Wheeler Geologic Area

About 12 miles from the old mining town of Creede in Mineral County Colorado lies perhaps the state's most unique geologic formation: Wheeler Geologic Area. Yet, very few people except the locals and some geologists have even heard about it. Resembling a a deserted city of gothic cathedrals, mosques, and temples built into the side of the mountain, the area was formed by a violent volcano that erupted some 30 mya. The volcano left behind a mound of light-gray ash that hardened into moderately coarse rock known as Rat Creek Tuff. Over millions of years, the erosive forces of wind and rain shaped the mound into spires, pinnacles, domes, balanced rocks, steep cliffs, ravines, and even grottos. This bizarre, other-worldly landscape, which is confined to 640 acres, is somewhat reminiscent of South Dakota's Badlands or Bryce Canyon.

Named after Captain George Wheeler, an explorer and surveyor for the U.S. Army who visited the area in 1874, Wheeler rose to prominence before quickly becoming a forgotten American treasure. The earliest recorded history of the site is that Native Americans, namely the Utes, knew of it and may have used it as a shelter from enemy tribes (Szasz). There is also some evidence that John Charles Fremont's ill-fated fourth expedition camped in the area because "skeletons of mules and scattered harness remains [were] found" (Szasz). As a side note, Fremont National Monument was one of the names proposed, but since there were already many places in the West named after Fremont, Wheeler was chosen instead. After the American Antiquities Act was passed, a huge conservationist victory, Frank C. Spencer, the forester of San Juan National Forest, was asked to supply information on areas worthy of monument designation. He lobbied for Wheeler Geologic Area and convinced the Forest Service Chief at the time, Gifford Pinchot, to persuade Theodore Roosevelt to designate the site a national monument (Szasz). In 1908, Wheeler became Colorado's first national monument.

U.S. Forest Service: 1916 photo of "The Ghosts" (in Szasz, p. 126)

At the time, many felt that Wheeler would become a wildly popular tourist destination and National Geographic even wrote a series of articles describing its beauty: "rock ridden canons, fluted walls, broken ridges, needle-like pinnacles and buttes, all these set in a frame of evergreen forest, form a scene of surpassing wonderment" (National Geographic, 1916). Some sources say that after its designation, Wheeler enjoyed the status of being the most popular tourist destination in Colorado after Pike's Peak (rootsrated.com). Horses leading buggies full of people traversed the long, dusty roads to gawk at the natural wonder. This popularity was short-lived, however, and another source states that "The expected onrush of visitors never materialized" (Szasz). The roaring 20s brought a huge cultural shift to America with motion pictures, telephones, radios, and automobiles and as automobiles became more popular, people opted for tourist attractions that were accessible by cars. Wheeler, which required a trip by horseback or by foot, did not benefit from this shift and only saw about one-hundred visitors each year during this decade (Szasz). Soon the roads fell into disuse. In 1933, the management of the monument changed from the Forest Service to the National Park Service; And, in 1950, the National Monument status was removed and the area was incorporated into the Rio Grande National Forest. It soon became apparent, however, that the area needed additional protection from both mining prospecting and ATV damage, so in 1969, the status of Geologic Area was instated. The area became further protected in 1993, when the Colorado Wilderness Bill was signed into effect. It is now part of La Garita Wilderness (Wheeler Geologic Area, SouthFork.com).

Over a century later, as more and more people flock to the mountains to enjoy the scenery by foot, bike, ATV, or horseback, solitude is becoming harder and harder to find. Thus, Wheeler's remoteness is quickly becoming one of its greatest assets second to its sheer beauty. Because of these reasons I have wanted to visit for years, but a trip only came to fruition a few weeks ago. Wheeler is a longish drive from Denver and is also tucked away in the southeast corner of the remote La Garita Wilderness. Even after arriving at the trailhead, visitors face a long day of travel ahead. One can either hike 7 miles through lush meadows, a high mountain park, and spruce forests, a hike that offers breathtaking views of deep canyons, flattop mountains, and an array of wildflowers. Or, the alternative is to hop on an ATV and drive 14 miles one-way on very rough, dusty or muddy roads. Hiking is arguably the easier and more pleasant of the two options and so we chose to hike.

