The Crestone Eagle • August, 2021

Penitente Canyon  Recreation Area: Geology, history, & outdoor fun

by Zaylah Pearson-Good 

Summer is here and it is time to get out and enjoy the exquisite beauty of the San Luis Valley. The Penitente Canyon Recreation Area, located outside of Del Norte along the edge of the Rio Grande National Forest, presents endless fun to the adventurous spirit. Unique geology and human history coupled with incredible hiking, rock climbing, biking, and camping opportunities make this 7,529-acre recreation area a true gem. No matter your interests, budding ribbons of wildflowers, stunning panoramic views, and dynamic wildlife sightings are sure to charm you during your next visit to the recreation area. 

Rock climbing is a favorite sport in Penitente Canyon and offers many different levels of challenges from bouldering to technical. Bureau of Land Management photo

Geology

Visitors are quick to recognize the striking features of Penitente Canyon’s rock type. Steep and chiseled in some areas, while bulbous and rounded in others, this red rock canyon was formed nearly 30 million years ago in the aftermath of one of our planet’s most violent volcanic eruptions ever, La Garita Caldera (See June’s Crestone Eagle feature story to learn more). As volcanic ash from the catastrophic event cooled and compressed, the unusual canyon that we see today formed. The ash flow deposit is known as “Fish Canyon Tuff” and is often exciting study material for geologists and a gratifying playground for rock climbers. 

Human history

In addition, Penitente Canyon has an astonishing human history. Along Penitente Canyon Trail, onlookers are reminded of the indigenous peoples who occupied the San Luis Valley for thousands of years. A gallery of pictographs intermittently adorns the canyon, with images depicting what many believe to be game drive scenes. Since many Native tribes hunted within the Penitente area, including the Apache, Pueblo, and Ute, it is difficult to identify the exact tribe to associate with the rock art. 

RGtrail: The Rock Garden Trail offers both a canyon experience and rim views all in less than a mile each way. It leaves right from the main parking area. The black road in the upper portion of the image is the paved road (41-G) that comes out of La Garita. The 2 mounds just south and west of the camping / trailhead area are the general location of the wagon tracks.

Spanish colonization and settlement brought even more character to the striking canyon. A religious brotherhood, Los Hermanos Penitentes, reportedly claimed the canyon in the late 19th century as their secret gathering place. Following a non-traditional sect of Catholicism, Los Hermanos were rumored to practice radical rituals, such as crucifixion and self-flagellation. While the curious ceremonies and rituals of this sect dissolved over time, rumors suggest that descendants of Los Hermanos still visit the canyon today, making it a place of continued cultural and spiritual significance.  

Years later, in the 1980s, a painting of the Virgin de Guadalupe mysteriously appeared on one of the canyon’s walls. Above the Virgin are the words “Consuelo y Espíritu,” meaning Comfort and Courage. Though very difficult to decipher after years of fading, three names below the Virgin seem to indicate the artists’ names: Victor, Abel, and Victor. Some locals claim that the artists were descendants from the original members of Los Hermanos Penitentes. The painting underwent a violent attack years ago, when a visitor opened fire, bullets aimed at the Virgin’s face. Restoration attempts have been made by climbers, but the injuries remain. The Virgin can be viewed from the Penitente Canyon Trail.

The canyon got its name from Los Hermanos Penitentes, a Spanish religious sect that favored Pentinente Canyon for its solitude in the 1880s. A rock painting of the Lady of Guadalupe graces a canyon wall. photo credit Joseph Kolupke

Penitente Canyon near LaGarita is a great place to hike and explore.

Hiking

From the main parking area, a range of hiking trails are accessible to those of all fitness levels. The sinuous Penitente Canyon Trail leads hikers through the intimate, red rock canyon, with many side trails branching off to climbing routes. At this time of year, the canyon floor is covered with beautiful chokecherry blooms, bringing beauty, heavenly aromas, and lots of birding opportunity to the hike. Along your walk, you may also spot one of Colorado’s rarest plant species, the neo-parrya. Find these yellow blooms strung along the steep canyon walls. Also tucked away within the rocks are the bright red blooms of the Claret Cup cactus. These brilliant flowers are sure to stop you in your tracks. Various other wildflowers, shrubs, and trees enrich the hiking experience, making it a great place for birding, nature viewing, and enjoying the natural beauty of the San Luis Valley. 

Additionally, ancient petroglyphs and the more modern Virgin de Guadalupe painting can be seen along the Penitente Canyon Trail. Following old wagon ruts made by early Spanish settlers, the Wagon Tracks Trail brings hikers to vast valley views; a perfect vantage point to admire the Sangre de Cristo range. These two trails are just some of the many that make Penitente Canyon Recreation Area great for hikers. Many of these trails also allow horseback riding. As you enjoy the special place on foot or horse, keep an eye out for prairie rattlesnakes! 

Rock climbing 

With around 300 technical climbing routes, Penitente Canyon is an international hotspot for sport climbing. Climbers report well-established and safe bolting as well as sturdy walls that offer great friction. A diverse array of one-pitch routes run between 50-100 feet in length, with most being 5.10 grade difficulty or more. There are also trad climbing and bouldering opportunities along Penitente Canyon. Most routes are easily identified along Rock Garden, Witches Canyon, and Penitente Canyon Trail. Year-round climbing is possible along south-facing walls. As a reminder to all climbers, new bolting is not allowed. Please climb along preestablished routes. Additionally, whenever possible, be mindful not to disturb cliff-nesting birds.  

Bikerider during a “12 Hours of Penitence” enurance race. photo by Ben Knight

Biking

There are over 20 miles of bike-friendly routes in the recreation area that accommodate both the beginner and advanced rider. As a warmup, or for beginner bikers, check out the Ute Loop or Dollhand Ravine biking trails. For those looking for a challenge, take on one of the most technically challenging trails, “Rock Drops.” At times, this trail literally sends riders hopping down rocky points and small boulders. Stunning views of the Sangre de Cristo range can be seen for intermediate to advanced bikers who try the “Sunshine Kitty” run, a 2.4-mile single-track trail, on majority slickrock. For those who want to challenge their endurance while also exploring the backcountry, attempt the Boot Mountain Loop. This near 46-mile loop takes riders from the Penitente Canyon Trail system to Boot Mountain’s summit at around 12,000 feet.  

Camping

If you are interested in spending the night, the recreation area is well-equipped to support both developed and primitive camping aspirations. Walk-in, drive in, and group camping sites are available. Many campsites have access to toilets, water systems, and trash bins. Fees are $11.00 per night for individual sites. Dogs are welcome, though must be on a leash at all times. Horses, however, are not permitted inside the campground. The recreation area is home to black bears, so before camping, please make sure you have a plan for proper food storage.  

Nearby attractions

After a day of fun, consider refueling at one of the nearby eateries. La Garita Trading Post is a short drive from the canyon and has served homecooked meals since 1913. They also provide gas, camping gear, and groceries. A slightly longer drive to the town of Del Norte will bring you to Three Barrel Brewing. A great stop with a good menu after a full day at the Penitente Canyon Recreation Area. Lastly, to learn more about the amazing cultural history of the area, visit the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte. 

Direct questions or inquires about Penitente Canyon to the San Luis Valley Field Office: 719- 852-7074.