Sandy trails and sacred mystery

A glimpse into the history of Penitente Canyon

La Garita, Ventana Natural Arch and environs

Standing on top of a rocky outcrop in the early morning sun, realizing I might be lost, I scanned the ground for hints of a trail that I’d missed. There were remnants of wagon tracks from the old Spanish Trail nearby, along with ancient rock art, but I wouldn’t find them if I couldn’t find the trail. Spotting the trail marker, with eyes peeled for rattlesnakes, I made my way deeper into Penitente Canyon.

La Garita, Ventana Natural Arch and environs

The wagon tracks are faint, barely discernible from more recent human trails on the sandy soil, even with a sign guiding the way. Chokecherry bushes and deadfall cover everything else, making for paths that are hard to read even for an experienced hiker, particularly at the canyon rim.

A four-hour drive south from Boulder County, Penitente Canyon is nestled on the western edge of the San Luis Valley, near Del Norte. The land is near the Rio Grande National Forest, but maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

Initially drawn in by the thought of isolated and labyrinthine canyons, it was the opportunity to explore a hidden piece of Colorado that lured me further. Piecing together the history of the canyon was as much an adventure as finding where the trail turned past the confidence markers. BLM and tourism websites have small snippets, but it took visits to museums in Alamosa, Del Norte and Saguache to find some local testimony and books written on the area.

The name is drawn from a sect of Spanish Catholics called Los Hermanos Penitentes that established a presence in the San Luis Valley in the 1800s, as the presence of Spanish missions in the Southwest diminished. The sect garnered a reputation for unsanctioned rituals including crucifixion and self-flagellation, seeking the privacy offered by the canyons to build their places of worship.

The San Juan Catholic Spiritual Center, with graves dating back to the early 1900s.

The Penitentes still have a presence in the American Southwest, particularly New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Ruben E. Archuleta details some of the traditions, histories and social impact of the sect in his book Land of the Penitentes, Land of Tradition

The text gives credence to some of the more extreme practices, emphasizing that they were only practiced by a small number. Much, Archuleta explains, became sensationalized in the late 1920s and ’30s, with films like 1936’s Lash of the Penitentes depicting only the harshest aspects of worship.

“After viewing the pictures and the 1936 movie, it was the author’s opinion that the scenes were staged and the purported Penitentes were actors,” Archuleta writes. “In fact, it seemed as if an extra effort was made to have the most unattractive, shady characters portray the Penitentes.”

The canyons still saw some use from the devout, however, before being popularized by local sport climbers. Sometime in the early ’80s, a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared high up on a canyon wall. The painting is still there, faded by time and damaged by vandals, easy to miss when the sun doesn’t hit right.

“It’s been graffitied since, but I think now that we realize the historical significance, that we’re doing a little more to protect it,” says Lyndsie Ferrell, historian and director of the Rio Grande County Museum. 

The San Juan Catholic Spiritual Center, with graves dating back to the early 1900s.

Deeper into the maze-like canyons, evidence of hunting from indigenous tribes predating Spanish settlement can be found in the form of rock art and arrowheads. The paintings depict hunters driving game into canyons, which Ferrell says were sacred lands. Near the canyon, La Ventana arch is still sacred to the Jicarilla Apache and Ute tribes. Ferrell attributes some of that to unusual geomagnetic occurrences around the canyons and arch.

“The Arch is a fault area. Some people get disoriented or feel weird because of the geological phenomenon, which is one of the reasons we think the tribes felt drawn to it,” Ferrell theorizes.

The boulderous slabs of Penitente, as well as La Ventana Arch, are remnants of the San Juan volcanic field. Aside from creating breathtaking natural wonders, the volcanic activity also led to an abundance of minerals that drew European settlers to the area to begin with, leading to the eventual settling of places like Creede and Summitville.

Once in the canyon, the brush is thick. Trees tumble across paths to wedge against rock walls a hundred feet high, all lending to a sense of mystery in the canyon, along with a sense of triumph after some precarious scrambling. Eventually I found the Virgin, weathered and faded on the rust-tinted rock.

I never found the hunting art deeper in the canyon, but that just serves as motivation for another trip. Already back home, pouring through history books and geological essays, the tangled corridors call me back.