Rabbitbrush Rambler: La Garita revisited, Part I

On Saturday, June 24, La Garita will be celebrating the Festival of San Juan Bautista, a date that brings more than the usual number of visitors passing through the hamlet. Perhaps some will be stopping at the trading post for hamburgers, which are said to be the best in the San Luis Valley, but others will be heading just a short distance west of town to the festival.

The history of this entire area deserves to be better known. Let’s begin at the beginning with the first La Garita. In 1858 it was farther south and consisted of a small Hispanic cluster where La Garita Creek emerges from La Garita Canyon. The name means the “tower” or “sentinel,” a familiar landmark of the Ute Indians who were evicted from the Valley by the Treaty of 1868.

During its life, the Hispanic site at La Garita Creek had a trading post. Later, farmers and ranchers from the Midwest arrived in the area and filed land claims, which a good many Hispaños, not familiar with the new United States’ laws, had not done until it was too late.

By about 1870 a newer La Garita was emerging only a few miles up the road where Carnero Creek leaves Carnero Canyon. Carnero means “sheep,” and many of the area’s rancheros were people of Hispanic heritage who subsisted on the sheep in nearby pastures, herded sheep into the foothills, or even all the way to Silverton after mining began on the Western Slope of the San Juan Mountains.

During those times, which never were what might be called thriving, a feature in the general area is the deep ruts carved by wagon wheels in rock in the foothills near Penitente Canyon. The heavy wagons might have been hauling firewood, stone, ore from a mining camp, or even railroad ties. This mysterious site is not accessible with passenger cars.

Better known is Penitente Canyon Recreation Area that has been receiving statewide promotion for rock climbing and biking. It now is managed by the Bureau of Land Management after years of casual visitation. The origin of its name is unrecorded, but most rumors say it was a hidden place in the rocks where Penitentes sometimes met for religious observances.     

By way of explanation, the Penitentes were of Catholic faith and belonged to a religious brotherhood, which might have arrived at this spot by way of Conejos County or northern New Mexico where Penitentes had a strong presence, as it still does though in somewhat diminished numbers. Besides this more informal spot, a well-constructed morada, or meeting place, also became active near La Garita town.

The well-known mural of the Virgin Mary, which can be viewed from a pathway in Penitente Canyon, was painted on a rock wall in the latter half of the 1900s. According to an account by a resident of Center, three devout and daring young men from the neighborhood of Center painted the mural by lowering themselves with a rope. The artists even wrote the words “Consuelo y Espritu” and signed their names. The mural has been refreshed since the original work was done. 

With this roundabout account, I come at last to the changing history with San Juan Parish at La Garita, which will appear next week as Part II of La Garita Revisited.


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