Penitente Canyon
Guide

Introduction

Penitente Canyon has long been a favorite rock climbing location for technical rock climbing enthusiasts! The Penitente Canyon Recreation Area and Campground are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and located in the San Luis Valley of Colorado.

The canyon has just shy of 300 technical rock climbing routes that are noted for being world-class, and attract expert climbers from far and wide! The area is open year-round, and the south-facing walls are accessible for climbing throughout the year. You can also hike, horseback ride, and mountain bike in the canyon on excellent marked trails, or try your luck at fishing in the La Garita Creek.

The Penitente Canyon Recreation Area was formed about 30 million years ago when one of the earth's largest volcanic eruptions created the La Garita Caldera, which provides sheer rock cliff faces and interesting geological formations. The recreation area encompasses over 5000 acres and is laced with hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and climbing routes.

The area is also known for its historic Native American rock art and the more recent additions including the famous "Virgen de Guadalupe" painting that grace the exposed rock faces. History buffs will find plenty to discover with historic wagon trails and the remnants of human activity and settlements dotting the area.

The Penitente Canyon Campground provides overnight camping for tenters and RVers in the BLM area, or you can access nearby campgrounds and recreation areas in the Rio Grande National Forest, San Juan National Forest, or the Great Sand Dunes National Park which are located nearby.

RV Rentals in Penitente Canyon

Transportation

Driving

To reach the BLM Penitente Canyon and Campground from Monte Vista, Colorado, travel north on highway 285 to County Road G. Turn west and continue for six miles to route 42, head north and then west again on County Road G/La Garita’s County Road 38A. You will see the turn off for Penitente Canyon on your right, in just under one mile. You can also take an alternate route through Del Norte by following Highway 160 northwest, and taking Highway 112 north of Del Norte to 38A. Take 38A eight miles to the Penitente Canyon turnoff.

The highways are well paved and appropriate for all vehicles, and the county access routes are well-maintained gravel roads that RVs and tow vehicles should be able to navigate to the Penitente Canyon in all but the most inclement weather. The road can be dusty and may have washboard sections, especially at intersections. If you are hauling a tow trailer or driving an RV you will want to proceed slowly to avoid stirring up dust and displacing items in your unit on rough surfaces.

The climate in the area sees very high temperatures in the summer months, and vehicles can overheat if they have inadequate coolant levels. Take plenty of drinking water for passengers and ensure your fluid levels are adequate.

Parking

Public Transportation

Campgrounds and parking in Penitente Canyon

Campsites in Penitente Canyon

First-come first-served

Penitente Canyon Campground

There are a total of 18 walk-in tent sites, and five drive-in tent or RV sites, at the Penitente Canyon Campground. The RV campsites are more suitable for small RVs, vans, and camper units. There are also two group sites available. Amenities on-site include vault toilets, picnic tables, and fire pits. From spring thaw until the winter freeze-up, there is a potable drinking water supply on-site. The sites are available for a nominal fee, on a first-come, first-serve basis, and open year-round.

The Penitente Canyon Campground is located in the Penitente Canyon Recreation Area and managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The region is well known for its world-class rock climbing opportunities, but hiking, cycling, and horseback riding on the local trails are also popular. Please note that horses are not permitted in the Penitente Canyon Campground. Pets are permitted on a leash. The canyon also has a rich history and the campground is situated at a scenic location with an interpretive site.

Seasonal activities in Penitente Canyon

Off-Season

Rock climbing

The Penitente Canyon is a world-famous, world-class rock climbing area with almost 300 technical rock climbing routes. The south faces are available for climbing year-round and temperatures are cooler here in the winter months for this strenuous activity.

There are some guidelines and regulations for rock climbers to be aware of, as sensitive wildlife habitat and historical artifacts in the region require protection. Climbers are not permitted to put any new bolting or hardware into the rock faces, encouraged to climb in small groups and disperse activities, use established trails, minimize chalk use and brush off residue when possible, and pack out all trash.

Hiking

Several trailheads are located in the Penitente Canyon recreation area. Choose from the Witches Canyon Trail, the Rock Garden Trail, Wagon Tracks Trail, or the Penitente Canyon Trail, which are all situated in the Penitente Canyon and have connecting routes.

While hiking, you will need to take plenty of water, as temperatures in the region are extremely hot and the terrain is exposed. Off-season temperatures are more moderate for hiking activities. Choose to hike in the cooler months when the climate is more hospitable for strenuous outdoor activity. Wear sturdy hiking boots to negotiate rough terrain, and protect your feet. Use caution and keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, which are common in this desert habitat.

Mountain Biking

Mountain Biking is very popular at Penitente Canyon, with excellent mountain biking loop trails to ride. There is a Loop A and Loop B mountain biking trail. Cyclists are asked to remember to stay on the trail; there is no off-trail riding, which can damage the sensitive ecosystem. There are also speed regulations, and riders are encouraged to know their limits on this rough wilderness terrain.

Trails in the area are shared with hikers and horseback riders, so keep an eye out for trail traffic, and slow down to pass equestrians and foot traffic. Helmets are encouraged. Temperatures in the summer months are very high so cycling activities during the offseason are popular.

In-Season

Fishing

Sport fishermen are not left out of recreational opportunities at the Penitente Canyon Recreation Area. La Garita Creek, located in Saguache County, is located near the climbing sites in the recreation area and offers excellent fishing sites.

Try your hand at fishing for brook trout, cutthroat trout, and brown trout from the banks of the creek. You will require a valid State of Colorado fishing license to fish the creek. Use caution on the banks of the creek which can become unstable in wet weather.

Rock Art

Explore the canyon walls at the Penitente Canyon, and in the San Luis Valley region, to discover ancient rock art. Native American rock paintings can be found on the sheer rock faces and include anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and abstract figures. The rock art is colorful with various shades of white, green, yellow, and red pigments used by the ancient peoples of the area, and painted with animal hair brushes, plant fibers, and various tools.

More recent additions to rock art in the area include the “Virgin de Guadalupe'' painting added by early Christian settlers in the region.

Historical Discovery

The Old Spanish National Historic Trail passes by the Penitente Canyon area. The wagon trail ruts of this 19th century, Mexican trade route still remain in the area.

The canyon gets its name from a Spanish religious sect that used the Penitente Canyon as a place of solitude and spiritual activities in the 1880s. The famous “Virgin de Guadalupe '' rock painting dates back to around this time and is still clearly visible on the Virgin Wall rock face. Be sure to take a camera to capture your historical discoveries. Local historical information can be found online, or through the local BLM office.

Find the perfect campsite.