by Thomas Cleary
A few years back I spent my birthday camped out at Penitente Canyon. The days were bluebird clear and the night sky full of stars. I have climbed in the canyon many times and hiked and biked the trails along the canyon rim a bit. I have basked in the sun on a winter’s day, been snowed on in May, and once was chased out of the canyon during a rainstorm as lightening boomed all around. Penitente Canyon has it all!
Penitente is a truly easy-access destination. Get there by travelling west on County Rd. G from either highway 17 or 285. Follow the curves in the road to the little town of La Garita, then on for about another mile. When the road divides, turn left off the pavement onto County Rd. 38A. Another mile on you will turn right when you see the “Penitente Canyon” sign. Near this junction, a short distance to the south, is a water well with great-tasting water. You can also follow the sign toward the “Wagon Wheel Tracks” from this area, but I digress . . . Further up the main road you will find the trailhead, a campground with individual and group sites, and outhouses. Many of the campsites are tucked into rock alcoves or surrounded by interesting wind- and water-carved boulders, making for cozy, private camps. The campground has about 20 individual sites; some have tent platforms, others are pull-in RV sites. To get to the sites that I think are the sweetest, go on the spur road up the hill to the south at the campground entrance; there you can camp closer to an outhouse and are off the dusty main road.
The trailhead parking lot at the end of the road hosts the main trail up the canyon which leads to world class rock climbing, the wall mural of “The Virgin” (painted by Los Hermanos Penitentes in the mid-1900s), and wonderful views. One nice trail heads up the main canyon, then climbs out through a system of easy rock ramps, and wanders along the rim before dropping into Rock Garden Canyon. If you are on a bike, you will find a variety of single track and double track loops and trails (and a trailmap) by heading back out the road you came in for about 100 yards. The Bureau of Land Management, out of the Saguache Field Office (719-655-2547), has put lots of money, time, and service hours into campground and trail improvements; unfortunately vandals have recently been removing or altering these, so check the maps well and don’t expect an accurate sign at every turn.
Wherever you go you will be surrounded by rocks of all different shapes and sizes. These rocks formed when volcanic ash solidified into rock about 33 million years ago. Since then water and wind have worn down and cut into the rocks creating the various features we see today. Rock knobs perched on thin necks are called hoo-doos, the holes in the rocks that make cliffs of Swiss cheese are called huecos, and all the rounded features form as a result of spheroidal weathering where the edges of cracks and joints in the rocks erode away more quickly due to increased surface area.
Even if you are not a rock climber, it is fun to watch others, or to try to imagine climbing the short but sheer rock faces. In many places you will see metal bolts placed in the walls; climbers use these to attach the rope to protect themselves from a fall. In most climbing styles the bolts are not used to help the climber go up, only to stop them from going all the way down in the event of a slip. Unless you are wearing a rope and are skilled in rock climbing, please stick to the trails. Also, be aware of rattlesnakes; these beautiful and timid creatures have been increasing in numbers during the last few years. They will generally warn you of their presence with a shake of the tail so you will know to give them a wide berth.
Penitente Canyon has it all! Check out the great camping, hiking, sweet water, history, climbing, biking, weather, and more. It is a treasure right in our backyard.