The Wheeler Geologic Area in Colorado’s La Garita Wilderness, near the town of Creede is a little bit mythic: the rocks are otherworldly and nigh unreachable by any casual means. To visit Wheeler, you have to either hike 20 miles or drive 30. Drive 30 miles? That’s nothing, you say! Well, unless you’re a 4-wheeling aficionado, you’ve probably never driven 30 miles quite like these.
Earlier this summer, after searching in vain for an affordable Subaru to replace my dear ailing Raven, I bought my dream car, a 1996 Land Rover Discovery, on a whim, outright. I don’t expect the Rover to last me forever, but while I have it, I intend to use it the way Land Rovers are meant to be used.
Before I headed into La Garita, I stopped by the ranger station in Creede to ask about the road conditions into Wheeler. When I’m on the road, I often stop at ranger stations for local travel tips. Rangers know the best trails and campsites and are almost always good for a chat about the Great Outdoors.
The ranger on duty told me the road into Wheeler was the gnarliest on his patrol: rocky, rooty, rutted and long. “It’s the longest 30-miles I know,” he said. He also told me about a nice free campsite where I could leave the Teardrop near the beginning of the 4WD trail. After a walk around Creede, a delightful mountain town, I headed to the Wheeler trailhead, a 10-mile drive over well-graded gravel.
That evening, the dogs and I hiked six round-trip miles to the La Garita wilderness boundary along the Wheeler trail and saw a big bull moose. Later, I was reading inside the trailer, when I heard animal noises outside. Both dogs were lying within sight of the trailer door, seemingly unconcerned and when I stuck my head out the door I saw my campsite had been invaded by a dozen cows! What useless dogs! On the one hand I’m glad they’ve learned not to chase anything bigger than themselves (or smaller, if I tell them not to) but I wouldn’t mind a few warning barks now and then. The cows were adorably curious about us, but I didn’t really want them, their poop and their flies around my campsite so I waved my hat and my walking stick at them and yelled GIT and they did.
The next morning, I woke up at dawn, unhitched and padlocked the trailer, revved up the Rover and hit the trail. Right away, things got rugged: the ruts were so deep that I couldn’t quite believe we could cross them without bottoming out and I thought for sure the jagged rocks would pop a tire, but I put the Rover in low and it kept grinding on, one revolution at a time. Every few miles the trail crossed a stream, the road dipping steep and deep to each watery crossing, but that low gear kept on purring and we sloshed on through and up the other side.
When it wasn’t passing through open fields and streams, the trail went through the woods, winding through stands of pine and aspen and I was glad the Rover wasn’t any wider. The trail seemed built for ATV’s and little Jeeps, not my beast, but we took it slow and threaded our way through and only got slapped by branches a few times. The path was never level for more than a moment or two. Everything undulated up and down, left and right and the dogs soon both got down on the floor of the backseat. I could tell they’d rather be walking.
Driving 15 miles to the end of the line in first gear took about two discombobulating hours. By the time I parked at the pull out next to a fence that designated the edge of the La Garita Wilderness, I too was ready for a walk. A 3-mile loop trail runs around the Wheeler formation, up to Half Moon Pass and back down. As soon as I caught a glimpse of Wheeler, I was utterly and completely enchanted: This place was worth every rock, root and rut!
Around 25 million years ago, a supervolcano called the La Garita Caldera exploded in one of the largest eruptions to ever blanket the Earth, spewing more than 5,000 times the amount of material ejected from Mount Saint Helens in 1980. Ash covered most of Colorado and debris fell from the sky all the way to the Caribbean. This thick and mostly uniform layer of ash is known as Fish Canyon Tuff: a highly erodable rock that has disappeared from much of Colorado, except at Wheeler, where it has eroded into some of the most bizarre and spectacular rock formations I’ve ever seen.
Right now, at this time in Wheeler’s 25 million year geologic history, these rocks are at their erosional height: from here on out freeze and thaw cycles will break them down and they’ll gradually get less extreme. Eventually, they’ll go the way of the dinosaurs. Sure makes me feel like I’ve arrived at the right place at the right time! Always a priceless feeling for a drifter.
I could have spent days exploring this place! We hiked the loop trail and then scrambled around in the rocks. Not once did I see another person. But as noon approached the sky started to rumble and one of Colorado’s famous afternoon thunderstorms started to roll in. I wasn’t sure how much worse the road could possibly get if it got soaked, but I figured I should probably start heading back. By the time I came down from the rocks, a handful of ATV’s and a Jeep were parked next to the Rover, with everybody scrambling to unpack rain gear and I was glad my ride had a roof. I took the return journey nice and slow, pulling over to let the ATV’s pass, while rain thrashed and lightning crashed. Two hours later, I had all four wheels back on level ground. Whew! What a journey! What a destination! Next time, I’ll walk!