The Fascinating Story Behind Wheeler Geologic Area

The vast landscape of Wheeler Geologic Area was formed by volcanic ash.
The vast landscape of Wheeler Geologic Area was formed by volcanic ash. carajean23
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Wheeler Geologic Area, one of Colorado’s natural wonders, tucks into a hidden valley below the crest of the La Garita Mountains. The compact area is a stark mountainside eroded into bizarre and fantastic shapes that are best described with architectural words—fortresses, minarets, castles, towers, domes, flying buttresses, and columns. Wheeler lies at 11,500 feet among flat-topped mountains and wide meadows in La Garita Wilderness Area.

Wheeler’s strange rocks stand as eroded footnotes to the region’s violent geologic past. The rock, called Rat Creek Tuff, is compressed ash that came from a massive volcanic eruption about 28 million years ago when a giant super-volcano collapsed. The collapse formed the La Garita Caldera, an enormous 22-by-47-mile hole in the ground. Geologists say this was one of the biggest eruptions in earth’s history and the largest in 500 million years. The ejected debris blanketed most of Colorado with ash up to 300 feet deep. The volume of material spewed from the eruption was about 1,200 cubic miles; enough to fill Lake Michigan. The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, by comparison, was only 0.25 cubic miles of debris. The thick layers of volcanic ash at Wheeler later solidified into rock and then countless millennia of erosion sculpted today’s dizzying formations.

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The geologic area, named for Captain George Wheeler with the U.S. Army’s 1874 Wheeler Survey, is tough to reach.

It’s not a place to make a quick stop on your drive home. Instead, Wheeler is accessed by either a seven-mile hike or mountain bike ride or by bumping over a 14-mile 4x4 track, and that’s the one-way distance. Even the U.S. Forest Service warns: “It is not a short, easy trip.” It takes effort, planning, and a full day to get back there. It’s possible to day-hike to the area with an early start but you’ll miss the evening light shafting across the fantasy land, so it’s better to bring a tent and spend the night at Silver Park or the valley below Wheeler.

While most visitors hike Trail #790 to the site, others follow a rough road, passable only with ATVs or four-wheel-drive vehicles, across a thin ribbon of land that slices through the wilderness area. Again, this is a full-day trip on a rough track strewn with boulders and deep ruts. This isn’t a road made for a Suburban or Subaru. The forest service recommends an ATV or jeep with high clearance and a short wheelbase for maneuverability. Wheeler Road #600 ends at a turn-around below the corrugated rocks.

In the late 19th century Wheeler was more accessible and famous. Reporters dubbed it the “Bryce Canyon of Colorado” and it was reputedly the state’s second most popular tourist attraction after Pikes Peak. Its unique geology led President Teddy Roosevelt to create Wheeler National Monument, Colorado’s first national monument, in 1908 since its “volcanic formations…are of unusual scientific interest as illustrating erratic erosion.”

This little guy greeted us.

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Early visitors trekked to the new national monument and sang its praises. Frank Spencer, the supervisor for Rio Grande National Forest, described a 1908 trip: “There before us, enhanced by the rays of the setting sun, lay the vista of what seemed to us an enchanted city,” while National Geographic Magazine compared it to “the wondrous Garden of the Gods.”

The monument, however, was never developed.

In the late 1800s, people were accustomed to traveling slowly by rail, horse-drawn coach, horseback, and foot to reach distant places, so they didn’t mind spending a couple days to reach Wheeler. Locals in nearby Creede, a 1890s silver town, excitedly believed that the new monument would bring recognition, visitors, and piles of dollars but there was no interest in building a road or facilities in the remote area. Instead, the U.S. Forest Service, who administered the site until passing it to the National Park Service in 1933, erected a cabin, fenced a pasture, and walled-in a spring below the rocks.

Without a road to the area, few people trekked to Wheeler in the first half of the 20th century. “Do not attempt without guides,” was the standard warning to visitors. Finally, the park service handed the area back to the forest service in 1950 because “of the isolation of this area and the very limited visitation.”

At that time, an average of 50 people visited it each year.

While the forest service later considered building a road and campground at Wheeler, they decided to leave it alone and extend protection to the fragile formations. In the 1970s an increase in jeep traffic damaged meadows near the area. Allan Phipps, owner of the nearby La Garita Ranch, told the Denver Post, “It’s a beautiful wonder. I sure hate to see the jeeps in there tearing it to pieces.” The forest service restricted access, and in 1993 Wheeler was added to 129,626-acre La Garita Wilderness Area, with only the strip of road left out for vehicle access.

Now less than 15 people a day visit Wheeler Geologic Area, usually between May and September when there’s no snow.

Wheeler is a great place to visit if you don’t mind rugged beauty and clear horizons while exploring a land of surreal shapes. Getting to Wheeler is part of the adventure. The trail squiggles through wide upland meadows and patchwork forests of spruce and fir beneath high mountains. It dips across shallow drainages, passing beaver ponds and talus slopes tinted blue by columbines. Finally, the trail descends into the secret valley where the stone sentinels stand in silent repose.

When you reach Wheeler, the best way to view the 66-acre rock badlands is to hike the loop trail around the perimeter. Several overlooks offer great views that are perfect for photography, especially at sunrise and sunset. If you camp below this outpost of erosion, hike into the area on a moon-lit night when the cliffs appear like a forbidden city, and the hoodoos and spires stand guard like white goblins. The tuff is soft and fragile, so avoid damaging it by climbing and scrambling.

Me and my buddy.

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Wheeler Geologic Area, located in the eastern San Juan Mountains, is approached by driving 13 miles northwest from South Fork and U.S. 160 on Colorado Highway 149. Make a right turn onto Pool Table Road. The gravel road climbs ten miles to Hanson’s old sawmill and the trailhead. While you can drive the 4x4 road back, it’s easier to hike or bike.

Trail #790 heads north, gently descending into East Bellows Creek’s valley and after 2.1 miles crosses the creek. The trail heads north on the west side of Cañon Nieve for a quarter mile and then goes left up another drainage. After three miles the good trail emerges from the canyons and heads northwest across meadows and swatches of trees into Silver Park, a broad grassland. The trail continues through the meadow and at 5.7 miles joins the jeep road. The last 1.1 miles descends the road until it ends below the formations at the wilderness boundary.

Follow a trail another 0.4 miles to a junction and the start of the Wheeler Loop Trail. This 2.8-mile trail makes an open loop around the formations. Go left and climb to a gorgeous viewpoint that overlooks the dramatic landscape. The trail continues along the western edge of the rocks to its junction with Halfmoon Pass Trail at 11,900 feet. The tallest castle looms above the trail here. Continue on the trail, which skirts the eastern edge of the area and descends back to the first junction.

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