark?

The trail down was uneventful. There were some pretty poplar trees (I think). People said online that this trail was nicer then Venable, but I don’t know that I agree with that. Venable has some stunning views. Comanche has more trees, so it has fewer epic views, but lots of greenery. I liked them both, though, and I’m glad to have not had to do the same trail twice (thank you, Jerry, for pointing out that a supposedly 12 mi out-and-back is not actually safer than a 12 mi loop… I’m never more than a day’s hike from the trailhead).

Final Thoughts

I ran into a woman on the way up who was joining some friends. She asked if I was alone, and when I said yes, she gave me a fist bump. She said she was thinking about doing her own solo trip in a couple weeks, and that I’d inspired her to move forward with it. We had a lovely conversation, and then we moved on. It really touched me that she said she was inspired by me - that really means a lot to me. I don’t think of myself as someone who inspires other people to do things (outside of work, which is where I actively try to do that with our younger engineers), so her comment really surprised me.

This weekend has been a dream. Even though I’m only a couple of hours off the trail, it doesn’t seem real. It gave me the time off the grid to reset and think. Despite being exhausted and in noticeable pain in several places, I am happier and more refreshed than I have been in a long time. This was what I needed so badly—a hard reset.

A trail leading off into the mountains.
Leaving the world behind is the only thing that really frees my mind to think.

Some women go to a spa to rest and refresh themselves. Or get a mani-pedi. I did literally the opposite… I spent 3 days backpacking alone in the backcountry. I’m covered in layers of grime, sunscreen, and DEET, and I’m sure I smell terrible.

I genuinely appreciate Jerry’s role in all this; when I first suggested this, he not only agreed that I should do it, but encouraged me to do it, even though it meant he wouldn’t be going with me. It’s a sign that I married the right person—he really encourages me to be independent in my own, rather nontraditional way, rather than trying to fit in some ordinary box.

10/10 would do again. But now that I've felt that Colorado Mountain High... I want to do a 14er next!

Meera posing in front of the "Leave San Isabel National Forest" sign.
Back to the world, but not for any longer than absolutely required.