Rio Grande National Forest

Wheeler Geologic Area
Photo courtesy of Jeepster Joe Ferguson

The Sandstones, The City of Gnomes, White-Shrouded Ghosts, Dante's Lost Souls, Phantom Ships...

These are many of the epithets applied to the jumbled mass of pinnacles and domes hidden deep within the mountains at Wheeler Geologic Area (Map). High in the La Garita range of south central Colorado, Wheeler is 640 acres of haunting landscape in the Rio Grande National Forest. If you are visiting the town of Creede and looking for a long day hike or an even longer day behind the wheel of your 4WD, Wheeler is the place to head. And if you have more leisure to explore, head past Wheeler and into the La Garita Wilderness for an extended backpack.

When you hit Wheeler, the mysterious spires will not be the only ghosts around. This is the vicinity to which John Charles Fremont led his expedition of 36 men in the winter of 1848. Anxious to demonstrate that the railroad could plow through the Colorado Rockies even in the dead of winter, Fremont proved instead that even men and mules might not make their way. The storms dumped enormous amounts of snow that year. Snowbound the expedition holed up at Christmas Camp just over the La Garita Divide from Wheeler. As the men weakened, they watched a hundred mules die in one night. In desperation, Fremont dispatched a party for New Mexico to seek help.

The men remaining at camp subsisted on mule meat, and when that ran low, rumor says they turned on each other. The scandal of cannibalism, true or not, would dog Fremont for years to come. Eventually Kit Carson rode in to rescue a few survivors. Signs of the expedition remain today in the four-foot tree stumps where the men chopped trees at the snowline to fuel their fires. For an orienteering expedition of your own, you can pull out compass and map and navigate overland between the Fremont camps.

Hiking and Backpacking
The hike to Wheeler makes for a long 16-mile round-trip. At the end of the day, you may be beat but you will have passed through beautiful sub-alpine terrain and large open parks to a remarkable geologic formation that rivals Bryce Canyon.

To reach the trailhead, drive about 7 miles southeast of Creede on Colorado 149, then turn right on Pool Table Road, #600 and proceed about 10 miles to Hanson's Mill. The two-wheel-drive road ends here. The trail heads north, starting about 10,800 feet and rising to almost 12,000 at the formations. It drops to East Bellows Creek in 2 miles, then climbs through the spruce forests of Silver Park. In another 4 to 5 miles, you will hit a four-wheel-drive road. About a mile farther, enter the world of the Sandstones! (4WD vehicles must stop about half a mile before the formations.)

Halfmoon Pass lies two miles beyond Wheeler. At 12,725 feet, the pass is a western gateway to the La Garita Wilderness. If you have time to spare and the foresight to have dropped a car, you can backpack into the wilderness, spend a couple of days, then follow either the middle or south forks of Saguche Creek to the east side of the Wilderness. The boundary is about 7 miles and 2,000 feet below the pass.

Four-Wheeling to Wheeler
The 4WD road to Wheeler also leaves from Hanson's Mill (see Hiking for directions to the Mill). It travels almost 14 miles, not quite twice the hike. But it is likely to take longer than walking. Expect close to 8 hours of driving time and plan 10 to allow for some exploring.

The road is slow-going over a rough, roundabout and rutted route. Take advantage of that to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Near its end, it is narrow and twisting through the trees. In the slippery ruts, maneuvering is a challenge. The road is impassable when wet and closed to vehicles in the spring. It typically opens in mid to late June and as early as Memorial Day in an exceptionally dry year.

From Hanson's Mill, the four-wheel-drive road is well-signed and marked with white arrows. All four-wheel-drive travel is restricted to the marked roads only, with the exception that you may drive off the road for up to 300 feet to gain access to suitable undeveloped campsites along the route. You should stop by any Forest Service Office and obtain a Travel Map if you have questions concerning travel restrictions.

The road climbs from Hanson's Mill through spruce/fir for 0.4 mile to a road junction. The left fork is not the four-wheel-drive route to Wheeler but can be driven for a little over 1 mile where it dead-ends just before East Bellows Creek. From this point, the route continues as a trail (foot, horse, and trailbike only) for 5.7 miles to the Wheeler Geologic Area. This trail is part of the old Alder Creek Stock Driveway, which today is Trail #790. There is limited parking for 3 to 4 vehicles at the end of this spur road. If you prefer hiking, and are in good physical condition, you can probably walk to Wheeler faster than driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle the 14 miles to Wheeler via the jeep road. If you plan to drive into Wheeler, however, go straight at the road junction rather than following this left fork of the road. The junction is well-signed.

From this junction, the Pool Table Road #600 travels northeast, gently climbing 360 feet in elevation over the next 3.9 miles. The first 3 miles of this section of road continue through spruce/fir and then break into the open to follow the treeline on the right until the road swings northwest and crosses East Bellows Creek.