The morning we were scheduled to hike to Wheeler dawned cool and foggy -- the perfect hiking weather, in my opinion. Before setting out, we fueled up on all kinds of delicious homemade sugary treats and good coffee at our hotel -- the Snowshoe Lodge in Creede. We then drove the 7 miles to Pool Table Road. Here the road became a dirt road, but it was still easily passable by a 2WD car. As we climbed, the vistas on this road showcased the misty valley, the Rio Grande River, and a rugged canyon. At one point we stopped the car to admire an intricate spider web, bejeweled with dew. After 10 miles the road reached Hanson's Sawmill, a mill that was in operation around the middle of the 20th century. Now all that remains is a large pile of sawdust, which would have been fun to play in except that it is full of broken glass.

At Hanson's Sawmill there was a meadow full of loud, happy mountain cows including the two below. The one on the right was particularly friendly and curious, and we named him Brindelwald.

We donned our backpacks and set out. The trail left the meadow immediately and disappeared into a forest for approximately 2 leisurely miles (note: on the return, this is a slight ascent and doesn't feel so leisurely). Then it descended into La Garita Wilderness and a panoramic view of a lovely moist meadow with a crystal-clear stream came into view.

I scanned the stream bank for water-loving wildflowers and was rewarded with one of my all-time favorites -- monkey flower (Erythranthe guttata) -- and water miner's lettuce (Montia chamissoi).

The trail descended into a drainage at the bottom of a talus slope and I came across reindeer lichen. It was soft and spongy from yesterday's monsoon rains. I touched it again on the return just over 24 hours later and it had already become dry and crusty. I know very little about lichen, but my guess is Cladonia arbuscula. Feel free to argue with me about the ID. As I was quietly admiring the lichen, I heard the peaceful sound of an underground stream, deep within the talus.

Next the trail entered the lovely and lonely Silver Park and we hiked through this high elevation grassland for the duration. Here is one of the colorful riparian areas of Silver Park.

There were also big expanses of willow shrublands

A myriad of beautiful grasses covered Silver Park tempting me to learn some things about this large and intimidating family.

La Garita Caldera (a collapsed volcano) is the defining feature of the unique landscape of the region

Admiring the scenery

A gentle talus slope

Silver Park

We dipped back into the forest just in time to see that it was on fire with fireweed: Chamaerion angustifolium

'Twas the season of purple flowers: gentians, asters, and harebells. Here was a nice stand of harebells: Campanula rotundifolia

Boulder-strewn intermountain steppe.

Lichen-covered rocks that have probably been lying here since at least the ice age.

More wildflowers of late summer

Stemless form of elk thistle -- native thistles rock!

More purple wildflowers: Parry's gentian: Gentiana parryi

Star gentian: Swertia perennis

Fringed gentian: Gentianopsis thermalis.

Autumn dwarf gentian: Gentianella acuta

La Garita Wilderness and a series of symmetrical flat-topped mountains in the background

Looking in the direction of Wheeler, which is still hidden from view. The trail crosses the grassland, goes to the right of the flattop mountain and joins the ATV road for the last mile or so.

Looking back from where we came. The purple dots in the straw-colored grasses are gentian, which was everywhere. (Gentiana affinis). I stopped numerous times to admire it, because it was so damn pretty amongst the drying grasses.

After hiking for around 6 hours (we stopped a lot to admire the scenery), we reached the entrance to the Geologic Area. Wheeler was still nowhere in sight, but there was a fleet of ATVs parked in a muddy staging area. We hurried to find a place to pitch our tent. It seemed that every potential camping spot was littered with toilet paper. Gross. There were several signs in the area educating the public about LEAVE NO TRACE principles and I thought, for the gazillionth time: What part of LEAVE NO TRACE do people not understand? When I mentioned this to the ranger at the Forest Service office several days later he shared my annoyance and said that he would tell everyone from now on to pack their toilet paper out. So there.

