Penitente Canyon
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Prayer and Climbing at Penitente Canyon

On our Southern Colorado road trip this past summer, my guy and I had read about a spiritually rooted canyon just outside the Rockies called Penitente Canyon.

The canyon had once served as a place of worship for Los Hermanos Penitente, a Catholic brotherhood of Spanish descent. The men arrived in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico in the early 19th century after Mexico gained independence.

But in the New World, their Old World beliefs were shunned by the Catholic Church, who tried to abolish their ritual of penances that included flagellation and the carrying of heavy crosses to atone for their sins. The Penitente brotherhood was forced to lived in seclusion in the foothills of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where they were able to practice their religion free of outside influences.

Though the brotherhood has gone underground in the last century, a secret society of sorts, their name lives on in the canyon. Today, Penitente Canyon is known as one of Colorado’s premier sport climbing destinations.

Mailboxes in La Garita, Colorado

Lying on the western edge of the San Luis Valley, one can see how a sect of worshippers had chosen Penitente Canyon as a refuge. It sits seemingly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by vast open land with the San Juans and Sangre de Cristos looming in the distance. All that can be heard on a summer afternoon is the wind in the air… maybe a tumbleweed rolling across the road.

The nearest town is a few miles away and can hardly be called a town — more like a pit stop at the eccentric La Garita Cash Store.

La Garita Cash Store

La Garita Cash Store

The canyon is well developed for climbing, with several trails leading to red and orange-tinted cliffs stacked like giant blocks.

Trail leading to Penitente Canyon climbing areas

The canyon is part of the La Garita Caldera and rose from the largest known volcanic eruption in Earth’s history, around 27 million years ago during the Oligocene Epoch. The massive magma explosion left behind a molded ash and mineral deposit called Fish Canyon Tuff, making the rock grippy and ideal for climbing.

Climbing on Fish Canyon Tuff in Penitente Canyon

The climbing routes aren’t the longest, with the tallest line reaching 80 feet and the average being 50 feet. But if you like single-pitch climbing, you’ll find hundreds of clean, bolted routes in the intermediate to advanced level, and hardly anyone else around. Pure seclusion. Just you and… the rattlesnakes.

Yes. Rattlesnakes! Apparently there is a rattlesnake den at the mouth of the canyon. I skipped past one on my way to a climbing wall, only to hear a warning rattle beside my feet, and see a baby rattler retreating into a bush. And where there’s baby rattlers… there’s mama rattlers. Big, angry, protective mama rattlers.

As you walk through the canyon, you’ll come across the Virgin Wall, named for a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe painted on the face.

Approaching Virgin Wall on the right

Virgin Wall at Penitente Canyon

Legend has it that the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously appeared on the cloak of an indigenous peasant near Mexico City in 1531. Her image is highly revered by Mexican Catholics, and sometime between the 1940s and 1980s, three men from the Penitente Church decided to honor her in the canyon with a hand painted mural.

It is said that the three men tied their lariats together and attached them to an old tire, which they lowered over the canyon wall to support the painter. A likeness of the Virgin was painted along with an inscription of “Consuelo y Espiritu” (Comfort and Courage). Painted below the mural are the very faint names of the three men — Victor, Abel and Victor.

Soon after, a drunk with a pistol decided to use the mural as target practice and completely shot up the face of the Virgin, leaving pockmarks around the mural. Two climbers eventually rappelled down the wall and plastered the bullet holes, but were unable to restore her face.

The mural is slowly weathering, but the Virgin of Guadalupe remains a symbol of the canyon’s spiritual roots and looks over all those who climb there.

Virgin of Guadalupe mural in Penitente Canyon

About the only drawback of visiting Penitente Canyon is that with only the two of us, there were hardly any opportunities for pictures because we were too busy climbing. But I’ll leave you with this parting shot of my guy Will, pumped after leading Captain America!

Leading Captain America in Penitente Canyon

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