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They’ve certainly made up for lost time since then, because the canyon’s 100-foot walls are regularly scaled by scramblers from around the world.

If you’re not the rock-climbing type, there are manageable hiking trails that will take you close to the action. Try to spy one of Colorado’s rarest plants, the neo-parrya, scaling the cliff walls. The canyon is part of the Bureau of Land Management’s 7,529-acre recreation area of the same name, and there is a network of single-track trails for bikers and horseback riders, in addition to a campground.

History buffs will relish the American Indian and Spanish history in the area. The canyon got its name from Los Hermanos Penitentes, a Spanish religious sect that favored Pentinente Canyon for its solitude in the 1880s. When you visit to capture a bit of your own solace and spirituality, don’t miss the Virgin of Guadalupe painted high on a canyon wall and the ruts of ox carts that remain from the days when the Old Spanish Trail traversed the area.

Getting There: Start your own Penitente Canyon adventure from the town of La Garita which is located just west of U.S. Hwy. 285. Travel west on County Road G very briefly until you reach a fork in the road. Head south (left) at the fork, which is unpaved County Road 38A. You’ll see the Penitente Canyon turn-off about half a mile down the road.

Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Kolupke.

Rock painting in the San Luis Valley's Penitente Canyon