We did find a decent camping spot under a spruce tree that overlooked a willowy meadow. One by one the ATVers left as they still had a long journey back to Creede, where a warm shower followed by dinner and drinks at a local restaurant awaited. Only one other party camped there that night: a group of very nice, quiet millennials from Dallas, who also probably practiced leave no trace. One had studied geology in college and we had an interesting conversation about Wheeler and La Garita Caldera. My faith in humanity restored, I enjoyed a dinner of Annie's macaroni and cheese with a zucchini and tomato from my home garden.

Now for Wheeler! At the entrance are several signs, which interpret the geology. This sign explains the phenomenon better than I can.

Full of anticipation, we hiked across the boundary into the Geologic Area and peculiar rocks composed of Rat Creek Tuff began to appear. Wheeler was just around corner!

Then the curtains of the forest parted to reveal an enchanted city of gothic cathedrals, elegant mosques, and ancient temples (depending on your religious persuasion). I was awestruck.

The '"enchanted city" in all of its glory!

Without much stretch of the imagination I saw a large group of gnomes huddled together, their cone-shaped hats penetrating the intense blue sky. There they stood facing the same direction, frozen in time for millions of years. "The City of Gnomes," it has been called. Other nicknames include "Dante's Lost Souls" and the "White Shrouded Ghosts." Skeletons of a few persistent Engelmann spruce stood to the side, contributing to the eeriness of the landscape. Having succumbed to the spruce beetle epidemic that ravaged southwestern Colorado, some had already fallen to their final resting place and were beginning the long process of decay.

We made coffee.

Savoring said coffee and the beautiful scenery

Admiring the badlands from another angle

Catching the morning rays and trying not to slide off the edge of a cliff.

I mentioned earlier that there is a 2.7-mile hike that circles Wheeler. We first tried to hike it counter-clockwise. The trail was visible for awhile and then it sort of faded away and we found ourselves scrambling through a class 2 ravine. We started to feel like we were reaching the edge of our comfort zones. It didn't seem right that the Forest Service would send people on a trail such as this. So, we tried hiking clockwise. We made it to a ridge above the hoodoos, where we hung out for awhile, took some photos, and then returned the way we came. If there was still a Wheeler Peripherique trail in existence, it would not be ours today, but we were okay with that.

Ridge above the hoodoos:

Moonscape photo

A lonely fireweed making its living in a crevice.

Various species of lichen colonizing the moonscape.

A long trail of Erigeron sp. (fleabane) plants marching down an invisible fissure in the moonscape.

Looking down on some of the dinosaur-esque formations from the ridge.

Photo below by Christi:

Getting carried away with the camera

We took so many photos!

During the short time we were at this enchanting and forgotten geologic wonder, I hiked from my campground 3 times to see it: when we first arrived, again at sunset that evening, and for sunrise the following morning. I wanted to experience the interplay of various lighting with the rock formations: "When the deep canyons, steep ravines, and eroded ridges gave play to sunlight and shadow, the effects were spectacular" (Frank Spencer, 1928). Plus, I didn't know if and when I would ever return.

The Night of the Cows

After a long hike back to our car, we decided to keep things uncomplicated and set up camp at Hanson's Sawmill. As we ate our dinner of haystacks (you gotta try this recipe: http://www.shsda.org/article/152/ministries/health-ministries/haystacks), we wondered if the area surrounding the mill was haunted, but the only noise we heard all night was the constant mooing of cattle as they moved through the valley, munching grasses. At one point they surrounded our tent, licked all of our gear, and made messes here and there. I am now convinced cows don't sleep and we didn't either. Our hearts full from seeing Wheeler, we familiarized ourselves with the different moos of the different cows and joked that this night would go down in history as "The Night of the Cows."

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Szasz, Ferenc M. "Wheeler and Holy Cross: Colorado's 'Lost' National Monuments." Journal of Forest History. Vol. 21, No. 3 (Jul., 1977), pp. 133-144.