From this point to within 1.5 miles of its end, the road traverses primarily through open sub-alpine country. Just up the hill from the East Bellows Creek crossing, the road turns northwest and is relatively level for the next 2.6 miles, except where the road crosses Trujillo Creek and the Canyon Fernandez drainage. From the Canyon Fernandez drainage, the road drops about 540 feet over the next 2.5 miles to the Canyon Nieve drainage. This portion of road swings from a southwest direction to northwest. The road then continues to the west, climbs 460 feet over the next 1.2 miles, and then levels out for approximately 1.6 miles to where Trail #790 joins the road.

The next mile of road/trail drops 360 feet in elevation through spruce/fir trees. This section is narrow and twists its way through the trees. The lower part of this section (which is only about 3/4 mile from the end of the road) is often muddy and rutted, making maneuverability difficult because of the tight squeeze through the trees. The slippery rutted conditions usually force vehicle wheels to follow the existing ruts. This section requires some driving skills to successfully negotiate when wet. Larger vehicles have an even more difficult time through this section.

The final half-mile of road breaks back into a small park and dead-ends at the fence, marking the end of the road and the boundary of the Geologic Area. This is as far as motor vehicles are allowed. From this point a foot and/or horse trail continues approximately 0.6 mile on to the formations.

Even though the trip is rough and slow, the subalpine scenery is beautiful and more than makes up for the trip. If lucky, elk and deer may be seen on occasion. Coyotes are not uncommon. Gray jays ("Camp Robbers") are plentiful, especially at the end of the road near Wheeler. If you have patience, you can usually have these friendly birds eat out of your hand.

Wheeler is an excellent example of a landscape that passes through a very interesting history. It is now at its prime and has developed a maximum of fantastic features. The rock in this area is a moderately coarse volcanic tuff. The debris that formed this tuff was blown into the air from volcanic vents and settled at this place. Individual particles of this debris may range in size from dust flakes to blocks two or three feet across. They have not been cemented together or firmly compacted. Therefore, the beds crumble readily from the erosive forces of rain and wind.

As the rains have fallen upon this easily eroded material, the water has carried away much of the finer debris. Larger blocks have remained as capstones for sharp spires or pinnacles, which stand alone when the surrounding unprotected material has been washed away. Slight differences in texture or in the amount of compaction result in the development of the different shapes and forms. Also, vertical joint cracks weaken the beds at intervals and these can form what appear to be hooded ghosts.

In the future, the existing spires and pinnacles will crumble away, and ultimately this area will be reduced to one of the softened contours characteristic of old, worn-down mountains.

In 1907, Frank Spencer began hearing rumors of a special place hidden in the La Garita Mountains. "The Utes call it 'the Sandstones'," reported the sheepherders that frequented the mountain pastures. Spencer, supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest, had been instructed to identify areas that might be worthy of national monument status and the Sandstones sounded like they might qualify. He spoke of the area to a friend who kept the local hotel in Wagon Wheel Gap, and the pair decided to go exploring.

In the middle of the year, Spencer selected a route up Bellows Creek. After a long and tiresome day, his party found their reward. In Spencer's words:

"A truly remarkable site...before us, enhanced by the rays of the setting sun, lay the vista of what seemed to us an enchanted city. Spires and domes, castles and cathedrals, mosques and temples, with their fluted columns and wonderfully carved friezes, were arrayed in a confusing panorama of form and color."

Following this trip, Spencer filed a recommendation that Wheeler be designated a national monument, and when he traveled to Washington shortly thereafter, he pushed for action. Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the Forest Service, took up the cause. On December 7, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Wheeler National Monument, named in honor of Captain George Wheeler who led the War Department's surveying team through Colorado in 1874.

Early reports of the monument spoke of its scenery in the highest terms. The National Geographic ran a short article in September 1909, comparing Wheeler favorably with the better-known Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs. Two government reports in 1911 and 1919 continued the praise. Said the latter: "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." In addition to the scenic splendor, visitors were often awed by the eerie, almost gothic, shapes of the eroded lava. One was reminded of a scene from Dante's Inferno, while another felt that it took little imagination "to picture the country as the playground of the giants of some prehistoric race."

Since Wheeler was on national forest land, the Forest Service managed the monument under terms of the Antiquities Act. In the summer of 1911 special agent R. W. Dyer made the first extensive survey of the area. Dyer recommended that a good road be built to the monument from the hamlet of Wason. He felt this would increase visitor traffic and also open up several large areas of timber.

His suggestions were not followed, however, and the Forest Service made no serious attempts at improvement until after World War I. Then, riding the wave of the "See America First" tourism movement, several efforts were made to make the area more accessible. First, the Forest Service constructed a good horse trail from North Creede, and within a few years it also created a shelter cabin, a horse corral, and a picnic area. The Denver Tourist Bureau and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (which stopped at Wagon Wheel Gap and Creede) also became interested in potential traffic and praised the facilities of small nearby hotels. In 1919, the Creede Candle, with perhaps pardonable pride, declared Wheeler National Monument the equal of Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon national parks. Only lack of publicity, it said, kept tourists from flocking to the area.

