The Crestone Eagle • August 2021
by Zaylah Pearson-Good
Summer is here and it’s time to get out and enjoy the exquisite beauty of the San Luis Valley. Penitente Canyon Recreation Area outside Del Norte on the edge of the Rio Grande National Forest offers endless fun for the adventurous. Unique geology and human history paired with incredible hiking, climbing, cycling and camping opportunities make this 7,529 hectare recreational area a real gem. Regardless of your interests, your next visit to the recreation area is sure to enchant you with budding ribbons of wildflowers, breathtaking panoramic views, and dynamic wildlife viewing.
Visitors quickly recognize the distinctive features of the Penitente Canyon rock type. Steep and chiseled in some areas, bulbous and rounded in others, this red canyon was formed nearly 30 million years ago after one of the most violent volcanic eruptions on our planet, La Garita Caldera (see Crestone Eagle in June Learn More). When the volcanic ash of the catastrophic event was cooled and compressed, the unusual canyon we see today was formed. The ash river deposit is known as “Fish Canyon Tuff” and is often exciting study material for geologists and a fun playground for climbers.
In addition, Penitente Canyon has an amazing human history. Along the Penitente Canyon Trail, viewers are reminded of the indigenous peoples who occupied the San Luis Valley for millennia. A gallery of pictograms adorns the canyon intermittently, with images depicting what many believe to be game drives. Since many Indian tribes hunted in the Penitente area, including the Apaches, Pueblo, and Ute, it is difficult to identify the exact tribe that can be associated with rock painting.
The Spanish colonization and settlement gave the striking gorge even more character. A religious brotherhood, Los Hermanos Penitentes, reportedly claimed the canyon as their secret meeting place in the late 19th century. Following a nontraditional sect of Catholicism, Los Hermanos was rumored to practice radical rituals such as crucifixion and self-flagellation. While the curious ceremonies and rituals of this sect disintegrated over time, rumors suggest that descendants of Los Hermanos still visit the canyon today, making it a place of enduring cultural and spiritual importance.
Years later, in the 1980s, a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe mysteriously appeared on one of the canyon’s walls. Above the Virgin are the words “Consuelo y Espíritu”, which means comfort and courage. Although very difficult to decipher after years of fading, three names under the Virgin seem to indicate the names of the artists: Victor, Abel, and Victor. Some locals claim that the artists were descendants of the original Los Hermanos Penitentes members. The painting was subjected to a violent attack years ago when a visitor opened fire and bullets were aimed at the Virgin’s face. Recovery attempts have been made by climbers, but the injuries remain. The Jungfrau can be viewed from the Penitente Canyon Trail.
Various hiking trails for all fitness levels are accessible from the main car park. The winding Penitente Canyon Trail leads hikers through the intimate, red rock gorge, with many side paths branching off to climbing routes. At this time of year, the canyon floor is covered in beautiful apple cherry blossoms, adding beauty, heavenly flavors, and plenty of bird watching opportunities to the hike. During your stroll, you can also spot one of Colorado’s rarest species of flora, the Neo-Parrya. Find these yellow flowers lined up along the steep canyon walls. The bright red flowers of the Claret Cup cactus are also hidden in the rocks. These brilliant flowers are sure to stop you. Various other wildflowers, shrubs, and trees add to the hiking experience, making it a great place for birdwatching, nature watching, and enjoying the natural beauty of the San Luis Valley.
In addition, ancient petroglyphs and the more modern painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe can be seen along the Penitente Canyon Trail. The Wagon Tracks Trail follows old wagon ruts created by early Spanish settlers and leads hikers to expansive valley vistas; a perfect vantage point to admire the Sangre de Cristo range. These two trails are just a few of many that make the Penitente Canyon Recreation Area an ideal hiking area. Many of these trails also allow horse riding. If you enjoy the special place on foot or on horseback, keep an eye out for prairie rattlesnakes!
With around 300 technical climbing routes, the Penitente Canyon is an international hotspot for sport climbing. Climbers report proven and safe anchors as well as stable walls that offer high friction. A diverse selection of single pitch routes range from 50 to 100 feet, with most having a difficulty rating of 5.10 or more. There are also traditional climbing and bouldering opportunities along the Penitente Gorge. Most of the routes are easy to spot along the Rock Garden, Witches Canyon, and Penitente Canyon Trail. Climbing is possible all year round on the south face. As a reminder to all climbers, re-anchoring is not allowed. Please climb along the given routes. Also, be careful not to disturb cliff breeders whenever possible.
To go biking
In the local recreation area there are over 32 km of bike-friendly routes that are suitable for both beginners and advanced skiers. To warm up or for beginners, check out the Ute Loop or Dollhand Ravine cycle paths. If you are looking for a challenge, you can take one of the most technically demanding trails, “Rock Drops”. Sometimes this trail literally sends riders to hop down rocky spots and small boulders. Breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo chain can be enjoyed by advanced bikers who try the “Sunshine Kitty” run, a 2.4 mile long single trail trail on predominantly slick rock. For those looking to challenge their endurance while exploring the backcountry, try the Boot Mountain Loop. This nearly 76 mile loop takes riders off the Penitente Canyon Trail system to the summit of Boot Mountain at approximately 12,000 feet.
If you are interested in spending the night, the recreation area is well equipped to support both developed and primitive camping ambitions. There are accessible, drivable and group campsites available. Many campsites have access to toilets, water systems, and trash cans. Charges are $ 11.00 per night for individual websites. Dogs are welcome, but must always be on a leash. However, horses are not allowed on the campsite. The recreation area is home to black bears. So before camping, make sure you have a plan for proper food storage.
After an eventful day, you should refuel in one of the nearby restaurants. La Garita trading post is a short drive from the canyon and has served home cooked meals since 1913. They also provide gas, camping gear, and groceries. A slightly longer drive into the town of Del Norte will bring you to Three Barrel Brewing. A great stop with a good menu after a full day in the Penitente Canyon Recreation Area. Finally, to learn more about the area’s amazing cultural history, head to the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte.
Direct questions or inquiries about Penitente Canyon to the San Luis Valley Field Office: 719-852-7074.