Penitente Canyon, hidden in the low-browned volcanic foothills on the western side of the broad San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado, comprises along with the Rock Garden, Witches' Canyon, and Sidewinder Canyon, one of Colorado's most unique climbing areas. The area is also great for hiking.
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, preferred to live secluded in the foothills and canyons of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The area is part of the 7.529 acre Penitente Canyon Recreation Management Area of the BLM. Volunteers have helped install barriers to designate parking areas, campsites and trails.
There is a painting of the Virgin Guadalupe part way up one of the rock faces - Virgin Wall. The sign by the picnic area says that it was painted somewhere between 1940 and 1980 (wide range) by 3 local 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 locals have this story: "Around 1937, some members of the Penitente Brotherhood roped up and painted the Madonna on there on the wall." The devout artists sat in tires suspended by a cord, painting an image for its secretive followers.
Penitente was discovered by rock climbers in 1985. Although relatively shallow, the canyon is enclosed by sheer cliff faces nearly 100 feet tall.
From the town of La Garita (located west of U.S. Highway 285 along Saguache County Road G), briefly travel west on County Road G until you turn left (or south) at the fork in the road, where it becomes the unpaved County Road 38A. Travel approximately 0.5 mile to the turn-off to Penitente Canyon. Follow the dirt road for 1 mile o the canyon entrance and parking area.
Guide books: "San Luis Valley Rock Climbing and Bouldering Guide" by Bob D'Antonio, Chockstone press, 1994
"Rock Climbing Colorado" by Steward M. Green, Falcon guide.
There are nearly 300 routes, most of them located on the sunny north side of the canyon. The routes near the entry are slightly more difficult, ranging 5.11s and 5.12s. But further inside the canyon are multiple routes with much easier grade, there is even one 5.2 bolted route - Mr. Breeze. We climbed in some side canyon, which provided more shade in the summer.
The history of climbing in Penitente Canyon is short. In 1984, two men jogged through the area. "I knew it was special," said Bon D'Antonio, one of the joggers. "Really good rock, excellent climbing. Just really unique." D'Antonio climber known for first ascents at Shelf Road near Canon City, would spend years exploring, trail building and establishing routes in these canyons. And he wrote a guide book as well.
CampingThe campground is managed by BLM (Bureau of Land Management, Saguache Field Office), and it is open year round. The campground is not maintained. All trash must be packed out. Water is available from about May 1 to October 1. There are toilets on site. Watch for rattlesnakes in the summer (my son nearly stepped on one).
There are 18 walk-in and 5 drive-in overnight campsites for 5$ per night (2 tents or 1 camper), and there are 2 group sites for 15.00$ per night (up to 5 tents). Day use is free.
The campground can get very hot in the summer. La Garita town has a gas station, but no grocery store, so plan to stock up in Del Norte.
External LinksRock climbing guide
Climbing weather information - this site provides a detailed one week forecast.