Press "Enter" to skip to content

Places: Penitente Canyon

By Chelsea McNerney-Martinez

As regular readers may have already determined, I am an outdoor recreation novice, which is probably why I love Penitente Canyon so much. Although there are absolutely more challenges there than I will ever be prepared for, the canyon’s more than 25 miles of trails have hiking routes for every level of expertise, including those who may or may not be overly confident in their land navigation skills and get their friends lost, only to come out suddenly on County Road 41 about seven miles from the parking lot (Sorry again, Chris, but thanks to the nice local gentleman who had seen that happen many times and gave us a ride back to the parking lot).

Penitente Canyon, Witches Canyon and the interconnected networks include 22 different routes, which can take hikers anywhere from one to five hours to complete each. Many loop through and around the top of the canyon, like the Blue Sky Loop. Numbers on “Trail Confidence Markers” help hikers stay on track. One of the area’s most notorious hazards, rattlesnakes, are found around the area, often near the top of the canyon, but luckily that’s a hazard you can usually hear coming.

One of the canyon’s biggest recreational attractions are the over 300 routes for rock climbing. Although new bolting is strictly forbidden, the existing routes are just a few minutes’ walk from the canyon entrance and include 50-100-foot pitch climbs, according to the San Luis Valley Trail guide, ( While visiting recently, I encountered a group of climbers from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of skill levels in action. The spring weather kept the south-facing rock from becoming intolerably hot, but summer climbers would likely be better off going for earlier or later climbs to maximize their ability to use the routes. notes the majority of the climbs are sport climbs, followed by traditional routes. Contributors to the site rate each climb with a handful receiving a four-star rating. The routes themselves boast a variety of names, some that honor the tradition of the religious Penitentes who painted the famous depiction of Mother Mary on the rock wall in the 19th century, such as “Los Hermanos De La Penitente,” “Sister of Mercy,” “Self-flagellation,” and “Wages of Sin,” to the more whimsical and modern “Jabba the Hut,” “Alien in my Underpants,” and “Captain America.” Visit their site for a comprehensive guide to Penitente climbs and climbs around the SLV at On the eastern side of the recreation area are the famous Wagon Tracks embedded in rock, a reminder of the historical importance of the area. Now, the canyon still brings athletes on wheels, but of the two-wheeled variety, as the canyon is known as an excellent place for mountain biking, also including a variety of challenges for different skill levels. rates the trails in the canyon from easy to difficult, although most of the biking trails are in the intermediate ranges.

Prior to becoming its own independent non-profit, volunteers and community leaders involved in The San Luis Valley Great Outdoors (SLVGO) raised money for trail development in Penitente Canyon and are responsible for the success of many of the trail options available today. SLVGO also organizes the annual Twelve Hours of Penitence race in the fall (cancelled last year due to COVID) which is exactly as grueling as it sounds. Each lap is 17 miles and includes a 1,700-foot elevation climb. Single racers or teams of two to four people compete to maximize the number of timed laps they complete, with an alternate variation for those who don’t want to do the full route. In 2019, the most laps completed by any team or individual were seven, the longest time ridden was 12:39:20 by a co-ed duo named “The DURANGATANGS” and the fastest lap time was Co-ed Duo “Tennessee Pass Cookhouse” with 1:31:24. The fastest individual lap was single-speed solo rider Jeff Spencer, with 1:39:51. For more information on the race, visit,

The Bureau of Land Management oversees the recreation area and the US Forest Service oversees the camping, which is available starting at eleven dollars per night for individual sites (twenty dollars for group sites). Penitente Canyon features nine walk-in tent sites, four drive in sites, two group sites and five restroom areas. Nearby Witches Canyon area has eight walk-in tent sites but none of the other amenities. For more information on camping, see

Chelsea is a lot of things, and unfortunately for her non-starter climbing career, afraid of heights is one of them.

The Places column is sponsored by Mark Zander and Leslie Champ.