Hidden deep in Rio Grande National Forest awaits Wheeler Geologic Area. It is an area so strange, it has been referred to as “The City of Gnomes,” “White Shrouded Ghosts,” and “Dante’s Lost Souls.” True to its name, Mineral County is a significant study area for ancient geologic activity. The formation of the La Garita and San Juan mountains began about 30 million years ago. Eruptions from massive volcanoes, like the Creede Caldera, were followed by tremendous flows of ash and mud. As the layers of volcanic debris cooled, crystals and mineral ores collected into veins and pockets to create extensive mineral fields. This era of mountain building laid down the volcanic tuff that has become the Wheeler Geologic Area. Water erosion then carved a starkly impressive landscape of fragile capstones, needles, and spires.
Originally named Wheeler National Monument after Captain George Wheeler, who in 1874 explored and surveyed the area for the U. S. Army, it was the first National Monument in Colorado history. Boasting history and beauty, the formation saw the slow disintegration of the famous Fremont Party. Trapped in the area during the terrible winter of 1848, General John Charles Fremont and close to three dozen men were forced to eat over a hundred mules. It is rumored that they began to eat each other when the mules ran out.
Gaining monument status in 1908 made it the second most popular tourist attraction in Colorado. During the horse and buggy era, travelers flocked to see the eerie landscape and experience the rugged LaGarita Mountains. But by 1950, when tourists began to prefer attractions easily accessible by automobiles, the trails fell into disuse. Wheeler was downgraded to a Geologic Area and incorporated into the LaGarita Wilderness. Currently named Wheeler Geologic Area, but referred to simply as Wheeler; it is generally known only to local residents, geologists, and the most adventurous travelers.
Traveling to Wheeler Geologic Area
Located in the LaGarita Wilderness, the journey is approximately 20 miles roundtrip. Luckily, there are two trails to get there. Both are completely different experiences. An experienced off-roader will enjoy the challenges posed by the approximately 13 mile long, sometimes muddy, often narrow, rocky trail. A hiker will appreciate the quiet solitude afforded by the shorter, approximately 10 mile hiking trail. While the road can be difficult to traverse, what awaits the traveler are haunting and virtually impenetrable badlands.
On your way to Wheeler Geologic Area, you will be traveling to almost 12,000 feet. You will enjoy beautiful sub-alpine terrain and grassy, open parks. Since the trail is rarely traveled, there are abundant opportunities for viewing wildlife, birding and rock hounding.
While an advanced hiker could make it a day hike, locals highly recommend an overnight stay. Wheeler Geologic Area is at her most stunning during sunrise and sunset. In fact, San Juan Sports owner Michael McNeil says you should “bring your smile, slow down, and enjoy Mother Nature at her finest.”
Michael and Amy’s checklist for a fun, safe, journey to Wheeler. Visit them at San Juan Sports on Main Street in Creede to get your gear and more great advice!
Water • Water purifier • Shelter • Sleeping bag • Food • Knife • First Aid Kit • Map
Sunglasses • Hat • Matches/lighters • Light rain jacket • Warm pack jacket • Proper footwear