Penitente Canyon in Southern Colorado

Nestled within the rugged expanses of the San Luis Valley lies a hidden gem for adventurers —the enchanting Penitente Canyon and the nearby Natural Arch. This picturesque canyon area, adorned with towering cliffs and labyrinthine rock formations, stands as a testament to nature's raw beauty. See below for a Full Day Itinerary to explore the area.

Rock Climbing

Penitente stands as a haven for rock climbers. With its soaring cliffs and intricate rock formations, this canyon offers a diverse range of routes suitable for climbers of various skill levels. Penitente Canyon's allure lies in its varied rock types, from limestone walls to pockets and challenging overhangs, creating an exciting playground for climbers. The canyon's bolted routes cater to both sport climbing enthusiasts and those seeking a taste of the outdoors. More about Rock Climbing

History and Culture

Penitente Canyon's rich history intertwines with its geological wonders. History buffs will relish in the Native American and Spanish history of the area. Pictographs (painted panels) discovered there depict game drives and hunting expeditions, likely drawn by the Puebloan, Apache or Ute tribes. The canyon is named after Los Hermanos Penitentes, a secretive religious brotherhood that favored the Canyons in the 1880s for their solitude. The group practiced a blend of Catholicism infused with indigenous beliefs and traditions. The Penitentes were known for their rituals and acts of penance, often involving self-flagellation and reenactments of Christ's crucifixion during Holy Week.

When you visit, don’t miss the Virgin of Guadalupe painted high on a canyon wall, and the ruts of ox carts that remain from the Old Spanish Trail.

Hiking and Mountain Biking

Exploration in Penitente Canyon isn't limited to climbing alone. An extensive singletrack trail system is used by hikers and mountain bikers, traversing the stunning landscape and discovering the unique flora and fauna that call this canyon home. The entire recreation area’s over 7,000 acres is open to the public.

La Garita Natural Arch or "La Ventana"

La Garita Natural Arch, affectionately known as "La Ventana," stands as a majestic geological wonder and is said to be a sacred site for the Jicarilla Apache and Ute tribes. 

Penitente Hiking

1 Day Itinerary: Experience the Power of Place

1. Grab breakfast in town before heading east towards the San Luis Valley. To take the “scenic route” east, turn off at the Ute Bluff Lodge onto CR 19, cross the mighty Rio Grande and follow the paved/dirt CR 15 as it snakes along the river, through scenic ranches and farmland for about fifteen miles. Consider a detour at the sign for Colonel Pfeiffer’s Grave, and visit the land granted to him by the Native Utes. Pass by Indian Head and other unusual and remarkable mountain outcroppings. Zigzag south-east-north just before getting onto Colorado 112 and travel north along the outer edge of the Valley for just over 2 miles. Follow the signs for Penitente Canyon and La Garita, and turn onto CR33/38A.

2. You will first take an 11 mile round-trip expedition to see the Arch, or La Ventana (spanish for “window”), one of southern Colorado’s most unusual natural formations. Note the interesting geology of the area: about 33 million years ago during a period of explosive volcanic activity, large amounts of volcanic debris and ash were ejected into the air. Heat and pressure formed the ash into very hard rock, and millions of years worth of erosion deteriorated the softer material, leaving behind what we see today! The Arch was carved out of a volcanic “dike” and you might notice the signs of weathering on nearby companion arches.

To see the Natural Arch: Take a left off of Rd 33/38A onto FS 660/Rd A32. Follow this road for 4.1 miles. Take FS 659/ Rd 35C and go another 1.6 miles north.  South Fork to the Natural Arch: aprox 1 hr drive.

3. Return to Road 38A and continue north-bound. Next up is Penitente Canyon, a designated Special Recreation Area with something for everyone!

For the sight-seer, hiker and history buff: Take the short hike up to see the Wagon Wheel ruts, a part of the Old Spanish Trail that served as a pack-animal route for traders traveling west to California in the mid-1800s. Wander throughout the unusual canyons in search of the San Luis Valley’s largest collection of pictographs. Most is the work of indigenous peoples who lived in the area 2,000 years ago, but a newer example is the faded blue Madonna high up on a rock face, reportedly painted by locals in the mid 1900s.

For the rock climber: Penitente Canyon is an internationally recognized climbing area, providing 60-70 incredible sport climbing routes. The unusual volcanic landscape (rock that eroded and cracked over time) not only created a mystical backdrop for recreation, but the smoothed and rounded rock-face provides good hand-holds! Learn More

For the mountain biker: 2 mountain bike loops offer a great opportunity to see the area. The B-loop is best for the beginner, while the A-loop is more fun for an advanced rider. Each route is less than three miles, and can also be hiked.

If you need a snack break, return to CR 38A and drive the short distance to the town of La Garita. Stop at the Cash Store, an old log cabin turned general shop. Visit the picturesque 1924 Catholic church that today houses the San Juan Art Center. Make your return trip via Del Norte. Consider a stop by the Rio Grande County Museum for more about the local heritage and make a note to ask about Colonel Pfeiffer, a well know and respected Indian Agent! Wander Grand Avenue’s antique shops and art galleries, and have dinner at the Historic Windsor Hotel.

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