The trail leading into Penitente Canyon
Years ago, Penitente Canyon served as a place of worship for Los Hermanos Penitente, that's how it got its' name. The Brothers, Spanish and Indian men of deep faith and commitment, preferred to live secluded in the foothills and canyons of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains in order to practice their religion freely. Penitente Canyon, while quite secluded, has emerged as one of Colorado's premier rock climbing areas. The area includes Penitente, Rock Garden, Sidewinder, and Witches Canyons with a high concentration of world class routes. The area is part of the 7,529 acre Penitente Canyon Special Recreation Management Area of the BLM. Volunteers have helped install barriers to designate parking areas, campsites and trails, and a permanent restroom facility has been built.
I drove in on a Thursday afternoon in early May. There was only one other vehicle in the parking lot, and I was almost to the far end of the canyon before I came across 2 guys who were very quietly working their way up one boulder. These photos are from my walk through the bottom of Penitente Canyon and then up on the Rock Garden Trail to where I could get a good view back down into the canyon.
There's a lot of Native American rock art in the area, but the most prominent piece of artwork I came across was the painting of the Virgin Guadalupe part way up one of the rock faces. The signage by the picnic area said it was painted somewhere between 1940 and 1980 by 3 local Hispanic men. Two of them signed the rock near the bottom and there's a faint inscription around the virgin saying "Consuelo y Espiritu" (Comfort and Courage). The La Garita Church in the photo (upper left), with its' cross pointing in the six directions, has come to signify the early European inhabitants in the San Luis Valley (who were mostly Los Hermanos Penitente).
The BLM has placed a moratorium on folks placing new hardware into the rock, and if you look closely at some of these photos, you'll see lots of hardware already in the rock. You'll also see some of the damage done to the rock by folks climbing on it again and again and again in the same places. The reddish-colored rock is on the north side of the canyon, where it gets lots of exposure to the sun. The greyish-colored rock is in the shadows on the south side of the canyon. The rock exposed more to the sun tends to be more vertical while rock in the shadows tends to have a more gentle slope.
The picnic area at the entrance to the canyon
Deep in the canyon
If you're here to climb, where do you start?
To get to Penitente Canyon: Go north out of Monte Vista on Highway 285 for 18 miles to County Road G (there is a sign). Turn left and go west to the "Y" just past the La Garita Store. Take the dirt road (south) and follow the signs to the Canyon.
One more thing: Penitente Canyon is actually in Saguache County. There are some services nearby in Center but most touristic type stuff is to the south in Rio Grande County.
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Bottom of the Rock Garden Trail
Up on top and looking back
Climbers on the left side of the photo
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