Deep in the San Juan Mountains is a little-known geologic wonderland where you’ll likely encounter few other travelers because of the remote location.
Sometimes called “The City of Gnomes” for its strange hoodoos, domes and spires, Wheeler Geologic Area was designated as Colorado’s first national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The area is named for Capt. George M. Wheeler, who explored and surveyed the area extensively for what eventually became the U.S. Geological Survey, although, according to one account, it isn’t certain he ever actually saw the area bearing his name.
Following its designation, it’s reported that Wheeler National Monument became the second-most popular tourist attraction in Colorado after Pikes Peak.
How is that possible when it’s so remote? The world moved at a different pace in those days. Travelers were accustomed to taking several days to get to their destination by rail, horse-drawn carriage and the first automobiles, and the trek to Wheeler likely didn’t seem daunting.
Today, the area remains relatively undeveloped, and even though modes of transportation have progressed, getting to Wheeler still isn’t quick and, depending on conditions, may not be easy. But those who make the journey are rewarded with an experience that takes you far into Colorado’s majestic mountains through forest, sub-alpine terrain and open meadows before arriving at this unexpected place.
“You’re earning this experience,” Kathleen Murphy, executive director of the Creede and Mineral County Chamber of Commerce, said of those who see Wheeler’s wonders in person.
What made these strange figures?
The Wheeler Geologic Area sits in the La Garita Caldera, a huge crater that was formed about 28 million years ago during one of the largest known volcanic eruptions on Earth. The volcano spewed an estimated 1,200 cubic miles of ash over much of what is now Colorado, and collapsed, forming the roughly 22-mile-by-47-mile crater. Over time, natural forces compressed the ash into rock called tuff, which is porous and highly erodible. Wheeler’s strange hoodoos and spires are the results of millions of years of erosion of this soft tuff.
The Forest Service managed the monument until 1933, when jurisdiction was transferred to the National Park Service. Neither entity had funds to develop the site, to the dismay of Creede’s residents who it’s said had hoped for opportunities from tourism that never materialized. In 1943, there reportedly were fewer than 50 visitors to Wheeler. In 1950, the national monument designation was removed, and the area again came under the management of the Forest Service.
The La Garita Wilderness was established in 1964 by Congress and, in 1993, the Wheeler Geologic Area was added to the wilderness, offering additional protection to the fragile area, including from mining and motorized vehicles. Just the rutted and rocky road was left out of the wilderness designation to provide continued access for visitors.
Know before you go
As with any Colorado high country experience, the challenges and rewards of getting to Wheeler vary depending on the season. If you visit in August, you’re likely to be rewarded with wildflowers. If you go in fall, Pool Table Road offers spectacular leaf-peeping, although there are no aspens at Wheeler itself. Before you head out, check with the Forest Service online or its office in Creede (304 S. Main St.,719-657-3321) to ask about road and trail conditions and learn of any hazards.
The hiking trail crosses East Bellows Creek, which flows into the Rio Grande. There is no bridge and, depending on the time of year, runoff can be considerable. Be alert. At other times you might want to bring your fishing pole and catch a few brookies, said Amy McNeil, who owns San Juan Sports with her husband, Michael. If taking the road, be aware that it crosses Trujillo Creek, which can also be swift with spring runoff.
Because the road is so rough and bumpy, it can take just as long to drive to Wheeler as it does to hike in. Either way, you still have a long journey, so get to the trailhead early and plan to dedicate an entire day to the trip to make sure you have plenty of time to spend in Wheeler once you get there.
“You do not want to be rushed at Wheeler. You spent so much time getting there,” Amy McNeil said. The McNeils have been to Wheeler multiple times. Locals will tell you to take your backpack and plan to send the night — or several.
“I personally do not recommend it as a hiking day trip,” McNeil said. “Never when I have been there have I seen people adequately experience it.” She added, “The beauty is Wheeler and, honestly, I do not think the majority of people are able to absorb the thing they are going there to see.”
McNeil recommends camping overnight or longer and giving yourself time to explore the area. Some of the best views of Wheeler are at dawn and dusk when the light and shadows play off the formations in unusual ways.
While you can’t camp within Wheeler Geologic Area itself, there are camping areas nearby and along the way. There are no services, so everything you need you’ll have to take with you. Make sure you’re familiar with Forest Service rules for the area, and if you want to get the local perspective, stop into one of the local sporting goods stores in Creede, where you can also pick up camping or fishing supplies.
Take plenty of food and water, clothes and supplies for any kind of weather. Basically, prepare as if you’re climbing a fourteener. Be aware that along the trail there are wide open places where you are completely exposed, and lightning is common in Colorado’s high country. To ensure the area remains pristine for others, practice Leave No Trace principles and be prepared to bury or pack out your waste.
The restrooms at Hanson’s Mill are the only facilities, and there is a growing sanitation problem around Wheeler Geologic Area, according to Jody Fairchild with the Rio Grande Forest Service Divide Ranger District. If you’re not packing out excrement, dig a hole 6-8 inches deep (deeper isn’t better) and at least 200 feet from water. Bury toilet paper in the hole or pack it out. Better yet, use a wag bag.
