Deep in the Rio Grande National Forest mountains lies one of Colorado’s rarest gems, a place of majesty and wonder, yet free of the crowds that swarm around so many of the state’s beautiful places.
After three hours of walking, it seemed, we were no closer to finding it.
We’d set off around 11 a.m. on a recent Saturday in search of Wheeler Geologic Area, a remote place renowned for its bizarre and beautiful rock formations, which are said to rival Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park as amazing examples of how time and erosion can affect a landscape.
Bryce Canyon has a paved road and shuttle bus. Wheeler has a rough, narrow, rocky and winding 14-mile road, or this trail, seven miles to the edge of the area and another 2.5-mile loop around it.
In 1908, this area was designated a national monument, Colorado’s first.
In Creede, the nearest town, they dreamed of a tourist destination on par with Rocky Mountain National Park or Pikes Peak.
A century later, in the heart of the La Garita Wilderness, Wheeler is visited by an estimated 15 people a day.
We set out to discover its secrets, and to find out how such an unusual place can be so unknown.
Sixty-five million years ago, a volcanic eruption dropped thousands of tons of ash, debris and magma onto this high mountain valley.
The highly erodible landscape has been transformed by the wind, snow and rain of 65 million summers and winters into the playground it is today.
Water has carved canyons and shards. The wind has left minarets and craggy monoliths that tower over the landscape.
The Utes spoke of a place they called the “Sand Stones,” but while the area was settled, it remained a matter of legend.
Famed explorer John C. Fremont didn’t find Wheeler when his expedition passed a few miles from here in 1849.
He had set out to find passes suitable for railroads and prove they could be maintained in winter. A blizzard forced the expedition to turn back after losing 11 men and 100 pack animals.
Famed surveyor George M. Wheeler didn’t find this area when his teams surveyed much of the West, including the upper Rio Grande, in the 1870s and ‘80s.
The area had become known, if rarely visited, by 1908, because that year President Theodore Roosevelt declared Wheeler a national monument, naming it after the surveyor in honor of the work he did in the West.
“Certain volcanic formations in the state of Colorado … are of unusual scientific interest, as illustrating erratic erosion, and it appears that the public interest would be promoted by preserving said formations as a national monument” stated the president’s declaration.
It was Colorado’s first national monument.
I came across Wheeler researching hiking options in the Creede area.
Intrigued, I called Ronnie Day at the Divide Ranger Station of the Rio Grande National Forest.
“It takes a pretty good effort to get there,” Day said. “It’s not something you can drive into Creede and ask at the Chamber of Commerce visitor center, ‘what can I do today?’ They’re not going to say ‘Wheeler.’”
Given the choice of foot or rough road – signs warn that it takes just as long to drive in as to walk in – I chose the trail.
Hiking to Wheeler, it is easy to appreciate how the area has remained hidden for so long.
On a good, well-marked trail, my party crossed East Bellows Creek – there is no bridge, so the crossing could be a wet one during peak runofi season – then climbed gradually through grassy valleys surrounded by the humped peaks of the La Garita Mountains. We saw four other backpackers, who were heading out, but otherwise had the area to ourselves.
The only crowds were swarms of butterflies, the only noise was the babbling of the creek.
Six miles in, the trail joins the road.
After a mile, the mythical spires finally came into view, at 11,000 feet above sea level, notched between two mountains, and instantly mysterious.
People in tiny Creede, which enjoyed a brief silver boom in the 1890s that swelled its population to 10,000, were excited about their new national monument.
But excitement changed to exasperation as the Forest Service showed little interest in building a road into the area.
Lamented the Creede Candle newspaper in 1915: “Other places have secured appropriations to build highways over more dificult places, which highways cost a greater amount of money or required much more time than it will to build the scenic road which means so much to our city.”
Roads had been built up Pikes Peak and across the snowy tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park. But, wrote another newspaper, Wheeler was reachable only by “the most uncomfortable cross-country traveling.”
The chief forester of the Forest Service visited in 1916 and rode to Wheeler on horseback.
The Creede Candle reported, “The steepness of that route is evidenced by the personal opinions of each rider who refuses to discuss the subject politely.”
