Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Getting Lost and Running Wild in Penitente Canyon

Penitente Canyon is truly a hidden gem as a trail running destination in Colorado, especially during the months of the year when the higher mountains are buried under deep snow. I recently made my very first visit to the area despite having driven past on US-285 dozens of times over the last five years during my commutes from Denver to Creede. Given that I've never had a particularly strong inclination to sport climbing, the canyon did not hold a great deal of interest to me until I found out about the trail network that had been developed in the area which had become increasingly popular among mountain bikers.

The view below is seen from atop the plateau that the many small narrow canyons spill from. On this day the clear weather allowed for views across the San Luis valley to the high peaks of the Sangre de Christo range, and including the Great Sand Dunes which can be seen on the right side of the photo below.

Penitente and the adjacent canyons are not very deep, but they are lined with an abundance of jumbled sandstone rock formations and are littered with high desert foliage.

The area of Penitente Canyon was for many years a refuge for Los Hermanos Penitentes, a sect of Spanish Catholicism, from which the canyon receives its name. Surviving evidence of this heritage can be seen in the image of the Virgin Guadalupe painted on one of the prominent rock faces in the lower canyon.

It's worth noting that the trail system within and surrounding the canyons can be somewhat confusing since the signage placed at trail intersections does not strictly match the trail maps for the area. Additionally, a few of the trails can be very indistinct and difficult to follow at times, and developed climbers trails often lead to dead-ending, albeit interesting, side canyons.

The views from above the canyons are endless on a clear day, as shown below from the top of the Rock Garden trail with a view across the San Luis valley southeast to the Blanca Peak massif.

I particularly enjoyed running the Rock Garden trail because many segments of the trail contained no definite track as they followed cairned routes over slickrock and through narrow slots. The trail finally ended up in a side canyon where the rock features provoked closer inspection.

After climbing back onto the plateau above Penitente Canyon proper, I proceeded on a loop route that eventually led into the higher foothills to the west of the canyon area. The views below are of Bennett Peak and Pintada Mountain - the most northeasterly of the high peaks in the South San Juan mountains.

I had taken a picture with my phone of the trail map which was posted at the entrance to the trailhead and was reliant on this for reference since no printed trail maps were available and the trails in this area are not shown on any common area maps. Due to some indistinct and poorly signed trail intersections, I ended up getting myself wonderfully lost for several miles until I found myself 1000 feet above the canyons on a nice soft dirt trail leading deeper into the National Forest. I assume that this connector trail, and possibly others, connect to existing trails maintained within the National Forest among the higher foothills of the La Garita mountains further to the west. After a frustratingly long time spent attempting to find a trail intersection for the Witches Canyon trail, I finally discovered the correct path and was rewarded with a descent into a tight canyon choked with foliage and a "trail" which led over huge boulders, through caves and arches, and across rock fins before dropping into a sandy canyon bottom lined with even more fascinating rock sculptures. The rock formation below, which I've nicknamed "The Hound" for obvious reasons, is an example of the crazy rock formations within the Witches Canyon area.

In total I covered approximately 12 miles of trail during my initial exploration with only minor retracing of routes required in a few areas. There are many additional trails within this area that I did not have a chance to visit this time, but I plan to stop and explore the area more regularly now that I'm informed of the quality trails it contains. If you're ever in the area, I encourage you to do the same.