The expected rush of visitors, however, never materialized. The 1920s became the decade of the automobile, and Wheeler's isolation and lack of roads prevented any mass migration. Accessible only by horseback or on foot, the monument was visited by perhaps 100 people per year during the 1920s.

In 1933, shortly after he took office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reorganized certain bureaus of the government via executive order and thus Wheeler became one of 16 national monuments transferred from the Forest Service to the National Park Service. Almost no monies were appropriated for the monument, however, and it is clear from surviving correspondence that the Park Service was less than enthusiastic about the switch. Wheeler remained entirely surrounded by national forest land, and no resident administrators were stationed there.

In fact, the major attempts at improving Wheeler came not from the Park Service but from local residents. In the heart of the Depression, the Creede Chamber of Commerce urged construction of a 15-mile automobile road from Creede into Wheeler as a Public Works Administration relief project. Forest Service officials offered no objection, but those in the Park Service protested. Worried that a road might lead to environmental damage, they preferred to keep the monument accessible only by trail. Lack of money proved to be the deciding factor, and the road was never constructed. In spite of Wheeler, the monument continued to languish under Park Service auspices.

In the summer of 1940, Paul R. Franke, superintendent of Mesa Verde and responsible for Wheeler, wrote a strong memo decrying conditions there and urging that funds be sent to clean it up. In comparison with the well-kept Forest Service trails and campgrounds nearby, he said, the Park Service area looked noticeably shabby. Nothing appears to have been done, however, for the superintendent's annual report in 1943 noted that Wheeler still remained unattended and presented an "unsightly appearance, entirely foreign to National Park Service ideals and standards."

During those years, Wheeler was used only by local horseback parties. Yearly travel was estimated at around 450, but this was surely generous, for only 43 visitors were officially recorded in 1943 and, by July of 1944, only nine. One of those nine, however, was M. R. Tillotson, director of Region Three of the National Park Service, who then had responsibility for Wheeler. Tillotson, visiting for the first time, was dismayed at the conditions he found and mildly irked that the only signs of governmental activity were those of the Forest Service. Even the registry book was Forest Service. Nothing indicated that the place was a national monument, and the Park Service was most conspicuous by its absence. Tillotson did not find Wheeler unattractive, but he was quite restrained in his description. In fact, he confessed to being more impressed with the ride into the monument, through the spruce, aspen, and lodgepole pine, than with the monument itself. He implied that Wheeler was not outstanding enough to retain the monument status, and, for reasons of administrative efficiency, he urged that it be returned to the national forest.

Park Service officials began communicating with the Forest Service to this end. After securing agreement of the local populace, which had long been critical of the care of Wheeler, plans were laid for transfer. Local residents surely would have protested had the monument been turned over to private hands, but they raised surprisingly little objection to its transfer back to the Forest Service, even though this meant loss of monument status. Accordingly, Congress abolished Wheeler on August 3, 1950, and the land reverted to the Rio Grande National Forest. The expected rush of visitors had not materialized; the criteria for inclusion had stiffened; and Colorado lost its first national monument.

But the story of Wheeler has a sequel. Although the Forest Service doubled the protected area in 1962, construction of a nearby gravel road provoked an angry local controversy in the late 1960s. The logging road increased the number of four-wheeled vehicles using the area, and this caused damage to the terrain. Some vehicles were even driven into the old monument area itself. The Denver Post denounced this as an outrage, and the public reacted accordingly. On September 11, 1969, the Forest Service closed Wheeler and the immediate area to all vehicles.

The question then became, How should Wheeler best be protected? Here opinions differed widely. Arguing that its former status showed that the area had national importance, the Forest Service planned to make it more accessible to the public. They hoped to build a road into it (in part to stop indiscriminate four-wheeled vehicle traffic), post signs with appropriate geological descriptions, and provide for a modest number of visitors. With this in mind, in 1969 they designated the old monument the Wheeler Geologic Area.

Well-organized conservation groups, however, such as the Colorado Open Space Coordinating Council (COSCC), the Rocky Mountain Center on Environment (ROMCOE), and the Sierra Club, urged that Wheeler be protected in a different fashion. Viewing the monument's chief defects—inaccessibility and lack of visitors—as virtues, they urged that it be added to the adjacent La Garita Wilderness Area. In spite of Forest Service objections that its chief interest was "geologic" rather than "wilderness," plus angry local editorial protests against the "locking up" of the area, the conservation groups convinced Colorado's two senators, Gordon Allott and Peter Dominick, to introduce a bill to that effect. But the bill died in committee and, at this writing, no further action has been taken. How ironic that Wheeler, neglected for so many years, had become the center of a controversy still unresolved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 25 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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