Vehicles should practice Stay the Trail and Tread Lightly principles, and Fairchild noted that because hikers and vehicles share the last part of the trail before entering Wheeler, “respect and courtesy for all users is a must.”
As challenging as it may be to get there, the McNeils and others return again and again, and speak of the place with a certain reverence.
“It’s a long single-track trail and you wonder if you’re ever going to get there, and when you finally see it you’re like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Michael McNeil said.
“You finally get to it and it’s the most beautiful, random thing that you see in the Rockies,” Amy McNeil added. “It’s out of this world.”
The closest towns to Wheeler are Creede and South Fork. It’s 234 miles from Denver to South Fork, about a 4½-hour drive, and Creede is another 25 minutes northwest on Colorado 149. The shortest route from Denver is to head south on U.S. 285 over Kenosha Pass, through expansive South Park, over Poncha Pass and into the San Luis Valley. The views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are breathtaking, and on a clear day you can see the dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve to the southeast. At the town of Center, head west on Colorado 112 and after a big curve south, travel west again at Del Norte to South Fork. The stretch of Colorado 149 between South Fork and Creede is one end of the Silver Thread, one of Colorado’s 26 Scenic and Historic Byways.
To get to Wheeler, take Colorado 149 southeast from Creede (about 7 miles) or northeast from South Fork (about 14 miles) to the Wagon Wheel Gap Interpretive Center (after you pass through the actual gap, if coming from South Fork). From there, take Pool Table Road (Forest Service Road 600), a gravel road suitable for passenger vehicles, for about 10 miles to the Hanson’s Mill camping area. From there, depending on your mode of travel, there are two routes to get to Wheeler. East Bellows Trail (Forest Service Trail 790) for hikers and horseback riders is about 7 miles to the boundary of the geologic area. Those in ATVs and OHVs or on bikes can continue along Pool Table Road for 14 miles.
From Hanson’s Mill, the remaining road becomes extremely rough and bumpy, and during or after a rainstorm can be nearly impassible. The road and trail converge for the last 1½ miles, and all vehicles must be left in a parking area at the boundary of the wilderness, about a half-mile from the formations.
The geologic area itself is small, about 63 acres, and is encircled by a 2½-mile walking loop. Keep in mind these distances are one way. Including the loop around the formations, this is about an 18-mile hike at altitude. The elevation at Hanson’s Mill is just under 11,000 feet, and you will climb to about 12,000 feet by the time you get to Wheeler. The distance and the altitude can make for a very long day. But even with the challenges, hiking is rated by locals and others as the best way to get to Wheeler.
Where to stay and other essentials
Murphy, of the local Chamber of Commerce, notes that Mineral County is 95% public lands, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for extra beds, unless you take your own; even campgrounds and RV hookups are limited. That said, the Creede and Mineral County Visitor Center and South Fork Visitor Center are good resources for accommodations, with yurts and mountain huts, cabins and vacation home rentals, lodges and guest ranches, in addition to campgrounds. This part of the San Juans is still relatively under the radar, she said. Creede’s year-round population is about 300, and there are only about 750 year-round residents in all of Mineral County. So even with the many types of accommodations, the number of actual beds available is small. Play it safe and assume that everything will require a reservation.
There are many campgrounds in the area. Make sure you call or check the Forest Service website for conditions and availability. Although many campgrounds do not take reservations, many do require fees. The closest hotel chain is a Quality Inn in South Fork (182 E. Frontage Road; 719-873-5600, choicehotels.com/colorado/south-fork/quality-inn-hotels/co107).
Before Nicholas Creede discovered a silver vein, the upper Rio Grande Valley was already a well-established ranching and tourist destination. One place people flocked to was a hot spring near Wagon Wheel Gap, originally popular with the indigenous Ute people. A lavish bathhouse was built for guests that still stands on the grounds of the 4UR Ranch (One Goose Creek Road, Creede; 719-658-2202, 4urranch.com).
Several other guest ranches and combination properties near Creede offer individual rooms, cabins and RV parks and often have restaurants, gift shops and a variety of activities onsite. Some boast luxury, others are more rustic. You do you.
- Antlers Rio Grande Lodge and Riverside Restaurant, 26222 Colorado 149, Creede; 719-658-2423, antlerslodge.com
- Soward Ranch, 6164 Middle Creek Road, Creede; 719-658-2295, sowardranch.com
- Cottonwood Cove Guest Ranch (and Jeep rentals), 13046 Colorado 149, Creede; 719-658-2242, cottonwoodcove.com
- Cascada Bar & Grill and Cabins (and ATV rentals), 981 La Garita, Creede; 719-658-1033
- Dragonfly Flats, 493 S. Main St., Creede; 210-861-8882, dragonflyflatscreede.com
- Kentucky Belle Market, 103 W. 2nd St., Creede; 719-658-2526, kentuckybellemarket.com
Guides and outfitters
- Big Country Fun, ATV and UTV rentals at Dragonfly Flats, 495 S. Main St., Creede; 719-588-1709, bigcountryrental.com
- San Juan Sports, 102 S. Main St., Creede; 719-658-2359, sanjuansports.com
- Ramble House, 116 N. Main St., Creede; 719-658-2482, creedeflyfishing.com
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