By 1933, when control shifted to the National Park Service, there was a horse trail, but no road, and the new owners showed as little interest as the Forest Service in developing Wheeler.
“Do not attempt without guides,” was the park service’s standard warning about Wheeler in 1930s publications.
Finally, in 1950, perhaps because Wheeler was so remote, with no on-site staff, and the next-closest facility was Great Sand Dunes nearly 100 miles away, the agency handed it back to the Forest Service.
“The National Park Service regards the area as interesting but not of such unique or great value to warrant retention in the National Park System,” stated the agency.
The Forest Service exhibited equally little ambition to open up the area’s secrets to the motoring public. By the late 1960s, the area was being visited by about 50 people a year.
But the story of Wheeler was not finished.
Vehicles that make it into Wheeler must stop at the edge of the area, where there are campsites and interpretive signs that describe the area’s geology.
Hikers planning to camp should get water at the stream at the edge of the area – we didn’t, and had to reclimb the hill into Wheeler twice.
On the hike in, two other trails, longer approaches from Creede, join it.
Stay on the main trail, and a short way in it splits into a 2.5-mile loop, and the bizarre rocks finally make themselves known.
“It reminds me of being at the beach, with the sand castles,” said Gains Berry of Centennial, who drives his ATV to Wheeler.
The loop trail rises steeply to the top of the area, which affords sweeping views of the Rio Grande Valley and the San Juan Mountains.
Avoid the temptation to climb on the rocks. They are loose and brittle, and a teenager died here in 1992 while climbing.
Backpackers can stay in an old cabin at the bottom of the area, and there are good campsites with benches on the southeast side.
We camped in the latter, which provided a great opportunity to watch the light dance among the rocks as the sun sank.
It felt almost like cheating to have complete solitude in such a beautiful spot.
In the late 1960s, the Forest Service changed its approach to Wheeler.
With a logging road built to Hanson’s Sawmill – now known as Pool Table Road – and an increasing number of ATVs driving into Wheeler, the agency drew up new plans.
“Although the area is a spectacular bit of our state’s national attractions and highly deserving of wide recognition and use, neither of the governmental agencies have made it easily accessible,” wrote Len Shoemaker, a historian and former Forest Service employee, in the 1967 Denver Westerners Brand Book.
He noted the agency had plans for a new road into Wheeler, with a campground and a “resort type development,” with lodging, a restaurant, gas station and groceries.
Timber sales would also be allowed in the area.
After an outcry by environmental groups, the agency dropped the plans, and Wheeler was later added to the La Garita Wilderness, where vehicles are prohibited.
The four-wheel-drive road into Wheeler became a “stem” into the wilderness area, allowing vehicle access.
On our two-day trip, we saw 13 people – on a weekend in the heart of the summer tourist season.
“That’s what makes this so nice,” said Bob Carney, one of the ATV riders at the site. “It’s not crowded – the silence and the beauty.”
“I think it is nice the way it is. We didn’t see any beer bottles or anything,” said Berry, another of the visitors.
“It’s worth the work to get here and if you want to see it you have to work to see it.”
The Forest Service has no plans for improving the road into Wheeler.
“I think we would want to keep it low-key. We don’t want to discourage people from going there, because it’s part of the national forest.
“But we just want to make sure it doesn’t get loved to death,” Day said.
We awoke the next morning to the first rays of sunlight hitting the tips of the spires, thankful that none of the many bears in the area had paid us a visit.
Still in complete solitude, we spent an hour watching the morning light creep into the gashes and gullies and paint the towers in brilliant hues.
After breaking camp, we took one last look before tearing ourselves away for the long march back to civilization.
This is a landscape in metamorphosis.
It was a pile of ash 65 million years ago.
In another 65 million, it may be just another smooth mountainside, the delicate rock forms finally conquered by wind and rain.
GETTING TO WHEELER
From Walsenburg, take U.S. 160 west to South Fork; turn northwest onto Colorado 149. About 13 miles northwest of South Fork, turn onto Pool Table Road, an excellent gravel road with only a few washboarded areas. The trailhead is at an old sawmill 10 miles in. High clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles can keep going, though it will take 2 to 3 hours each way on the bumpy, rocky, rutted road.