I’m always on the lookout for out-of-the-way places that, despite their uniqueness and beauty, go unnoticed by most people. Penitente Canyon is one such place. The canyon is located at the western edge of the San Luis Valley in the foothills of the La Garita Mountains.
Birding partners Jon Horn, Steve Dike and I recently visited the San Luis Valley to explore the numerous wetlands and riparian areas that attract a host of waterfowl, wading and shore birds. Penitente Canyon was a bonus with a very different environment that hosts its own set of avian residents.
The canyon is part of a 4,000-acre Special Recreation Management Area (SRMA) that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It is best known for its rock climbing routes. Over 300 climbing routes can be found on the canyon walls made of volcanic tuff. The SMRA also sports many miles of non-motorized trails open to hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.
The name Penitente Canyon has its origin rooted in the early-day Hispanic settlers. A religious sect of the Catholic Church, Los Hermanos Pentitente, supposedly used the canyon as a remote location to conduct their religious ceremonies. To add to that legend a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe can be found high on a canyon wall. The current belief is the painting was done sometime after the 1940’s.
The canyon is diminutive compared to many of western Colorado’s red rock canyons. The rocky walls are not much more than 100 feet tall. The lush canyon floor is rather narrow and has no stream running through it, adding to the intimate vibe of the canyon.
Penitente supports a diverse mix of plants, shrubs and trees. As with many places in Colorado this summer, the wildflowers were putting on a great show. The north-facing canyon slopes and shaded nooks supports aspen, Rocky Mountain juniper, Douglas-fir and snowberry, a small shrub usually found at higher elevations.
South-facing slopes had a mix of Pinyon pine, Ponderosa pine and Utah juniper trees. The canyon floor was filled with a thicket of chokecherry, three leaf sumac and wild currant. Both the sumac and currant had ripe berries, but the chokecherry fruit was still green.
We weren’t visiting the SRMA to climb. Birds were our focus. Jon and I had hiked in the canyon a year earlier. Bird sightings reported on the web site E-bird has tipped us off regarding an interesting mix of birds. On that visit the canyon was filled with birds feeding on the ripe chokecherries. Birds weren’t the only critters interested in the berries – we spotted many piles of bear scat.
As we began our hike we heard and spotted several birds, all were spotted towhees. Two were newly fledged youngsters. Further up the canyon a large Douglas-fir was filled with birds. We identified a western wood peewee, dusky flycatchers, a warbling vireo, a green-tailed towhee and an orange-crowned warbler in the tree – all seemed to be feeding on insects on the tree branches.
Up the trail we saw many more dusky flycatchers. At one point we watched a flycatcher being chased by a house wren. House wrens can be extremely territorial. Further up the canyon we heard voices, then noticed a couple of rock climbers plying their skills. Most of the climbing routes have bolts in place to allow the climber to clip into protection as they ascend.
The trail headed up a narrow side canyon that was filled with small aspen trees. Bird sightings tailed-off so we turned back, retracing our footsteps. We heard a couple canyon wrens and a flicker and identified a few more dusky flycatchers. Steve dubbed the canyon “flycatcher alley.”
All and all we identified 17 birds species and didn’t see any bears. When the chokecherries ripen soon people will have to share the canyon with bruins. The next time I visit Penitente Canyon I plan on spending a few days, bringing my mountain bike and exploring this hidden gem more thoroughly.
If you go: Do an online search for BLM San Luis Valley Field Office, Penitente Canyon. There’s an informative brochure about the SRMA.
Bill Harris has traveled the back country of the Colorado Plateau since 1976 and is author of “Bicycling the Uncompahgre Plateau.”