Rover Love: Journey to the Wild & Wonderful Wheeler Geologic Area

Wild rocks at Wheeler

Weird Rocks at the End of an Outrageous Road

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.

The Rover & The Rattler at Kite Lake, the highest campground in the country at 12,000 feet.

The Rover & The Rattler at Kite Lake, the highest campground in the country at 12,000 feet.

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.

The beginning of Wheeler Road #600 at Hansons Mill

Wheeler Road #600 and Trail #790 at Hansons Mill

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.

Downed Wilderness Boundary Sign

Downed Wilderness Boundary Sign

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.

More obstacles on Wheeler Road #600

More obstacles on Wheeler Road #600

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!

Approaching Wheeler Wonderland

Approaching Wheeler Wonderland

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. 🙂

Fish Canyon Tuff Hoodoos

Fish Canyon Tuff Hoodoos

Wheeler Bizarre and Beautiful

Wheeler Bizarre and Beautiful

The formation covers about 600 acres

The formation covers about 600 acres

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!

The Rover with Wheeler in the background

The Rover with Wheeler in the background

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
This entry was posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Rover Love: Journey to the Wild & Wonderful Wheeler Geologic Area

  1. Pingback: Rover Love! | Travels with the Blonde Coyote

  2. Wow your pictures are amazing!! I can’t imagine how beautiful your travels are in person 🙂

  3. ritaroberts says:

    Wonderful photo’s Mary. Rock formations out of this world.

  4. anniespickns says:

    Thanks for bringing us these amazing pictures. What a find.

  5. Kevin McCue says:

    Looks like the Tent Rocks area in New Mexico. Great blog! Headed to South Dakota in a rented teardrop in Oct.

  6. Kevin McCue says: outside of Kansas City has a fleet of two tears they rent and (my favorite tear) in Wisconsin can point you to a nearby privately owned campground that rents their tears. We went with because they let us bring our dog. Kevin

  7. Thanks, Kevin! I’ll add those links to my list of midwest Teardrop resources. Cheers, M

  8. What a beautiful area !!!

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  10. Hi Mary – What an adventuresome outing! I really really like the photo of the Fish Canyon Tuff Hoodoos. Reminds me of Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks in New Mexico. Wonder if tent rocks was created from the fallout of the same volcano. Would be interested in your feedback on that. I am also a fan of Subaru, but the Rover does suit you very well. Best to you, Carol

    • Nope, different volcano, but same type of eruption and similar type of rock. Tent Rocks was created by the Valles Caldera Supervolcano, much more recently, between 1-8 million years ago.

      Someday, I’ll definitely get another Subaru, when I find a good one I can buy outright. For now, I’m living my Land Rover dreams! 🙂

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