Article and Photos by URGGuide Field Editor Ryan Michelle Scavo
Hikers and snowshoers have a plethora of trails options in the area. From the San Luis Valley floor to the peaks along the Continental Divide, visitors can explore trails leading to frozen waterfalls, passing through sun-warmed canyon walls, and leading to scenic vistas all in a weekend!
Well know for it’s hundreds of climbing routes, the Penitente Canyon Special Recreation Management Area also features several hikes worth exploring. While winter/waterproof hiking shoes/boots are sufficient for some hikes, snowshoes may be better suited for others (weather/snow condition dependent).
Penitente Canyon Trail leads hikers out of the parking area into the main canyon. Along this path, you will pass world-renowned climbing routes as well as reminders of the cultural significance of the valley including native pictographs and an early Spanish painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In light snow, this is an easy to moderate difficulty hike; with deep snow, anticipate some increased difficulty along the rocky, technical sections.
Wagon Tracks Trail follows what are thought to be historic wagon routes through the San Luis Valley and offers expansive views across the valley and of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. Though the trail is often covered with snow in the winter months, on dry, sunny days, look closely along the route for deep grooves worn into the rock portions of the trail. Depending on snow cover, this section of trail can be easy to moderate difficulty due to some steep sections with rock drops.
Wiches Canyon leads hikers into lower parts of the canyon area. This section of the recreation area tends to be more secluded with wildlife tracks and sign often visible in the snow. This trail is accessed via a steep two-track road. Use caution, as snow-covered slopes are slippery. Once past the access gate to the right of the road, the trail provides an easy path into more technical canyon areas.
Trail maps are available online and via the Bureau of Land Management Office in Monte Vista. The trail system has a series of loops, out-and-backs, and unnamed connector trails. Be aware of your surroundings and carry a map with you when hiking the area.
To Access: From U.S. 285, turn west onto Saguache County Road G. After 6 miles, you will pass the La Garita Trading Post. Go another 1/2 mile to a Y intersection: take the left fork (Cty Rd 38A).
The entrance to the recreation area is another 1/2 mile on your right.